Interacting With Text: 3 Ideas to Help Students Think Deeply About Texts

If you teach intermediate grades, you know that getting students to think deeply about texts is one of the most important things we do.  Gone are the days of simply retelling who, what, where, when, why, and how--and welcome to the world of analysis, reflection, and written response.

It's all good--but it is TOUGH for many students to make the leap from merely retelling to interpretation.  Today I thought I'd share three different things I have done as we have studied the book "The Tiger Rising" by Kate diCamillo.  This is a complex little novel--and it is a text that will be best appreciated when studied closely--it is filled with deep characters, interesting flashbacks, and ethical decisions.  I use this book every year because I get such bang for my buck--but I decided to try a few different things this year, and I thought I'd share!

1.  The Day She Let Us Write in Our Books...

"Close Reading" is a big buzz word nowadays--and I think it's important to realize that the purpose of "close reading" is to train students to slow down and process on texts.  There is no "formula" for doing it, and I always get nervous when people teach close reading as a process where students have to read a section of text 3, 4, or even 5 times with a different purpose each time.  Is that real reading?  Do students internalize this--or apply it to their daily reading?  I'm not so sure.

Instead, I teach the students a simple strategy for reading challenging texts.  First, pay attention to things that are important, confusing, or cause reactions.  I do this for a reason--they need to read closely so they are ready to write and talk about texts.  We meet in book clubs to talk about The Tiger Rising, and our close reading helps provide them with great "food for thought".  In the past, I have done this book as a read aloud, but this year the book was on sale for $1 in Scholastic Book Clubs and I bought a class set so students could actually read aloud with me an "annotate" as we work through it.

The students LOVED knowing that they were being given a book "like a grown up" and many had stories of people they knew who--gasp--wrote in their books.  Some literally hugged their copies.

It took us a while to get going...but I let them do close reading "step #1" as I read...if they felt something was important, they underlined.  If they were confused, they circled.  If they had a emotional reaction, they marked it with a "!".

Some students went a little crazy at first...nearly everything was underlined as being important, so we had some great discussions about that...and I made it very clear that the purpose of "step 1" was to simply track their place so they could go back and reflect--the important part.  (I may or may not have said, "Even a chimpanzee could underline  text...the annotation is what shows your thinking.")

As we got deeper into the text, the annotations got better--and students learned how to use their annotated texts to guide their book club discussions.  Although there were days where I guided their book club discussions with specific questions, having their annotated texts with them was a great way to keep discussions going.

2. The Day We Got to Write Notes in Class

A second way to interact with texts is using "partner journals".  This also takes some time to get going...students need lots of modeling and practice.  Here's how it works.  Students are given a partner to work with, and we talk about COMMUNICATION.  As I read a chapter, I would stop after 2 pages or so (preferably leaving off at a juicy part!) and ask them to record their thinking on the left side of their notebook.  I reminded them who their audience was--their partner--and that they needed to make sure their ideas were clear.

After a few minutes of writing, they switched journals and needed to READ their buddy's work--and then use accountable talk stems to write back.  "I agree with you because" or "To add on..." or "I disagree with that because" were our starting points, and I was shocked at how challenging this was for my students!  It was fascinating to watch students struggle to read each other's messages--what a valuable lesson!  We have done it a few times and we are getting better--but we still have a lot of work to do with writing quality reflections and responses.

3. The Day We Gave Ourselves Stickers

One final fun way to interactive with text goes back to our book clubs.  As we read The Tiger Rising, we were tracking our main characters as well as "big ideas" in the text.  We are writing literary essays this quarter, so finding these big ideas is critical.  I've been throwing in some great picture books along the way, especially books by Patricia Polacco and Eve Bunting.  To get students talking one day, I sent them back to their book clubs to have a discussion about "big ideas" in two of our picture books.  We came back as a large group and shared them out.  We had 7 or 8 of them listed on the board, so I asked the simple question...

"Which of this big ideas is the biggest?"

You could hear a pin drop.  I sent them back to their book clubs to have a discussion where they worked to decide what they thought were the most important one or two ideas--and they had to come to consensus.  I gave each group 2 sticker dots, and after their discussions they chose a representative to come forward and "sticker" the ideas they thought were most important.  The discussions were AMAZING...and we came up with 2 great potential thesis statements at the end.

I hope these three ideas get you thinking about ways to get your students thinking about these more complicated texts we present to them.  After all, students really DO enjoy these deep discussions...we just need to work to find ways to make their interactions with text meaningful, authentic, and accessible.  Interested in my unit on The Tiger Rising with discussion points, teaching ideas, and journal questions.  Check my store for this and other novel studies!

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