This weekend, the boys and I drove to Wichita for a basketball tournament. The drive is 506 miles of cornfields and prairie, so to entertain us, I took along a couple of books on tape. I wanted something we could all enjoy, so I got a John Grisham novel, THE LAST JUROR and also Tony Dungy’s new book, UNCOMMON. I thought the boys might like the fast pace/suspense of John Grisham, and even hoped they might like it enough to try reading a Grisham novel when we got home. They didn’t love that book, in fact, at one point, Son #2 asked me to turn it down because it was getting annoying. Interestingly, they loved Tony Dungy’s book, UNCOMMON, which I thought was great, but would have rather read than listened to.
As someone who reads aloud to kids constantly, it was good for me to be a listener, because it helped me think about several different ways I could help kids enjoy and get more out of our read alouds. Here are some things I learned:
- It helps to activate background knowledge and set the stage for kids. Grisham's novel was set in the South in the late 1960's and early 70's. The book opens with a murder, and then, predictably, is followed by a court trial. The jury consists of 11 whites and one black. My boys and I talk about Civil Rights and racism a lot. Even so, it was helpful to my boys to remind them of what they knew about Civil Rights, what year Martin Luther King Jr. died, etc.
- Chapter titles are tremendously helpful. John Grisham’s book didn’t have them. Tuny Dungy’s did. The titles helped set me up as a reader, and prepare me for what was coming. Many books don’t have chapter titles. In that case it seems like it would be particularly important to help kids activate background knowledge by using whatever was available- summarizing information from the previous chapter, leafing through the chapter to check for illustrations, photographs, or other visuals, thinking about what I knew about the author's previous works, etc. Maybe, if I use a book as a read aloud, I'll ask the kids to title the chapters, then use those titles the next time I read the book aloud.
- Talking about story structure could aid kids' understanding tremendously. John Grisham's book was tricky in terms of time. He included any number of tools- flashbacks, leap aheads, etc. As an adult, I had to rely on my knowledge of how authors build stories to help me better understand the text. My boys did not have that knowledge and it was confusing to them when Grisham flashed back, or moved ahead five years without any transition. With kids, it might even be helpful to physicially draw some kind of a timeline and either fill it in, or just talk about where various events occurred in relation to other events
- If you are reading nonfiction, and want kids to remember important information, it might be helpful to have them DO something either during or after the read aloud. Dungy’s book is kind of Christian “advice” book. We listened to all thirty plus chapters on the way back from Wichita. I doubt that the bos will remember much of it, however, simply because we didn’t spend a lot of time working with the text or talking about it. I plan to listen to it with them again one chapter at a time.