How to Perform a Close Reading: Elementary School

For the most part, elementary-age students are just grasping the concepts involved with reading comprehension. At this point, they have somewhat mastered fluency, decoding, and context clues. As we progress from reading comprehension and understanding texts to dissecting and analyzing its content (i.e. close reading), we somewhat alter the strategies to teach students how to examine the finite details. This practice in critical thinking and analysis does not evolve innately—it must be trained.

With our younger, elementary-age readers, we want to be very careful about how we approach the subject of close reading. The goal should be that we cultivate a love of reading in our novice readers—not stifle the interest with rote exercises. In order to accomplish this while still scratching the surface of building close reading skills, educators and parents can implement different strategies to subtly introduce the concept.

  • Use one of your child’s favorite picture books to begin the practice of close reading. Cover the text with post-it notes. Then, using just the pictures, ask your child to describe what is happening in the story from page to page. This is a subtle way to prompt a young reader to look at the context clues in the illustrations. Be ready with questions to take the discussion further, such as, “What makes you think that the animals are enjoying the tea party?” Or, “Where do you think this part takes place based on the background?” These questions motivate readers to look closely at the details and draw interpretations and inferences—the same practices involved in close reading written text.
  • Familiarize your child with unknown words by helping him search for definitions. When reading any text, even a children’s story, there are bound to be some words that your child is less familiar with. Practice recognizing when this happens by asking your child if he or she knows what a certain word means. If she doesn’t, use a dictionary or web search to define the word together. This practice allows kids to not only recognize when they are unfamiliar with a word, but encourages them to seek clarification—a skill required for close reading.
  • Introduce the concept of questioning the author’s creative choices by discussing the title of a new book. Again, the subtly of this practice is a great pre-reading strategy that helps children make predictions. Ask why the author may have chosen this specific title? Are there any other ways titles that might fit the story? Ask your child to make inferences about what might happen in the story based on the title—be sure to ask her why she thinks that.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions while reading. These questions are likely the beginning of the close reading process. Explain that sometimes questions may be left unanswered based on the story. Discuss how these unanswered questions allow readers to use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions.

How to Broaden the Social Circle: Elementary

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a child’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would children have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of children’s social skills—not only do children learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the elementary level?

Encourage participation in various peer groups. Provide your child with the opportunity to mingle with different groups of peers for various activities. Explain to your child that it is okay, even helpful, to have different peer groups or friend circles. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from primary friendships. Ensure that your child knows that it is okay to have school friends, soccer friends, family friends, neighborhood friends, and more.

Branch out when signing up or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your child to try new things will not only broaden their horizons, rather it can also broaden their friendships. Try a new art class, children’s cooking class, swim club, or summer camp. These opportunities allow your child to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss what friendship means. The more your child understands about being a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he likes in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and support—a good friend is someone who keeps his word and helps his friends when they need a hand.

Help to open your child’s eyes to see potential friends. A good way to help build children’s peer groups is to help them see their peers as potential or possible friends in the making. Have conversations like, “What do you and Kate have in common?” “Do you ever sit together in the cafeteria, or play together at recess?” If your child expresses interest, try to foster a friendship by arranging a playdate. Talk with other parents about opportunities to get kids together in small groups. Offer to take a group to a museum, movie, or sporting event.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, children can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” but either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your child that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.