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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Instructional Value of Literature

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." ~ Francis Bacon

Well said! We talked about books to be "tasted" earlier this week. In the classroom, I believe this means trying different genres. And books to be "swallowed," to me, are read for pleasure. Today I want to talk about books to be chewed and digested: those that require thinking and/or really teach something.

Pleasure books should be self-selected and read independently. On the other hand, novels used in instruction should be teacher-selected and accompanied by appropriate discussion and activities. This brings yet another facet to the process of selecting novels for your classroom reading list.

Where should you begin? First, make a list of the literature-related skills you want your students to acquire over the course of the year. For example, a list for my fourth grade classroom, based on the Common Core State Standards, might look like this:

RL.4.1 - Answer explaining and inferring questions; refer to evidence from the text
  • Novels need to offer opportunities for explaining and inferring.
RL.4.2 - Summarize and find a theme
  • Since this is students' first attempt at finding theme, novels need easy-to-find themes.
  • One or more novels should offer opportunities for summarizing.
RL.4.3 - Describe characters, settings, and events; refer to evidence from the text
  • At least one novel needs characters with distinctive personalities to describe.
  • At least one novel needs to have well-defined setting(s) to describe.
  • At least one novel needs to have several specific events on which the author has elaborated.
RL.4.4/L.4.4a - Use context clues to determine word meaning (including words related to mythology)
L.4.4c - Consult dictionaries and thesauruses to find precise word meanings
  • Novels must offer new vocabulary in sentences that are relatively easy to understand. This way students can use familiar context to determine definitions. 
  • One or more novel needs to offer opportunities to introduce/discuss words relating to mythology
RL.4.5 - Explain differences between poems, drama, and prose
  • Poetry - At least one novel must incorporate or refer to poetry, or related poetry must be available.
  • Drama - At least one novel must also be available as a play, or a related play must be available.
RL.4.6 - Determine point of view
  • At least one novel must be written in first person.
RL.4.7 - Make connections between text and visual/audio presentations of that text
  • One or more novels must be available as movies, graphic novels, etc.
RL.4.9 - Compare and contrast similar themes in folklore
  • Literature selections must include multiple forms of folklore, such as myths, legends, fables, fairy tales, and tall tales.
  • One or more novels should relate to folklore.
L.4.5a - Understand similes and metaphors
  • More than one novel should contain ample amounts of figurative language.
L.4.5b - Recognize and explain idioms, adages, and proverbs
  • Novels and/or folklore must present idioms, adages, and proverbs.

To address these standards, here are the staples on my present literature list:

The Black Stallion - This book is our "summer read." It provides wonderful opportunities to describe characters, events, and settings. Using the movie trailer allows students to compare and contrast text and video.

Paddle-to-the-Sea - Written and illustrated by Holling Clancy Holling, this 1941 Caldecott winner is filled with figurative language. Beautiful watercolors and line drawings accompany the story of a carved Native American figure in a canoe traveling through the Great Lakes (which also ties in with my regional geography study).

Aesop's Fables - These simple pieces of folklore present a variety of proverbs and offer lots of practice in finding theme.

Ella Enchanted - A parody of Cinderella, this novel ties easily with a comparative study of fairy tales. Its many chapters offer a great opportunity for summarizing, and the theme is easy to establish. Since it's written in first person, introducing point of view is a snap. In addition, a large cast of mythology-related characters facilitates introduction of words such as ogreish, gigantic, elfin, and so on.

The Westing Game - This puzzle piece mystery unfolds as a large cast of well developed characters try to solve a mystery. Opportunities for character analysis, critical reading, making inferences, and determining word meanings in context abound!

Hatchet - The main character in this story, Brian, wrestles with his parents' divorce as he struggles to stay alive when he is stranded in the Canadian wilderness. Finding evidence for explaining and inferential questions helps students understand this book. Since it's written in straightforward, contemporary language, it also provides ample opportunities for defining new words using context clues.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven - Here's a book with a poem to summarize the mood at the end of each chapter. It's filled with figurative language. Though short, this book is not easy to read and requires the reader to make inferences.

My list is far from finished! I need more folklore (especially mythology), more poetry, and a play. 

As you can see, these selections are not books to be "swallowed." Those belong in the recreational reading category. Instead, literature chosen for the classroom must be "chewed and digested."

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