What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?

Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.

Click here to visit Lauren Tarshis' author pageThe first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”

The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”

Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.

But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.

I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.

There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.

Happy directing.

Six Tips on Writing Your Own Classroom Plays

Every so often I get a request from a reader to draft a play based on a specific book: The Hobbit, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Roald Dahl’s The Twits, for example. I’m certain they’d all make wonderful plays and they’d be fun to write, but due to copyright restrictions, I’d be unable to legally publish any of them. That doesn’t mean you—or even your students—couldn’t attempt to turn your favorite book into a play on your own. If you’re ready to give it a try and bring “The Twits” to a stage near you, here are a few pointers:

SCOPE-110113-PlayKeep it short. Most of my plays, particularly those that have appeared in Storyworks, are limited to about 1500 words. If too much longer, the students tend to lose interest. Such brevity requires cutting every extraneous scene, line, and word. It can be quite painful (which is why I sometimes cheat and leave the hard cuts up to my editors).

Avoid narration. “Too much exposition,” as the saying goes on Broadway, will kill your play. While you’ll need narration to quickly advance the story, keep the narrator’s lines to a minimum. Never let a narrator speak more than three sentences in a row, and whenever possible, find unique ways to narrate. In my play about Jackie Robinson, for example, it’s the peanut vendor and hot dog man telling the story from the grandstands of Yankee Stadium.

Use a child’s perspective. Kids relate to kids. That’s why many of my civil rights plays are told through the eyes of a child. “MLK’s Freedom March”–my play about the day Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”—might be rather dry were it not seen through the eyes of a child with a story of her own to tell.

Imagine your play acted out on stage, even if you intend it just for reader’s theater. Avoid changing settings within a given scene, and always try to include some action. Plays where the characters merely stand around and talk are easy to write and stage but boring to watch and perform.

Emphasize the literary elements you do when teaching literature such as setting, conflict, rising action, and climax. A powerful ending like the one in “Freedom for the First Time” when Mama strides into the Big House to reclaim her youngest daughter, will make the play memorable for your students. In less-serious plays, create endings that let your students ham it up, such as in my “Cyclops” play.

Incorporate dialect. There’s nothing better than having a kid growl like a pirate, drawl like a redneck, or pontificate like an English gent. I’ve had kids bring down the house with their countrified version of Mr. McGregor in my “Peter Rabbit” play. You can do the same simply by having your narrator refer to the way a character speaks.

So, rather than waiting until 2060 for me to publish a play adaption of James and the Giant Peach, consider trying it yourself. Not so inclined? Too busy? Then check out my long list of professionally published titles such as Charles’ Dickens’ Christmas goblin story, “Gabriel Grub,” coming next month, and Maupassant’s “A Piece of String,” available on TeachersPayTeachers in January. Like all my plays, just a few dollars buys you the license to print and use a class set every year. In the meantime, keep sending your ideas for story adaptions and re-enactments of historical events to lewis@jeffnet.org.

Happy Directing!