Learning to read is a complex business. It requires the ability to orchestrate the semantic (meaning), syntactic (grammar) and grapho-phonic (letter/sound connection) elements of language into a melodic symphony. Without all of the pieces operating smoothly the reader can become disoriented and jumbled, like the preshow warm-ups of the New York Pops string section. We cannot focus on the whole because the parts are demanding far too much attention.
As we read our short term memory works in tandem with our long term memory, making connections to past experiences and knowledge, while holding and processing new information. Experienced readers take this process for granted. We no longer have to expend so much energy in figuring out an individual word or sentence, which in turn frees up brain space, and we can therefore comprehend what we are reading.
It has been said over and over again that reading is not a natural phenomenon. Some folks find the task easier than others but the fact remains...reading is something we learn to do. And much of the magic of reading is taught in first grade. It is here that all of these elements are brought together, worked out, stretched and practiced. As educators it becomes our responsibility to act as the 'trainer'. We help our students build their reading muscles with the hope that they will become life long readers who enjoy interacting with printed materials; books, newspapers, blogs, magazines, comic books, etc.
Research ranging from the Reading First initiative to the No Child Left Behind Act stresses the importance of integrated reading instruction. This encompasses phonics training as well as comprehension strategies. One such strategy that good readers use, and developing readers need practice using, is visualizing. This is 'creating mind pictures' while reading or seeing the story in your head. When a reader is able to do this it helps ground the story, making it more meaningful and clear.
This past Monday Sara, our school librarian, exercised our children's visualizing muscles by reading the Greek myth Persephone from D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Persephone was the reluctant queen of the dead who was kidnapped by Hades and brought into the underworld against her will. One day she was frolicking in the midday sun with her mother Demeter, the Greek goddess of the green earth, and the next she was whisked into darkness on a chariot of death.
In Persephone's absence Demeter grieved, leaving the earth to turn cold and barren. Eventually, momma found out what happened and went to Zeus to demand the return of her daughter. Hades had to give in but before he did he tricked Persephone into eating a few seeds from the Pomegranate, the fruit of the dead, the fruit of blood. OOPS!
A deal was struck...Persephone would return to the underworld one month a year for every seed that she tasted. Forever more the earth would remain barren in her absence (winter) and flourish anew upon her return (spring).
During the story our students were encouraged to visualize this story. Afterwards we asked them to choose one part that was especially vivid and draw it. Each child choose a portion of the myth that was unique and different from everyone else's. Some chose to draw Persephone walking in the meadow with flowers springing to life as her feet touched the earth, others decided to illustrate her heart turning to ice or the black chariot coming up through the earth. Each a treasure.
I would love to post some of them here but since my Dell computer crashed two weeks ago I am without my scanner (never fear I just ordered a new iMac last night).
This little excursion into Greek Mythology leaves me hopeful that I have another class of six-and seven-year-olds waiting to soak up these amazing tales. Next up...Daedalus and Icarus.
Persephone, by Kris Waldherr (top)
Persephone's Return, by Frederick Lord Leighton.