Bringing Complexity to Any Level Text in Read Alouds

We have our educational superstars, just like the music and film industries.  Well, maybe not just like them – our superstars don’t arrive by limo, walk a red carpet, or make millions of dollars.  They do however, have big fan clubs and their own nerdy paparazzi taking pictures with them.  We were fortunate to welcome one of these superstars, Kathy Collins, to our district in January to stretch our thinking about working with our primary students in literacy.  Kathy Collins is the author of Reading for Real and Growing Readers as well as a co-author of I Am Reading.  As Instructional Coaches we knew we were in for a fabulous day of learning and laughing with Kathy.

After our day with her, I couldn’t wait to find a group of kindergartners to try out what we learned about Read Aloud with Accountable Talk (RAwAT) using lower level (Fountas and Pinnell levels A -D) texts.  I was impressed with the level of discourse Kathy was able to engage the kinders in during her demonstration using a level B text and was ready to try it out myself.  I choose a level B text – The Big Fish (Author – Phyllis Root, Illustrator James Croft, Brand New Readers by Candlewick Press, part of a set: Mouse Goes Out). If I had not seen Kathy demonstrate this with kids, I would have been skeptical.  This text has only 8 pages and 38 words (most of which are kindergarten sight words) – how much complex thinking could we do with such a small amount of text?  We had been striving for using high quality literature in our read alouds.  We had been told we needed texts with more substantial storylines to bring out the accountable talk.  We also needed to tightly plan for these read alouds.  Kathy upended us by having us choose only from levels A-D and telling us to NOT go in with a plan.  Kathy taught us to let the students lead where the conversation went.  The reader brings the meaning to the text. She shared the work of Vicki Vinton which is that we should not chase complex text but that complex thinking can happen with any text. I must admit I was a little uneasy going in without post-its on the pages to do a read aloud.  What if the kids had nothing to say?  What if I wasn’t sure where to lead the conversation?  (And of course not only would the teacher be watching, but she had a student teacher watching too – yikes!)

Image result for the big fish  by phyllis root book cover

The only pre-planning I did before entering the classroom was in choosing the book and creating an “origin story”.  An origin story is how the book came to “be in your lap” to share with students.  These stories model reading habits of readers for student. You might talk of how a cover or favorite character drew you to the book.  It might have been that you read other books by the author or the topic was one you were searching for.  The origin story I shared for this book had to do with one of my favorite things to do when I was their age – fishing with my dad.  I told this group of 4 students that the fishing mouse is what caught my attention since I had such good memories of fishing with my dad.  I told them that as soon as I read the story I couldn’t wait to share it with someone to see if they had the same reaction to the ending that I did.  Then we talked about the title, cover, and made predictions.  I tried to hold back to really listen to what the students had to say and not to overly lead them to predictions I wanted them to make.  This group felt that the mouse would catch the fish and eat it.  They also told me without prompting that this must be a fiction book because mice really don’t go fishing.  They were chopping at the bit to hear the story after our discussion.

As the story begins the mouse catches a boot and throws it back in the water on the second page.  The students giggled at the mouse catching a boot.  I pointed out the look on mouse’s face and asked what the mouse was feeling.  The group was upset on the second page that the mouse threw the boot back in the water instead of in the trash.  That was not what I would have led the discussion about, but I let the conversation go where they wanted.  These students felt strongly about taking care of our earth!  They all predicted that the mouse would try again and continued to think that mouse would catch a big fish and eat it.

After catching a stick and throwing it back (yes, they were upset once again that he threw the stick in the water), they continued to stick with their prediction of catching a big fish to eat.  The third thing the mouse catches is a small fish. (See picture below)  We examined the other fish in the water and discussed who they might be to the caught fish and what they might be thinking or saying.  This is where I realized it was really working.  We were having a deep discussion about a level b text.  I was impressed with the inferences and conclusions they were sharing.  We made the same faces as the characters and talked about how they were feeling and why.  We talked about all the choices that the mouse had and which choice they thought he would make and why.  The majority stayed with their original prediction that he would keep the fish and eat it. In reflecting back on the conversation I probably took too much of a lead in this part of the conversation and will continue to work at allowing them to lead more of the conversation.

photo 1 (004)

The students were able to use the established pattern to predict he would throw the fish back.  We again talked about the feelings of all the characters on the page and how the feelings changed from the previous page.  They were quite engaged with the story and were delighted when Mouse caught a big fish.  Once again we discussed feelings, possible dialogue the characters would say, and made predictions.  They were still sticking with Mouse eating the big fish (one student was quick to suggest he would have to put the fish in an oven first before eating it).

When students saw the last page they were laughing before I finished reading the 4 (003)

They absolutely loved the twist ending.  Most of the students felt Mouse would not fish again after this experience!

As we learned from Kathy, before discussing the book any further we did a retelling.  She taught us that before you can go deeper with meaning you must be sure they have a basic understanding of the story.  We also talked about how they could do similar thinking in their own books and in talking with their partners.  This is one of the primary reasons for mixing in these read alouds with the more traditional read alouds of literature.  It shows the students what they can and SHOULD be doing in their independent reading.

My next steps are to work more at letting students really lead the discussion without me derailing where they take the conversation.  I need to let them create the meaning with the text.  I also want to practice with nonfiction text at these levels to see how that is similar and different in creating deeper thinking.  I would love to hear how this goes for you if you try it out in your teaching.

Living the workshop with you,


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic





One thought on “Bringing Complexity to Any Level Text in Read Alouds

  1. Melissa: I’m so glad that Kathy Collins still has such wonderful insights on improving our teaching of reading with some of our youngest students! I would love to come see you model more lessons using this strategy in the future! Thanks for sharing it with others.


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