Sunday, 4 September 2016

5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To Children


Recently, the author Tom Palmer sent me a copy of his latest book Wings: Typhoon. It's a great read aimed at 8 to 10 year olds and is a stereotype-breaking brew of the supernatural, football, fighter jets and the relationship between two sisters. But before I knew all of that I was intrigued to find that the covers of the book extend to contain a cut-out-and-make Typhoon aeroplane model. Is this a gimmick, or is there something more to it?

One of the complaints about the 2016 Key Stage 2 SATs reading paper was that many children would not be able to relate to or understand the contexts of the narratives that were used; certainly none of the children I taught last year have rowed a boat to an island or ridden an albino giraffe across the Savannah. I wrote a lot about this issue in this blog post and concluded that "stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide" and therefore we should be exposing children to narratives with unfamiliar contexts. 

So, as teachers (and parents too, if you're reading this), we must ask ourselves how we can make these texts more accessible to children. Importantly, we want them to get the maximum enjoyment out of the books they read, and without understanding what you are reading it's hard to enjoy it.

And that's where Tom Palmer's book comes in. Imagine reading about a Typhoon fighter jet when you have no idea what one looks like. A child might imagine something more akin to a Boeing 747 -  a more typical plane for a child to visualise; they are more common and more present in other contexts. The more inquisitive child these days would probably Google an image of a Typhoon in an instant, but many wouldn't and some couldn't. So it's ideal that before reading the book (or during) a child could construct a 3D model of the jet in question, thus enabling them to easily visualise a key object in the story. Without giving too much away, if a child were imagining a passenger plane whilst reading the story, they'd be a bit confused as to how on earth some of the action could take place!

Many moons ago someone hit on a bit of a genius idea by which readers are granted better access to the texts they read: illustrations. As I finished reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' I reflected on the role of its illustrations: they clarify to the reader the appearance of the mythical beasts described (beautifully) in the text. The illustrations in 'Wings: Typhoon' are excellent too - their two-tone comic book style really help to convey action as well as appearance. It's quite obvious why we start children on their reading journey with books dominated by pictures but it's a shame that by the time they reach the age of 11 they are expected to read challenging and diverse texts totally unsupported by images.

One of the key hindrances to comprehension is vocabulary. If a child does not know what the word 'creek' refers to then this sentence is less illuminating than it could be: 'In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman named Arsheesh...'. A child might wonder how someone could live on the sound that a door makes when it needs oiling, or they might imagine a creek to be something quite different to a little inlet or bay. And even if you then used those terms to describe it to a child you may have to then define the words 'inlet' and 'bay'. If at word level there is little understanding, there is no hope for sentence, paragraph or whole text level comprehension. Whether one is looking to retrieve information or infer it, a good grasp of vocabulary is needed.

Back to our question: how can we make these texts (particularly ones without pictures whose contexts are outside of the experience of the children we teach) more accessible to children? 

A list (not exhaustive) containing the most obvious ideas, and some more creative ones too: 

1. Use images - photographs, drawings, paintings, stills, illustrations from other books, 3D models. If using a text in class, pre-read the intended portion and collect images (particularly of nouns) to support and enhance a child's visualisation and understanding. This goes a long way to bringing a child into the realms of a book - even one set in a basic setting, such as a seaside town where quays and harbours, lobster pots and yachts might be alien objects to some of the children we teach. Just because a children's book is not illustrated, it doesn't mean we shouldn't provide those images ourselves.

2. Use film - archive footage, movies, documentaries, news stories. I would make a similar point here to the one made above regarding images. In addition, film has the power to convey more than appearance, moving beyond into action and sounds too - film can provide a very immersive experience which stimulates more senses than an image can. Because of this, film moves beyond supporting just word and sentence level comprehension, giving a sense of the bigger picture. For example, newsreel footage of children being evacuated helps modern-day children to understand the beginnings of 'Carrie's War', 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' or 'Goodnight Mr. Tom', not to mention the movie versions of those books.

3. Use other texts - books (both non-fiction and fiction), newspaper or magazine articles, webpages. In 'Reading Reconsidered' Lemov et al suggest that when texts are paired (ie a non-fiction text about the holocaust paired with 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) children better comprehend the novel and they also absorb more of the supporting nonfiction text (Chapter 3: Reading Nonfiction, and the Challenge of Background Knowledge). When considering paired texts it does not always need to be a fiction and a non-fiction; you might choose a graphic novel or a picture book to support a novel, a diary entry to support a non-fiction text - the combinations are limitless but the main point is that other texts can help children learn the context needed to full access another text. It is also worth considering how linked topic work in a cross-curricular approach can really support children's comprehension - choose your novels to fit with your science, history or geography curriculum and use those lessons in part to provide background knowledge for the narratives you are reading.

4. Use drama and real-life experience - act out movements to help children understand new verbs and adverbs, pull faces to show how characters are feeling, go on museum visits to see recreations of story settings and historical artefacts, go on trips to old mills, little villages, steam railways, the countryside, the coast... make the stories come as alive as you possibly can by giving children the experiences that will help them to engage more deeply in a text. Perhaps you can't visit an entirely fictional solar system, but booking a StarDome portable planetarium to begin read your new sci-fi novel in isn't a bad idea (especially if your Science work ties in). Even slightly dramatising the way you read aloud can have an impact - do the voices, pay attention to your dynamics and tone, make gestures to mirror the characters' actions - there is a lot that can be done beyond sitting in a chair and speaking aloud words on a page.

5. Use dictionaries - if vocabulary is a key to understanding new contexts, then dictionary work is a fairly obvious inclusion. Once the words have been looked up and defined there are plenty of follow-up activities that could aid children in their understanding of a whole text: rewrite a line of this poem in your own words to explain what it means, draw the setting that the author is describing, discussions as to why the author has chosen the particular word rather than on of its synonyms or basic written answers to comprehension questions. It may be that prior to using dictionaries, children could write their own definitions of words they don't know using contextual or morphemic analysis (both key word learning strategies - but that's for another blog post altogether!) and then compare their definition to the real one. Those are just a few ideas and there is much more to be said on the subject of teaching vocabulary.  

If we regularly built opportunities like these into our teaching sequences then we would be helping children to connect with and better understand the novels they are reading. The more you understand what you read, the more likely you are to enjoy it and the more you enjoy books, the more you want to read. The Matthew Effect says that the rich get richer - if we can make our children rich in reading skills then they will go on to become richer, even without our ongoing instruction. Even if our children have never been stranded on a desert island, trapped in an apocalyptic landscape or hunted by nightmare creatures, we can use the strategies above to bring books and children closer together to place where unfamiliar contexts become places of new experience and learning.

Having said all this, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', on page 35, states that 'The research conducted by Barnes et al. (1996) and Cain et al. (2001) suggests that knowledge acquired just prior to reading is not as useful for inferencing as that which is well embedded in the reader’s long-term schemata. Cain et al. arrived at the conclusion that …even when they had the requisite knowledge base from which to generate an inference, the less skilled comprehenders did not make these inferences as readily as their skilled peers did. Knowledge availability is therefore not a sufficient condition for inferencing (p. 857).' So it remains that we cannot expect to provide the above experiences in isolation or even just in relation to particular texts, but that we should always be seeking to expand the knowledge-base of our pupils, making links where possible, if we want them to become better when it comes to comprehending a text.

5 comments:

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    1. Thanks for your reply! Hope the ideas come in handy!

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  2. Another great read with ideas a plenty to enrich the children's reading. Consistency is the key.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and for letting me know you shared some of it with your staff members :)

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  3. Wouldn't it be great if the "traditional class reader" came with lovely colour illustrations? I know it would help some of my confused Yr8s to understand their first set text of "Frankenstein" better. I am currently downloading as many images as I can for Monday's lesson. ... A great article, I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

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