Teaching students to talk big about little books and to read like storytellers:
Tales from a successful after school 1st & 2nd-grade program.
By Doctor Sam Bommarito
It’s been just a little over a year since Dr. Tim Rasinski came to speak to our local ILA. His newest book co-authored with Mellissa Cheesman Smith had just come out. He was talking to us about the issues of fluency, prosody and a fresh look at the science of reading. Tim told the compelling tale of a first-grade teacher who used repeated readings to help her students become better readers. Her plan was simple, have them rehearse short passages such as poems and practice them daily and perform them at the end of the week. Tim reported that at first, this teacher was getting a lot of pushback from administrators who saw what she was doing as a waste of instructional time. However, they did allow her to continue. It’s fortunate that they did. It seems that at the end of the year her first-grade students outperformed all the other first grade classes in the school. The story had a more than happy ending. The teacher became the teacher of the year for her state. Readers can read more about all this in Tim’s Megabook of Fluency.
The story had a very direct effect on my own teaching practices. Though I am “retired” from full-time teaching, I’m still active in many different literacy projects, one of which is to spend one day a week at a school doing push-ins during the day and helping with the afterschool program. The afterschool program is voluntary. We have around 20 first and second graders who come once a week. They stay for about an hour, and I thought long and hard about what we can do in their relatively brief time that would really have an impact on their reading.
I’ve been a fan of the Raz Kids program for quite a long time. As part of my work at this building, I encouraged them to consider using the program. It is now in use in 1st through fourth grade. I like the depth and breadth of the program. It Includes well-written on-line books some of which are predictable, some of which are decodable and some of which are essentially trade books. It includes both fiction and nonfiction books. There is a very well-developed set of questions for each book. The quizzes are scored automatically and detailed information about types of questions missed et al. are provided to the teacher. My key use of the Raz Kids program for the afterschool group is to provide all of them one self-selected book to read each week. It also gives me the ability to talk to them during the week. I give them feedback and encouragement using the comment feature available through Raz Kids. This feature allows the teacher to both write and record their messages which students can access anywhere there is an internet connection, home or school.
Also, some of the students record the stories as they read them. I’m able to listen to the recordings. Listening to stories the students have recorded is another feature available on the Raz Kids program. In a couple of cases, I could hear parents in the background helping children along. I was able to give some parents ideas on how to use prompting near the point of error to improve their child’s reading. For the first couple of years of afterschool, this use of Raz Kids became the cornerstone of my part of the after-school program.
However, after hearing Rasinski speak last year, I decided to supplement the after-school program with a couple of additional activities. These activities involved doing lessons around reading like a storyteller and providing the students with books to read from at the start of each after-school session. Regular readers of the blog know that one of my favorite authors to use for this kind of reading is Eric Litwin. My kids learned about Pete the Cat & Groovy Joe among others. Now each session begins with the kids in pairs picking books to read aloud. Each partner gets to choose one of the two books they read together. The partners choral read both books together. Each week I added one or two new books. I read parts of them to the student before adding them to the pile of books to pick from. I did think alouds around what I was doing to sound like a storyteller.
After several weeks of this, there was a wide variety of books. The students were rereading books, and they were happy to do so since they were getting to pick their favorite books to reread. I told them it was important that as they did their reading they try to sound like storytellers. Over time, they did. I love my white shoes, disco party bowwow, all these phrases from the books began reverberating through the room. They loved to read them again and again. Normally they read in pairs. The students read from each other’s book, always reading in chorus. I circulate the room along with my student helper. Our afterschool program has seventh and eighth graders who come to help us with the kids each week. Over the course of the year, the students were really beginning to sound like storytellers. They were learning to read with prosody.
Another addition this year was the use of keep books. In addition to doing the reading of what came to be called the big books, the students were allowed to pick a Keep Book. Keep Books are take-home books developed by Fountas and Pinnell. They are written around levels one through 16. See the link to keep books site.
These books are meant to be taken home to read. That’s exactly what my students did. Whatever Keep Book they chose for that week they got to take home and keep! Parents were asked to provide a shoebox or similar storage device. I asked the students to try to read from their reading box at home. Over the course of the school year, they kept getting one keep book each week. Parents and students alike were pleased by the shoebox library. By the end of the year, each child had a very large collection of keep books. I would classified keep books as predictable and very heavy in the use of sight words. I let the parents know that sending home Keep Books and having the kids read from them was my way of teaching sight words. Over the years I found this way usually out produces the typical flash card way of teaching sight words
As you can see, the first 15 to 20 minutes of afterschool was spent in doing the paired reading read alouds of both the trade books and the keep books. In addition to the read alouds, there was one more step. That was for them to talk about their books with each other. The phrase they learned was “you may have said it, but you haven’t read it until you tell me the characters, the problem, the solution.” By the end of the year all of them were able to have conversations around the narrative books. Once those conversations were going well, I also asked them to have conversations around their Non-Fiction Raz Kids books. The phrase for that was “if it’s true tell us what’s new.” They knew that what I was after was something new they learned from the non-fiction book. In case there was nothing new that they learned from the book they were told instead talk about the most interesting thing they found in the book, even if it was something they already knew. Again, by the end of the year my students were talking big about their little books. I continue to use Raz Kids at the end of each session giving them just about enough time to finish one book each time they come.
I will say that at first the conversations were stilted, the reading was word by word, and they were somewhat unsure of themselves. Now at the end of the year, I thoroughly enjoy listening to the way all of them the blossomed into true storytellers. Pete the Cat, Groovy Joe and many other such characters are very much alive for my after-school children. The bow-wows in “Disco Party Bow Wow”, were a turning point for many of the children. They said it with gusto, and soon such reading carried over to other books they read. The tentative conversations from the start of the year have turned into more genuine book talks. I like to call it “Talking Big about Little Books.”
Remember, that this afterschool program is meant to be a supplement to what is a very good mainstream program done in the building. I found that adding the elements of repeated reading to what I’d already been doing with the Raz Kids program made for a much better year this year. Given the limitations of a once a week program designed to get extra help to the participants, adding the big talk, repeated readings, and the goal of becoming a good storyteller maximized the impact of this voluntary program. There was almost always time at the end of the teaching session to do at least 1 Raz Kids book. I have continued to use talking to them through the Raz Kids program as a way to reach them outside the after-school time.
Next week I want to continue to explore the ideas that I learned from Tim Rasinski. Especially those around reading being both a science and an art. I would encourage all teachers to consider the importance of teaching beginning reading in a way that encourages prosody rather than speed and robot reading. I’ll have much more to say on that point next week.
Until then happy reading and writing
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the book guy)
Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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