Guest Blog for The Cooke Center: Writing in Response to Literature

I am so fortunate to have recently joined the team at Cooke Center for Learning and Development as an instructional consultant. I love what this organization is doing in inclusive special education! If you haven’t heard of them yet, be sure to stop by and visit their site to see what Cooke is all about. The Cooke Center has a blog that shares out about teaching strategies and tools that work and today’s post was written as a guest post for The Cooke Blog.

Writing in Response to Literature: A Step-by-Step Process

My name is Marisa Kaplan and I have recently joined the team at the Cooke Center Institute as a consultant, where I work with faculty in general education schools to improve classroom instruction. Certified in special education, my main area of expertise is in modifying curriculum and learning strategies to meet the needs of all students.

What I have learned throughout my career is that one size does not fit all.  Why is this?  Because every child is different, and all children have unique life experiences that shape their learning.  All children learn differently, and there is really no such thing as “general” education.  Therefore, I hold fast to the belief that all education should be special education.

Simply put, Special Education means that

  • All students get what they need to learn – not just the so-called “middle tier”
  • Curriculum is tailored to meet the varying strengths, interests and abilities of all students in the classroom.
  • Teachers present material in a variety of ways.
  • Student may demonstrate their understanding of a topic in many different ways.

A special education teacher might:

  • Model the task that is expected before asking students to work independently, in partners or in groups
  • Eliminate unnecessary distractions in the classroom environment
  • Take a hands-on approach to learning
  • Use manipulatives in math
  • Label and organize classroom materials to increase student independence
  • Give friendly reminders and time warnings during transitions
  • Use positive praise as an approach to encourage desirable behaviors
  • Break down tasks in a manageable way

My blog allows me to explore many of these topics, and I hope you’ll read and join in the discussion.  In the meantime, today I’d like to focus on one crucial genre of writing: writing in response to reading, also known as writing in response to literature. I call it crucial, because it is a skill that many of our students will carry with them and use in their futures. Most of the adults I know today must read and offer either a verbal or written response on a daily basis…even sending an email depends on an ability to read, comprehend and form a response to written text. We need to support students in developing this skill at an early age and continue honing in on it throughout their academic careers.

Of course, being that it is an important writing genre, it is difficult to teach because at the root of this writing genre lies one of the most challenging areas of learning: reading comprehension. The ability to offer a meaningful response to literature, depends on a few different things:

  • The ability to deeply comprehend the text
  • The ability to give a verbal response that pulls from or refers back to the text
  • The ability to convert that verbal response into a written response

Take another glance at that list…each skill has its own challenges, which is why I propose teaching, practicing and fostering them separately before together. I strongly suggest teaching this skill through read aloud, before relying on independent reading. While both are important, teaching through read-aloud offers students who struggle with decoding a chance to demonstrate comprehension of a more challenging text.

The step-by-step process that you are about to read is applicable and can be modified to any grade level (ranging from pre-school to high school.) For the sake of meeting readers in the middle, I will write the steps in regards to a sample elementary lesson.

Literature: Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds

(Choose a book you are passionate about, that can naturally lead to deep discussion questions.)

Step 1: Read Ish aloud to your students, preferably on a rug. Stop every few pages to engage students in a turn and talk (as a way to get kids talking about the book.)

Possible Questions for T&T: Have you ever drawn anything in a funny place like in bed or outside? How do you think Ramon felt when Leon burst out laughing? What feeling is Ramon having when he crumples up his drawing and throws it across the room? Have you ever felt like that?

Step 2: After the book, facilitate a whole group discussion. Ask students a series of questions and have students share out. If possible, take notes on their ideas using chart paper. Make sure to ask a variety of question types including both literal (in the text) and inferential (based on interpretation of the text.)

Possible Questions for Whole Group: What did Marisol have in her room? Why do you think she collected Ramon’s art? How did Ramon feel when he saw Marisol’s room? What does it mean when something is –ish?

Step 3: When you feel like most students have an understanding of the text, pass out a sheet with a question on it (or write one on the board if your students use a notebook.) Have students go back to their tables to write in response to the text. Remind students that they may refer back to the chart paper or talk to a neighbor if they need a reminder about something that happened in the story.


Ish Questions

Differentiate! Here is where differentiation comes in. Some students might not have shared out during the whole-group discussion because they didn’t really understand the book. Keep a small group of students who you feel like might benefit on the rug. Lead them through a shared writing experience. First, lead them through a re-tell of the book. Then pose a question and take responses. Finally, have them sequence their ideas in a way that makes sense and have each student come up and write one sentence on chart paper. Voila, you have included and engaged all students using the same book, same skill, varied task!

This is only one possible way to teach writing in response to literature. As your students become stronger at this skill, further differentiation will take place. You may have some students reading their books independently and responding to a question at their tables. You may have other students working with a partner who is reading aloud a text to them and they are sharing the task of writing. Still others might be working on the rug with you responding to a short story that has been read aloud. The important thing is to always be challenging student at their level to both deeply understand a text, as well as be able to respond to it (first verbally, then written.)

Possible extensions for older students: Re-stating a piece of the question in your answer, referring back to the text, using details from the text in your response.

If this helps you, you should read:

The Importance of Sharing: Feature pieces, gallery walks, spotlights and more

Incorporate Non-fiction Text Into Your Home or Classroom Book Collection

Top Secret! (Book leveling secrets)

Strategies and Tools for Topic Generation in Writing

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