Wednesday, March 12, 2008


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.


WAT said...

I am most fortunate to love/enjoy reading in this lifetime. Since I was a child, my mom says I always went towards books. I dunno if it was a teacher or the genes from my studious uncle that made me this way, but I am most glad for being a bibliophile. I love learning!

Greek mythology is so fascinating! I'm currently reading Don Quijote de la Mancha and Cervantes makes plenty of references to the the stories of the ancient Greeks. Very very interesting and a wonderfully witty book.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

wonderful read and wonderful to read about 6 year olds being turned on to these greek myths! I look forward to seeing some of the pictures once your new computer set up is complete - wonderful way to follow-up the story with having the children draw something from it that 'inspired' them.

I've heard stuff about the connection of crawling with reading ability (the theory that posits that people who never crawled have difficulty) what do you know about this, is there any 'truth' to it? both are complex and I wonder if there is a relationship....

Joy Keaton said...

So Pomegranate was once thought of as 'the fruit of the dead'... my mother told me they were called 'Chinese Apples' (but, you know... my mom... oy!) and now they are considered the wonder-fruit of anti-oxidants! Isn't it amazing how perceptions change.

Kinda like going from a beginning reader to a book-lover. (Didja' like how I pulled that together? Of course you did.)

Gary said...

Wat - I agree. To find enjoyment in the act of reading is a gift and you are fortunate to have found it. I do think that our early experiences with reading influences our attitude towards reading as adults. I am very conscious to provide these positive opportunities for my students every single day. And it is also true that the more you read, the better you become at reading.

You have me curious now about Don Quijote. I think I shall have to investigate this one. Thanks.

Kimy - Interesting connection between reading and crawling, although I have never heard of this before. I wonder what the relationship would be and why one should effect the other. If anyone else can weigh in on this topic please do.

Joy - I got the Chinese apple thing too. I actually never even heard of a pomegranate until I was in high school - go figure.

And yes, I do love how you brought it all together! You made me giggle. Tee-Hee.

marxsny said...

Earlier this week on the Today show one of the guests were these two parents who were both speech pathologists and they had a 17 month old child who was able to read these 3 or 4 word sentences printed on pieces of paper that Ann Curry was holding in front of her.

At first I thought wow that's pretty impressive but after a while I wondered if she had the slightest clue of what it was she was reading. The parents claimed that they were going public with their daughter's abilities to prove that it is never too early to engage a child in reading. (Personally I think they just wanted to say "look how smart my kid is")

Without comprehension what does it matter how many words she could read?

lettuce said...

i find it really hard not to be a bit elitist about reading - in the sense of thinking its so necessary for a really full, enriched satisfying life!

which would be kind of elitist, wouldn't it?

Persephone is one of the best - and esp. for this time of year. I hope you'll be able to share the pictures some time.

Dumdad said...

That's brilliant to introduce them to Greek mythology. I remember when I was read these amazing tales of gods and heroes. Literally fabulous stories.

Mona said...

this made me remember my lingua phone lessons...

Learning English as a second language makes people slow readers in India, since they go about the translation method to understand. Their minds tend to translate the meaning in their own language. So among children, it is difficult to teach!

Our own language is even more difficult to read...

Reya Mellicker said...

There are many different translations of that ancient tale, some that include Persephone's need/desire to separate from her mother, her longing for a dip into the darkness, the importance of discovering her sexual self. In some of the translations we worked with (in Reclaiming, in San Francisco, circa 1985), Persephone willingly, eagerly ate the pomegranate seeds, aka sexuality.

Some people think that the story is about returning the world to balance, rather than just another sexist story of rape and kidnapping.

Poor Hades. He always gets such a bum rap!

Gary said...

Reya - Thank you for sharing this interpretation and for pointing out that these myths can be viewed from varying perspectives. I just finished reading Goldie Hawn's autobiography 'A Lotus Grows in the Mud' (which was very good) and to my surprise she finishes up the book by talking about Persephone. She brought up that most times this story is seen as a way to explain the seasons or from Persephone's perspective, but Goldie was looking at it through the lens of Demeter. The pangs and loss when a child leaves the nest and ventures out on their own into unexplored territory and the fact that the mom can no longer continue on this journey. The stories are so rich. It is no wonder that they have stood the test of time.

Mona - Great point. Adding on a second language slows the process down even more. But, bilingual students are in a better standing once it all falls into place. Bilingual education is another fascinating topic.

Dumdad - They really are amazing stories. I taught my students so many of them last year. That was the first class to show an interest and a year later they are still acting out the stories. Actually, one student from last year is going to come in to tell a story to my class this year. I asked him (a second grader) which story he wanted to tell and after going through the possibilities (Medusa, Jason, Oedipus, Cyclops, Perseus, etc.) he decided upon Odysseus. Since this is an involved tale I asked him to choose one part. He replied that he would describe the part with Paris and Helen and the start of the Trojan War. How cool is that? I can't wait to see it. I wish I could somehow videotape him and post it. We'll see...

Lettuce - I know what you mean. I find myself sometimes feeling that those close to me who do not find enjoyment in reading are missing an incredible bit of life. But maybe that is elitist or egocentric on my part. I am just so happy that I do enjoy it as much as I do. And am doing what I can to help keep the reading fire alive in the children I teach.

Mark - Excellent point! There is that huge question "what is reading" that is brought up at every reading conference and debated again and again. However, everyone agrees that without comprehension reading is meaningless. It is like a child how can recite the ABC song and the parents say he knows his ABCs. But most of the time it means nothing to the child. OR when a child knows how to count but has no sense of number/quantity. OR when a child can tell you the short /a/ sound but remain unable to use it to help decode and make meaning from a text. And on and on....

But still, it is pretty cool that this kid could do that.

Scot said...

One thing I do have is a vivid ability to make pictures from words. It sometimes gets me in trouble (minorly so) but makes the making of puns so much easier!

I can remember reading a sentence from a book with my mom as a kid and not really understanding because of the focus on individual words: not seeing the forest for the trees as it were. Even today I admit to reading at the pace of spoken word. That's what's enjoyable to me because I can become engrossed with the meter and sound of the words. At the same time, I have caught myself so vividly imagining a story that I'm startled to find myself looking at a page. It's the same feeling of not remembering the last 2 miles of road you just drove, including changing lanes and making a turn.

Weird, aren't I?

Arielle said...

Always loved the Greek myths as a kid myself. Still do. :)

Gary said...

Scot - Not weird at all, actually I do the same thing. I enjoy reading and I take my time with it (when I can). In addition to all of the wonderful things you wrote about it also means that I have solid retention for what I have read. That is a great plus when I am dealing with such dense material for school.

Arielle - I think the kids would have to agree with you. They just ate up the story of Odysseus and the cyclops today. The drawings they created are really amazing.

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I was at least 12 before I started reading the Greeks. Your kids are lucky to have such an early introduction.


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