The GiverWhy Read?

Ever had a kid tell you half-defiantly, “I don’t read”?  I’ve even had one who said, “I can read all right, but I won’t do it.”

Maybe they know we love challenges–they do bring rewards.  One new non-reader ended up finishing three books in his first two weeks–non-fiction books with lots of pictures.  My librarian knew boys.

One year, I had entire classes embrace reading.  While a teacher was on medical leave, I got students who could not spell–and most did not or could not read well.  For them, I chose Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a tale of a future without pain–no cold weather, no childbirth, no dead end careers, no old age. The cost was no excitement, no choices, and euthanasia.   Well, these kids hadn’t known there were books that you had to argue with!

When we were done, I gave them six choices for their next book.  They choose the darkest, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, a story of a Jewish girl inside a Nazi death camp.  They wanted to feel.

When kids learn in order to get a great job someday, it restricts their interests. These are the greater gifts from reading.

Analyze character’s actions–would you have done the same thing?  Would you have risked death to hide Anne Frank in your home?  Would you have accepted your aunt’s reasons for marrying a humorless Puritan?  Would you have stayed with the plane or tried to walk out?

Pain is bad enough, but it’s harder to cope if you believe life is singling you out for ill treatment. So the kids at school make fun of your shoes, you can’t hit a basket with a bat, much less a ball, and your getting weary of hiding your mom’s alcoholism from the world. You are not alone. Others have survived–and grown–from such challenges.

Before you suffer great pain, books can help you learn what causes it and how sufferers cope. What would it be like to lose a parent or a leg? How would it feel to be trapped in a avalanche or lost in a blizzard? What if your parents’ divorce or your brother takes his anger out on you? It happens. And people have not one reaction, but a string of them–and authors write of them.

We must endure much more than we can imagine–but we can be strong, at least sometimes, and learn to forgive ourselves for the others.

Teaching Reading (1)

Somewhere out there is an article titled “Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science.”  Well, the

Borrowed from

Borrowed from

fact that kids learn in so many different ways may make it even more complicated though, fortunately, most people catch on.   

               Few kids in my family learned though phonics; in fact, I never knew phonics until I had to teach it.  Yes, I could sound out b’s and d’s but the vowels and accents were a mystery—and dipthongs?  Often you have to know the country of a word’s origin to know which rule to use. 

               Motivation is a big factor.  Adults enjoy reading.  It’s mysterious and fun.  I remember reading a book with French words to my granddaughters and seeing the older one catch on that I didn’t know any of this stuff, that all these thoughts were on the page.  I could feel myself falling from a pedestal, but I had sensed her resolve to learn to read for herself and was glad.

               Her mother had been even younger when she started scowling whenever Sesame Street featured letters—she didn’t like not understanding.  I showed that her name had letters and helped her learn the “c”.  Before long she asked her Dad what y-o-b-y-a-l-p spelled. She had learned letters from Sesame Street, but hadn’t yet figured out we read left-to-right.

               Repetition is also important.  When my seventh grade class doubted my statement that most kids memorized books before they read, I started reciting “Green Eggs and Ham” and enjoyed the amazed faces as half the class chimed in.  Young children love repetition.  They are wired to learn that way—and that learning sticks with them.

               The hardest kids to teach are those who have not been exposed to story young.  I can teach a kid whose parents told him marvelous stories in Spanish to read easier than I can an English-speaking kid who has not been raised surrounded by story.  The wonder of story is a strong motivator. For kids raised without it, todays’ colorful books on the natural world can help.  Curiosity about the world is also a good motivator.

               Then there are the skills.  The brain is actually reforming and reprioritizing as we learn to decode and form mental pictures.  Kids can learn a fact on Tuesday and recite it on Friday, but reading is a skill—like bicycle riding or swimming—and requires time and patience. 

               Here are some of the letter games I played with my kids while we were in the car.

               One, make up words that end in the sounds “-at” or “-an” or “-ed.”  A kid who can’t say “cat, bat, fat, rat” will have a harder time learning letters. 

               Two, once kids know letters, they can call out combinations for mom to pronounce. (I think we made this game up).  A girl would say “b-d-t” or “r-c-g” and laugh wildly at the weird sounds mom would make.  One day one said “a-r-m” and there was awe and pride when mom said a real world.  She had spelled. 

               Three, once kids know the alphabet, they can work from “a” to “z” by spotting items that start with the sound or by spotting the written letters.  (You can choose to skip “q”, “x” and a few others.)  You can do this cooperatively by all working through the alphabet together and graduate to a more competitive version where each kid works through the alphabet and only the first to spot an item gets to count it.

               Play is a child’s work.

Plot Structure


There’s a saying that 90% of published stories follow “the formula”—and the other 10% are great literature.

               So what is “the formula”?  So glad you asked–I’ve taught plotting for 15 years and need spend no time researching an answer in this busy season. 

               First, let me tell you why it helps to know.  If you’re acting as a teacher, it provides you with built-in questions about a book you’ve never read.  If a student has just started a book, you ask about aspects of the opening.  If they’re halfway through, you ask about character, conflict and one point of rising action. 

               If you’re acting as a reader, using the language from plot helps you state why you like or dislike a book.  The main character was inspiring or dorky; the conflict was interesting or weak; the climax was riveting or predictable. 

               If you’re a storyteller or a writer, what you need to know is that opening and conflict get the first 20%; the rising action and climax, the next 60%; and the falling action and denouement, the final 20%.   

               This is it—the basis of the majority of the world’s literature. 

               Opening/Exposition:  Introduces the setting (time and place) and the characters.  Recently, there’s a trend to having the first scene be a life-or-death action borrowed from later in the plot, but at some time the author has to get around to who and where.  

               Conflict:  The problem that must be solved before the story can end.  By the end of the third or fourth chapter, readers need to know there is a problem, one they care about, and have some idea what direction they want the story to go. 

               Rising action:  The problem gets worse—and worse—and worse yet.  New challenges arise and possible solutions disappear. 

               Climax: The point at which the solution is revealed.  Sometimes this is a breathtaking action—the poor hero hanging from roof’s edge manages to pull himself up and knock out the villian.  But it may be two starving children lost In a blizzard stumbling into campground and finding a half loaf of bread in the garbage.

               Falling action: The handling of loose ends.  The police arrive and take the villian away or the kids to the hospital.

               Denouement/Resolution: The “new normal” is revealed.  The characters go forth with new knowledge and understanding.  

               Now take a story you know—the simpler the better—and see if you can identify the elements of the plot.  I’ll use the “The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs” as an example.

               Opening: Each little pig goes off to seek his fortune.

               Conflict: A hungry wolf decides to eat the pigs.

               Rising action:  The house of straw disintegrates.  The house of sticks follows.  The wolf is using all his wind power to threaten the house of brick.

               Climax: The wolf goes down the chimney and lands in a vat of boiling water.

               Falling action: Everyone realizes what has happened and celebrates.

               Denouement:  All of the pigs now understand the benefits of preparation and hard work and live happily ever after.               

               Admittedly, longer stories are more complicated with subplots and character development, but we tend to get disappointed if each of these major elements is not well done.

Teaching Vocabulary 101

Harpy is a very old term based on legend.

A little advice on teaching vocabulary:  Don’t interrupt a story to do it.  

               Introduce words before or after the reading—maybe both—but while reading the story, enjoy!  Don’t make a story into some vocabulary medicine unless you want your students to dread it.

               I have had seventh graders listen to a recording of Call of the Wild by Jack London. Some kids didn’t know 10-20% of the words.  Yet, they loved the story.  They took away what the author intended—a tale of adventure and hardship and devotion and nature.  

               Imagine how different that would be if we’d stopped and analyzed the meaning of each sentence—or even each paragraph or page.

               But learning vocabulary gives one confidence and useful knowledge.  So introduce some words before—particularly those that the reader may think they know, but get wrong.  Make it clear that a character’s “bowl cut” has nothing to do with football and a person riding a “charger” is not in danger of electrical shock. (I went for years myself thinking “as was his wont” referred to what someone wanted to do.)  

               Have students look up words afterward when they know how the word was used—give a page number and the phrase that was used.   Without context, kids will report on the shortest of the available definitions—which is preferrable to picking the first five words of the first definition.  You don’t want them reporting that incubation as “the act or process of incubating.”

               Remember that few people can remember more than seven new items at one time.   If you can group words together, you can add more.  For example, you could count stallion, charger, and steed as one item.  But, generally, plan on learning a few new words each session. 

               Encourage use of the words.   Providing sentences with blanks is OK, but then all the creative fun is yours.  You save your time—and challenge your learners—by listing three or four words and asking students to use them all in one or two sentences.  See what they can do with permeated, premonition and premeditation or harpy, contorted, and turmoil.    

               And, enjoy the sound of long and strange-sounding words.  Kids love knowing them!