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Six Questions for Growing Readers

This article was originally published in Kim Essenburg’s blog on September 19, 2020.

The silence in a room full of reading students is broken by a small gasp. That is one of my magical moments as a teacher—I know they’re fully engaged, and I know it’s on more than just an intellectual level—and it happened Friday. Toward the end of the 6th/7th grade English class discussion of the previous night’s assigned pages in the novel Wonder, I was having trouble restraining a couple of the students who’d read ahead from spilling the beans. “It’s the saddest chapter in the book!” one let escape. Others were shushing the spoilers. I didn’t help matters when I drew attention to the portentousness of the paragraph we’d ended on: “Finally, the door opened. It was Via. She didn’t even bother coming over to my bed, and she didn’t come in softly like I thought she would. She came in quickly” (219). Then I turned them loose for the last 10 minutes to get started on the next reading chunk. Silence descended for approximately 30 seconds. Then the gasp.

That gasp told me my experiment had succeeded. It’s not just the one moment for that one student that I’m happy for—I’m happy that it is evidence that an approach to scaffolding reading that I’ve honed over years of working with 10th and 11th graders can also work for 6th and 7th graders. I want to give readers the tools to comprehend a text, make connections within and outside of it, and to read like writers. I don’t want to give them a list of questions that I think they should know the answers to—I want them to be able to pose and answer their own questions that they want the answers to.

So the assignment each day is a box with 6 squares with at least 1 answer to each of the following prompts:

  1. What is one important plot development?

  2. What is one important thing you learned about a character?

  3. What is one quotation you found significant?

  4. Why did you find it significant?

  5. Notice something about the style: an unknown or interesting word, phrase, or sentence.

  6. Draw a picture representing something you envisioned while reading.

I know this works with older students, but the last time I taught 6th and 7th graders was over 20 years ago, and when we read novels, I had given them a list of specific questions on each chapter for them to find the answer to. Now I want to walk the fine line between enough scaffolding to engage readers with deeper reading than they’d do on their own without committing what Kelly Gallagher so memorably called “readicide” in his book by that title.

One thing that helped was my modeling. The first entry I did on the whiteboard as we read aloud together, and they copied it into their notebooks. After that, I’ve done every entry in my own notebook (see above). Not only can I show students what I’ve done, but I can also know exactly what I’m asking students to do, and I can comment on how doing the exercise builds my own understanding. It’s especially helpful to “show off” my drawings. They’re terrible. Stick figures. But they also communicate a specific moment or thought. Some have to do with plot, and some are more symbolic. It’s interesting to see who chooses what. I do a quick visual check at the beginning of the discussion to be sure each student has something. Sometimes a student has drawn exactly the same picture as me. Sometimes I have to ask a student about what she drew because it didn’t even register with me, but when she explains it, I can reinforce how important it is that we each notice different things.

My goals are for students to understand how plot works to contribute to theme, how authors develop characters over time and through different point of view, to think deeply about specific quotations they find significant, to read like writers by paying attention to words and phrases, and to notice how they envision images as they read. These are strategies they can transfer to any reading. The 6 boxes let me do a quick visual survey at the beginning of class to be sure students have done the reading and held their thinking to bring to the discussion. I’m transparent with them about this: I tell them I’m asking them to fill in these 6 boxes so (1) they will be sure to think at least about these 6 things as they read, (2) they will remember the thoughts they had to contribute to the class discussion, and (3) I will be able to see the evidence of the thinking they did because I can’t see inside their heads.

I’m so excited it’s working with 6th and 7th graders as well as I’ve seen it work with older students. What kind of transferable tools do you give students for growing as readers?


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