Jenny McFerin is a contributor to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.
Recently, I had the privilege of working with a small group of kindergarteners in reading intervention. Each day they greeted me with warm smiles and hugs, and as we walked to our classroom, they chatted freely with me about their adventures on the playground and their observations in the hallway. These conversations were lively and rich; our talk wasn’t limited by time, content, or space. In contrast, our discussion about books seemed stilted and this puzzled me. I wondered, if the children could initiate and participate in lively dialogue about life, how could I support them in creating a space for similar effortless conversations centered on the books they were reading? I considered the structure of interactive writing and the possibilities it afforded for engagement in talk about text.
Interactive Writing (IW) is a small group teaching context where the teacher and students engage in the writing process, which includes providing a base of learning experiences, talking to establish purpose, composing the text, constructing the text, rereading, revising, and proofreading. For optimal teaching, the pen is shared between the teacher and each student. The routine for IW does have to be taught. It can be highly engaging and has a big instructional pay off for learning letters, sounds, and composing messages.
That day, we were responding to a book about a cat that was hiding in various locations throughout the house. As our reading lesson began, the children responded with business-like dialogue. Indeed, they seemed constrained in their talk, until we started writing. Through interactive writing, we summarized where that cat had been hiding. They wrote, Puff likes to hide behind the chair. The chair was one of Puff’s hiding places. This point in the story sparked a burst of conversation. The students thought it was funny that Puff would hide in that spot. I made a quick note about the conversation on my lesson plans to come back to this place in the story as a way to help them consider writing about it, which they did.
After the writing, there was time to illustrate. While interactive writing in a small group setting does not always allow time for drawing, we had a few extra minutes for the students to add a quick sketch matching the words they had written. They decided Puff would have to be in the picture as well as the chair since that’s what they wrote about. In a group of three students, one drew Puff, the second drew the chair, and the third offered advice on the placement of the chair and Puff in the picture. During their drawing, a robust conversation broke out about the cat and all the places she might hide in a different story. At this point, the third student drew the path for Puff to walk along to the new hiding place which was placed near the top of the page. Even though the context of the conversation was about the book, the casual exchange felt like friends catching up after time away from each other. While listening to their energetic conversation, I learned that the children understood the text, and they needed an outlet to express what they knew. As they drew, their talk deepened and they began to unlock new understandings and interpretative possibilities for the character, the text, and the position of the author.
I learned from these young readers and writers that comprehending books transcends simple comprehension questions that often only get at one right answer. Indeed, writing and drawing evoke additional opportunities for children to express their multi-faceted understandings about texts. While drawing and writing may not be a fit for every story, we can be assured that when possible, offering children multiple ways to create and demonstrate their meaning-making with texts can help increase their engagement with reading, the complexity of their comprehension, and their lively dialogue about books!
Check out more, recent blog posts from Jenny and other Responsive Literacy contributors, here:
- The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin
- Play-Based Learning: Kids Love it and Teachers Deserve it! by Shelly Schaub
- Access is Key for Helping Students Learn How to Have Conversations About Books by Nikki Woodruf