To help students dig deeper in to their understanding of what they read I have been requiring more of students writing in response to texts. I believe that when students can express text understanding through writing, they can strengthen that understanding as they write.
One strategy I use to set students up to write using fiction books is to think from the writer’s perspective to help deepen their understanding. I teach my students to ask questions like, why did the writer make the character do that or say that? Or, what does the writer want you to think/feel here? If they think about what the writer is attempting to get readers to feel and understand as they read, then it can deeper their thinking and help them make those sometimes-elusive inferences. I want my students to get beyond the generic understandings and ideas to the deeper ones that are more inclusive to text details not clearly stated but implied. It also gives them more than one lumped together sentence to write about.
In the text: Thin Ice by Anne Sibley O’Brien, the main characters are cousins.
Rosa is older and often babysits her younger cousin Manny. On their way home from school one day during the beginning of a spring thaw Rosa is fretting about a story she has to write while Manny is carefree and creating adventures for himself. Rosa wishes her life was more exciting, more like Manny’s. Manny pretends he is a hockey player, darts over a fence and heads for a pond. Rosa yells to him that the ice is to thin to walk out on, as he grabs her notebook to use as a hockey puck. She tries to grab it back and it slips from his hands onto ice. Manny quickly goes after it. He falls through and so does Rosa trying to rescue him.
Readers in my guided reading typically explain the book being about falling through the ice. As Rosa eventually pulls herself out of the ice and helps keep her cousin from going under students start to think about Rosa being a hero. There is a deeper meaning to this story, however. It focuses on Rosa feeling sorry for herself and worrying about what she could write for her story because her life is so boring. She states all she does is babysit. The ending of the book helps clarify this theme when Rosa appears to not be upset about what Manny caused because it gave her something to write about. My striving readers easily overlook this deeper theme that can be built up into explanation of what the writer wants readers to understand about life.
I planned my lesson for this book through backwards planning. I planned what I wanted students written response to focus on and thought about what strategy would help students be able to notice the underlying theme. I want a better written response then simply saying this is a book about a girl saving her cousin when he fell into a pond, which is technically right but readers can figure most of that out from the cover of the book. We need to be able to go much deeper.
I chose to have students focus on Rosa and how she was feeling about her life at this point in time as they read. They would have to be able go deeper than the rescue itself to understand what the writer wants readers to understand about Rosa, beside her being a hero.
After reading the text through one time, I asked students to reread specific sections, underline sentences and words that can help them understand how Rosa was feeling that day. Then annotate the text making notes about the why of what she was feeling and to jot down some of their inferences. They will use their notes to help them write in detail about what Rosa was feeling about her life that day. I prompted with questions like I mentioned above, “what does the writer want readers to think here?” or “why would the writer make that happen?”as students marked their text.
Readers will use their notes to help them make a plan for writing and then as they write I confer with them and help them stick to their plan or lead them back into the book so they can clarify something. This will lead to a much more in-depth understanding of the text then I use to get and a clear purpose for students to keep in mind as they read knowing they will be writing about Rosa.
It often appears that teachers will make a plan for student writing as they are finishing up the text readings. This is not something a recommend doing. This makes your lesson objectives isolated and your writing disconnected from your teaching points. Backwards planning with the end in mind will help striving readers make the connections they need to and not practice strategy instruction in isolation where reading becomes about strategy use along and very general understandings of text. Readers will not end up reading for meaning and building meaning through writing.
If the lesson is not planned to set students up for the type of writing you want, then they will not be able to build on and extend their understanding of the text in a cohesive and manageable way through writing. Your reading and writing objectives for the lesson must be aligned, even in your lower level guided reading groups. As the teacher you will possibly end up providing them with the details you decided you wanted them to write about.