This post is written by member Kim Essenburg.
“I was disappointed because when the librarian talked in class about this book, I thought it was fantasy, but it wasn’t,” complained a tenth-grade student several years ago in an independent reading conference. The book was Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, and his comment puzzled me, because I too had heard the librarian’s book talk and knew from it that the YA novel was historical fiction set in sixteenth-century Europe about a dwarf. . . . Oh, a dwarf! The student didn’t know that dwarfism is an actual medical condition; being familiar only with the dwarves of Middle Earth, he assumed that wizards and dragons would show up sooner or later!
This incident dramatized for me what happens when limited knowledge of the world stymies reading comprehension. What can we do to facilitate the rich reading comprehension that comes from robust background knowledge, that ignites the imagination, and that leads to building new ideas through synthesizing and extending thinking?
Pairing a text with an image, a video, an audio, or another text is one way—and it also supports diverse learners and ELLs.
For instance, this week my tenth graders read “The Guitar” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The targeted poetic devices were alliteration, assonance, and consonance. The repeated, unstopped “s” and “l” sounds imitate the continuous flow of music, reinforcing the words “monotonously” and “impossible to silence it.” The poem also revisits the device of figurative images introduced the day before, personifying the wind weeping over ambiguous images, but ones that evoke loss, longing, and pointlessness—“southern sands / yearning for white camellias,” “arrow without target / evening without morning / and the first dead bird / on the branch.”
However, if students have never heard a classical Spanish guitar, this will all be gobbledygook to them. There’s no aural image playing in the ear of their minds, and no visual image of the five fingers plucking the strings to provoke both the music and the final metaphor.
So I begin the class by showing a YouTube video of classical Spanish guitar. Students listen to the wistful but beautiful monotony of it. They see the five fingers relentlessly plucking the strings.
Class continues with direct instruction on assonance and consonance, independent and group annotations, and then the fun of trying it ourselves—writing a poem about a musical instrument that evokes a powerful emotion in us and using figurative images and musical devices to evoke the same emotion in a reader.
What else might pairing for deeper understanding look like? It can be as simple as showing an image of a field of poppies when reading “In Flanders Fields,” or as complex as pairing the Holocaust memoir Night with the movie Hotel Rwanda and the Time article “What Makes Us Moral” to move the discussion beyond a particular incident of disregard for human dignity to the recurring pattern of human behavior and what we can do about it.
What can you pair with the literature you teach to scaffold rich understanding for your students?
Kim Essenburg has been teaching middle and high school English at international schools in Japan for almost 30 years. She loves reading, writing, and playing volleyball.