Jeff Wilhelm tells us in Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies that “Students who did not intensely visualize and participate in “story worlds” did not engage with the text in other dimensions.  In other words, if we don’t help kids to visualize settings, characters, and action, then they will not be able to reflect on story action, the ways the story was constructed, what the story means, the author’s purpose and perspective, and a lot of other things that expert readers of narrative do (p. 31).

I think visualizing is just as important in non-fiction reading.  Think about the directions to just about anything–will you have success if you don’t visualize?

We need to model visualizing like we do anything else.  I start by modeling my visualization by sketching on the white board while I read a passage out loud.  I explain that we don’t need to spend a lot of time on our sketches, but we do want the movie in our mind to be as well “drawn” as we can.  I model how I change my movie as I read more and have more details and how sometimes I discover that I’ve made an error in my visualization–like when I’ve drawn a little red wagon instead of the covered wagon the author wrote about.

Model and then give students lots of chances to sketch their visualizations.  Once students can communicate their visualizations using sketches and dialogue balloons, I often use these sketches to assess understanding and correct misunderstandings.

Revolutionary War/My Brother Sam is Dead/Social Studies Textbook/Roots Mash-up

roots-vol-i-DVDcoverI’ve just started a unit on slavery, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, leading to a study of the Civil Rights and Human Rights.  I know, I know.  Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.  I keep explaining to the students that it is all intertwined and we can’t separate these issues of freedom and slavery.

Our word for the unit is dilemma. We’re trying to look at the dilemmas that the slaves faced, the people faced leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, the slave-owners faced, and the people faced leading up to and during the Civil War.  What would they have done?  Would they have chosen to throw themselves off the slave ships as some slaves did or chosen to survive if at all possible?

We’re reading My Brother Sam is Dead to get a taste of the Revolutionary War.  Not all of the students are spell bound, but many are due to the extreme engagement of a few deep thinkers who are also class leaders.  We had an extended discussion on whether Sam was right when he said we need to be ready to die for our principles.  What a dilemma.  (Many preferred the idea of speaking against their principles rather than dying.)

We’re reading sections of the social studies textbook and then summarizing using sticky notes or writing about the dilemma faced in that particular section.  Then, we watch Roots–the perfect movie to build background knowledge and show how these events are intertwined.

I know after we finish building background knowledge using these resources that we will involve ourselves in some sort of inquiry that will have us focusing on non-fiction reading and writing for a while.  I’m not sure where we’re going with this, but the ride is more than satisfactory.

Note:  I have to spend quite a bit of time covering up frontal nudity in the first movie and masters bedding “wenches” in other sessions, but it is quite worth it.  We also have to discuss some of the language, but I feel this is a good thing for my students to know.

Update #2 on Using Harry Potter Book and Video

Harry-Potter-And-The-Chamber-Of-Secrets-Oh my gosh, this is the best thing I’ve ever done to engage students in reading.  Even my non-enthused ELL students, and my new ELL student who hardly understands any English have been engaged.  We read through Harry Potter 1 and 2:  Officially known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Doom. We read several chapters, then watched that portion of the movie.  In between we worked on vocabulary using the Latin roots of spells and names to jump start us.  I got the idea from an amazing web site by Susan Jones.

Although reading has always been the highlight of my day, using Harry Potter brought it to new levels.  I focused on teaching the strategies of inferring and visualizing during these two books.  Every once in a while after a read aloud I asked them to draw what we had just read.  Thanks to the background knowledge provided by the movie, all students improved in their ability to visualize.  Sometimes I let them know that they were going to draw after I read, and sometimes I told them afterwards.  Soon, the results became quite similar as they improved their active listening skills and their engagement.  We connected implying to inferring and so the questions I asked varied from, “What is J.K. Rowling implying here?” to “What do you infer from what I just read?”  Students were able to make a transference to their writing.  Joy!

I was tempted to throw my historical fiction curriculum to the wind and continue reading the series, but my students revolted.  With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my students wanted to read the books as quickly or slowly as they wanted and in the order they wanted.  I count that a success.

Update on Using Harry Potter Book and Movie

Jody Zambrano:  ELL Diva
Jody Zambrano: ELL Diva

Last week I consulted with our amazing ELL specialist:  Jody Zambrano.  I told her about my Harry Potter plan that I had instituted, showed her the character map we had made, explained a few of the frustrations I was feeling,  and asked her if she had any suggestions for me.

First, my frustration:  My two ELL students were starting to “get” the book, but were not “engaged” in the book.

Jody thinks that although my ideas of how to handle the ELL problems with visualizing were good, the choice of book wasn’t so good.  Harry Potter is high interest, but has it’s own language.  Even the names of the classes are strange:  Charms, Herbology, etc.  She suggested doing the same with realistic fiction.  I can only think of three books that are quite similar to the movies:  Harry Potter I, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Anne of Green Gables.  I’m thinking that since Anne of Green Gables takes place at the turn of the century that the same thing might happen as would happen with fantasy.  Any suggestions out there??

Danger: Read Alouds at Risk!

3310132871_3fde8fa33fWhat a journey I’ve had with teaching reading!  I started out with basal readers and felt guilty when I took time away from the basals to do class read-alouds.  I progressed to teaching reading strategies using carefully planning units designed to teach, practice, and assess using the workshop method.  I’m still there, but have taken a shaky step forward–designing the units, but feeling my way carefully and improvising as I respond to the needs of my class.

This happened recently as I realized that my ELL students were not engaged during read alouds.  They behaved, but if you looked carefully their eyes were glazed over.  Read alouds are such an important part of reading instruction–as a matter of fact, many of my mini-lessons take place in the context of read-alouds these days.

Benefits of using read alouds

One of the most important things adults can do in preparing children for success in school and in reading is to read aloud with them.

  • Listeners build listening and comprehension skills through discussion during and after reading.
  • Listeners increase their vocabulary foundation by hearing words in context.
  • Listeners improve their memory and language skills as they hear a variety of writing styles and paraphrase their understanding.
  • Listeners gain information about the world around them.
  • Listeners develop individual interests in a broad variety of subjects and they develop imagination and creativity: what better way to build skills which foster inquiry?
  • Other suggestions and benefits are in this Education World article.   (
  • You can see why I would consider this a classroom emergency.  So I decided to read Harry Potter.  I needed a high interest book that was in their grasp. Step 1 in my emergency plan.   It worked for the boys, but not for the girls.

    So, Step 2 in my plan, constructed in the moment,  was to make a character map for students to use to follow the story a bit better.  Still no success with two of the girls.  Two girls not learning is a major catastrophe for me and so I went for Step 3:  the movie.  I brought the movie in and we watched it up to the point in the movie where we had stopped reading.  Fortunately, the movie is pretty true to the book.  Constantly referring to the character chart as the movie played, the two girls finally had a mental picture (even if it was provided for them) of what was happening and could understand the book.

    And so we continue.  I read a few chapters and then we watch the movie.  All of my students love it.  All of my students are learning.  And my ELL students are also engaged and working to follow the read alouds.

    Update on Background Knowledge and Visualization

    A few weeks ago I wrote about using a passage from Deathwatch and I finally got around to trying the exercise!Chimney It was very interesting.  I decided to try the first sample without providing background knowledge and although the kids got the gist of it, none of them were able to get a full picture.

    I wish you could have seen my class;  I had kids trying to act out the scene where Ben climbs up the chimney rock all over the classroom!  Some were inching their way across the back of the couch, others reenacting falling into the “V” of the chimney, but not knowing what to do next.  Acting out a scene is a powerful tool for visualizing.

    Later this week we’ll try the second sample, but provide some background knowledge first.  Hopefully, the students will see the benefit of building their background knowledge when they can’t make the movie in their head.

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    Visualizing and Background Knowledge

    Last night I read the YA mystery, Deathwatch, by Robb White.  It was an interesting survival-in-the-desert-while-being-hunted novel, but I had great difficulty visualizing two scenes. deathwatch The clunks bothered me as I felt they held the key to whether the book was realistically written or not.

    To solve my clunks I realized I needed to beef up my background knowledge on rock climbing, and then almost physically re-enact the scenes.  I decided to enlist my class in solving my clunk and so made copies of the pages: Building background knowledge to visualize a difficult scene

    Monday, they’ll go online to investigate climbing chimneys and funnels, then use that background knowledge to help them visualize and sketch the scenes–working in small groups.   On Tuesday, I’ll give them even a more difficult task, that of building background knowledge for another difficult scene and determining whether or not the scene is realistically written: Building background knowledge to visualize a difficult scene2

    I’ll let you know how it goes.  Do y’all have any ideas to share about helping students visualize when they read?

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    Visualizing: the reading/writing connection

    esperanzaHere’s an idea for talking about the reading/writing connection–in the area of visualizing.

    Note: We adapted this lesson from one we found in 7 Keys to Comprehension (p. 26) it’s a great idea and works well in reading and writing workshop.

    Materials: Transparencies of both snippets are helpful, although not necessary.

    Connection: Have you ever read a book and had a difficult time making a picture?  The problem may not lie with you; it may be the writer’s fault.

    Teaching point: Good writers write so that we can visualize the scene when we read.

    When we write, we use strong verbs and precise nouns and we try to use descriptive details.

    We also remember to “show not tell.”  In other words, we don’t write “I was so happy!”  We write “I jumped up and down and giggled when I saw my daddy walking up the sidewalk!” Why do we do these things?  Because they make the writing more interesting to the reader.

    Active Engagement: Read the “dumbed-down” version from a passage of a book.  Have students do a quick sketch of the picture they have in their mind after hearing the “dumbed-down” version.  Then read the original snippet and have the students do a quick sketch after hearing that piece.  Discuss the difference. I used a snippet from Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan:

    Dumbed-down version

    “Do you know that our land is alive?” Papa said to Esperanza as they walked through the vineyard looking at the mountains around them.  “Do you know that you can hear its heart beat?”

    “Papi, I want to feel it,” she said.

    Her Papa laid down where there was some space and invited Esperanza to lie down next to him.

    Esperanza lie down next to her Papa, laughing.

    Snippet from Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan p. 1

    “Our land is alive, Esperanza,” said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slopes of the vineyard…. “This whole valley breathes and lives,” he said, sweeping his arm toward the distant mountains that guarded them… “Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe?  That you can feel its heart beating?”

    “Papi, I want to feel it,” she said.

    “Come.”  They walked to the end of the row, where the incline of the land formed a grassy swell.

    Papa lay down on his stomach and looked up at her, patting the ground next to him.

    Esperanza smoothed her dress and knelt down.  Then, like a caterpillar, she slowly inched flat next to him, their faces looking at each other.  The warm sun pressed on one of Esperanza’s cheeks and the warm earth on the other.

    She giggled.

    Link: Remember for the rest of your lives that good writers write so that readers can “see” the setting, characters, and actions in their mind’s eye.  Today in independent reading, I’d like you to choose a passage that springs to life in your eyes and draw a quick sketch of the scene.

    Share: Have a few students share their passage and drawing. Discuss if all students can make a picture in their heads with that passage or if you have to use background knowledge to be able to see the movie.

    A word about artistic ability: It is necessary to model sketching for visualization in a totally non-threatening way.  My degree is in art education – and the education part was only done due to the insistence of my parents.  (Funny how things work, isn’t it?)  I can draw well.  I make this point with the students, but when I demonstrate I use stick figures if character description is not an important point.  We are looking for thinking made visible from our students.

    Building background knowledge

    I teach at an international school in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  My students come in with incredibly varied levels of English and of background knowledge of the world.  I have students who’ve lived all over the world and students who have never left Ecuador and whose families do not have a culture of literacy.

    I’ve found that the easiest way to help students build background knowledge is to create a short PowerPoint to show them before each classroom read-aloud.  I’ve found I can throw something together in about 15 minutes that will work, although The_Sign_of_the_Beavera well-crafted PowerPoint takes me about an hour.  Here are some examples of both extremes:

    Sign of the Beaver ppt

    Stone Fox ppt

    Esperanza Rising ppt

    Hope Was Here ppt

    It’s fun to find good images and saves a lot of student confusion.  The PowerPoints also help the students visualize the story as we read it.

    I know the argument that students should be free to create their own mental movies, but I always remember the student who drew a picture of me roller blading in a bathing suit when I had told a story about ice skating in layers of clothing.  She just did not have the background knowledge to visiualize the story.

    Fluency practice with the added bonus of visualization practice!


    I believe in careful planning.  I plan out my year, my units, and my lessons well in advance.  After I do all that, I give myself permission to deviate from the plans in accordance with the needs of my class.

    The other day, I was reading The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to my class.  From the looks on their faces and the questions they asked, I realized they were not following well–mostly because they were not visualizing the scenes as they took place.  I teach in an International school and many of my students are ELLs.

    The Mixed-up Files has two main characters with many passages of  pure dialogue punctuated with minor description.

    I asked one of my students, who is an excellent reader, to try something with me, and we read a portion of chapter one where Claudia is trying to convince her younger brother, Jamie, to run away with her.  We modeled reading just the dialogue, but acting out the descriptive parts.  Then I divided the class into pairs and each pair read the section.  They really seemed to get a glimpse into the characters, plus understood the story better as they visualized while acting it out.  It was good fluency practice, too.

    We’ve continued doing this at the end of each chapter.  The students loved it, and I can circulate and take informal notes on who needs more fluency practice.  At the end of the book, we’re going to put together a presentation with each pair reading a portion of the book.  This works well with my goals in independent reading where we are working on how authors introduce and develop characters. At the same time we can work on fluency and visualization–both important skills.

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