Comic Comprehension

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with teachers on conferring. While in the room, I conferred with a few students that were reading graphic novels. When I approached the reader, the teacher said, “I can have him read a real book if that would help.” I graciously declined and proceeded with the conference. At the end of the reading conference, the teacher remarked that she didn’t know so much thinking work was possible in a graphic novel.

Since then, that experience has resonated with me and I have taken note of student-teacher interactions with graphic novels. Most of the conversations consist of the teacher wanting the student to push themselves with their thinking, not realizing the gem that was sitting in front of them. Some teachers have even asked for something to help them with this newer and quickly growing genre. This post is a quick introduction to help you get started with working in this genre.  Most of the information comes from a wonderful book I began with work with called Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 by Terry Thompson (Twitter: @TerryTreads).

Windows of Information

The first major thing in graphic books we need to look at are the panels. Panels, outlined below in green and yellow, are similar to paragraphs in regular text books.  Like text, we read panels left to right, top to bottom. Panels, sometimes called frames, come in many shapes and sizes. The shapes and sizes are not random. Sometimes panels are inlaid in other panels. All of this is the craft of the author/illustrator.  The do it on purpose. Our thinking task as a reader is to figure that out.  This is something we can explore with our students as they read. The sample on the right hand side below shows inlaid panels. In this case, the panels change the point of view to look at things from the perspective of the character that is upside down.  I might explore with the reader, why the writer of the book might of done that.  It is would probably be more of an inquiry conference to help the reader discover why the writer chose to make the panels like this as opposed to the normal way.  After the discovery process, I follow up with an explicit teaching strategy, giving a what, why, how, and when to use it, such as:

Readers notice when panels change shape because the writer wants to understand something important. When we notice a change in shape or a panel inlaid within another we stop and ask:

  • What is happening right here?
  • How is this important to the story?

The answers can give us clues about the character or help us figure out what is really happening.”


Read Between the Panels

Gutters are the spaces between the panels. They have major inference work in them that readers do without even realizing it.  For instance, take the example below. The gutter is the indicated by the red arrow. It is the spot for the reader to figure out, or infer, what happens between the two panels. In this case, the mouse in the red took the information from the mouse wearing orange, processed it, stopped digging, grabbed the paper out of the orange mouse’s hand and started running. All of this happened in the gutter. Students usually complete this process unconsciously. It is our job to help make this thinking conscious and grow it.


Voice Overs

Narrative boxes (outlined in green below) move along the plot line or show a shift in setting similar to a narrative voice over of a nature show on TV. Sometimes they are even used to summarize one or more panels. These boxes are a wonderful thinking opportunity for the reader to keep track of the plot and setting.  They are meant to be noticed and used to maintain meaning within the text.


Fluency Work

Another area we can work with students on in graphic novels is fluency, more specifically expression. One of the things I teach readers is to read dialogue in a way that matches what the character is feeling. Graphic novels are great tools for this work. Look. at the panel below from a Rosen Publishing graphic biography. When we first read the speech bubble, as an adult reader, we can infer that the character is worried about something and will insert that feeling of worry into the text. With our growing readers, that process is not automatic. I would have the reader look at the character’s face and infer what he or she is feeling.  When reading the dialogue, say it like the character is feeling.  It makes a big difference with the expression and comprehension.


Mood Panels

In graphic novels, we can also delve into more complex comprehension areas such as mood. In graphic novels, everything is done on purpose, including the color.  Color can give us great insights into the mood of a scene.  Take for instance, this panel:


Looking at just the colors in this picture, I notice that there is a lot of dark and blue colors.  This suggests that something negative has happened or is about to happen. When I look at the narrative box, my thought is confirmed because something did not go smoothly. I also see a shining light in the picture as well that makes me think that the situation may turn out okay.  The light gives the character hope. All of this deep and complex thinking work is just from the one panel.  From this point you could extend the work to plot, foreshadowing, ex cetera.

Just the Beginning

This work is a great way to start students working in this genre of book. To explore further, I highly encourage you to read Terry Thompson’s book, Adventures in Graphica. This a genre full of rich thinking work just waiting for you and your students to explore and grow as readers.

Increasing Writing Volume

writing volume

     As an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Coach, one of the most common questions I get from teachers is how can they get some students to write more.  Earlier this week I discussed ways to increase reading volume, so today we will switch to a focus on increasing writing volume.

Creating an Excitement Around Writing

     Just as in reading, we need to create an excitement for kids about putting their thoughts on paper.  This can be a scary proposition for some kids.  We make ourselves vulnerable when we write our thoughts.  One of the best ways to create this excitement at all grade levels is to share your own writing. Kids love to see their teachers writing and sharing from their own lives.  It also works to create a sense of community and safety in sharing our writing.

     One sure way to create excitement is to make a student a “star”.  Showcasing  their writing (or even a small part of a piece) to peers during the mid-workshop interruption or the share time at the end can go a long way in building momentum for a student.  Of course the surest way to make them a star is to display their work or show it to a classroom visitor along with a genuine compliment about the piece.  Our end of unit celebrations can be a way to make all of our student feel like writing stars.  My favorite celebrations to attend are the ones where I can interact with the students and leave written comments about their pieces.  I have seen 5th grade “cool” boys who proclaim celebrations to be “no big deal”, read their written comments on a piece and try not to smile around their peers (they usually are unsuccessful and the smile shines through).

Motivation by Choices

     Most workshop teachers already implement the basic philosophy of student choice in selecting topics to write about.  As in many districts, we work in units, usually genre driven, but students are able to choose their daily writing topics.  There are many other aspects of workshop where providing a choice can motivate students to write more.  One of my favorites is providing a large variety of writing utensils.  Sometimes a reluctant student has lots to write about if provided a glitter pen in their favorite color.  Or a student with a love of a particular sports team might be willing to write more when the team logo is on their pen.The secret to being successful with this technique is the pens are only available during writing workshop.   Collen Cruz from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP)and author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher writes about other reasons to provide felt tip pens in this article from TCRWP.  Many of the reasons from Colleen’s article center on the physical aspects of handwriting and on other tips from Occupational Therapists.

      I read recently that if all student projects look alike then it was no better than a worksheet.  I think the same can be true for our published writing.  Choice in publishing formats can be motivating to students as well.  Using technology can really change up how students final products look. For years our fourth graders all made salt dough maps of the regions of Texas.  They all looked exactly alike and although it was fun to play with the dough, it was a forgettable assignment. This year the teachers gave the assignment to make a 3D map of Texas regions, with salt dough being just one option.  We have such a variety, students made pull-tabs with animals from each region, some created QR codes to link to websites with more information about the regions, and others  wrote their own descriptions to attach to the maps.  By providing choice, the learning went to much deeper levels than ever before.  Students did much more than was expected of them.  The same is true in writing when we provide choices about publication.

    photo 1photo 2

An Audience is Key

     I have seen first hand how much an audience can motivate our students to write more.  When they know others are coming to their celebrations, it ups the ante for production.  Many of our teachers are using the SeeSaw app (more information can be found here) this year for digital portfolios.  This app is amazing for many reasons, but one of the best features is that there is student ownership over it.  Students (as young as kindergarten) take pictures, videos, or voice recordings of their work using their own icon for their account.  Students can annotate on the picture showcasing what they are most proud of.  Once the teacher approves the post it goes into their digital learning journal where parents who set up an account are notified of the post and can comment back.  What a fabulous way to get feedback from a audience they care deeply about!  Of course, blogs are another great digital tool to get writing to a larger audience.

     There are ways to get our paper versions of our writing to larger audiences too.  Adding student published work to the school and classroom library can be very motivation to students. They are truly authors with others reading their work.  Just this week in our district sponsored chat over The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Colleen Cruz shared the idea of guerrilla publishing.  That is putting student writing in places where readers will most likely find and read it. Maybe adding writing pieces related to sports to the gym or putting pieces in the front office for students and parents to read while waiting.  I plan to add a basket to the front office area with student writing.

Strategies Can Teach How to Write More

     Many of the strategies in Jennifer Serravallo’s book, The Reading Strategies Book, can be flipped to work for writing.  Serravallo  discusses setting page goals with readers.  With writers we can put a sticker on a page with how much we expect them to write in one day.  Celebrate when they reach the goal.  Similarly, she presents a strategy of a “party ladder” for reading.  We can do the same in writing:  write 2 paragraphs, take a break for a drink of water, write two more paragraphs, celebrate by going to read what you have written to your younger sibling in another class.  The stamina charts for reading can also be switched to how many words (or how many minutes of writing) were written.

     For all students the oral rehearsal can be beneficial to writing a great piece, and for some writers it is absolutely essential.  Student who need more oral talk than talking with a partner can use technology to help.  I have used the Dragon Dictation app with good results.  The student dictates their story and the speech is translated into text.  What I especially like is this is just a starting point.  The student takes that and must add in punctuation and other conventions.  It is a great way to get a quick draft down and the student feels like there is momentum they can sustain going forward.

     This summer I attended a training with Jeff Anderson using his book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  His first rule is all about increasing volume, it is writers have motion.  He has several ideas to get writers going in this chapter.  One that I especially liked is Power Writes.  You give students two words (unrelated words) and let them pick one of the two words.  You then time students for a few minutes writing to the chosen word.  At the end of the time have your writers count how many words were written.  Then choose two more unrelated words and have them choose one.  Again time them for the same amount of time and count the words at the end.  Doing this a couple of times a month and keeping track of the words written can really help to increase how much they write. We know that what gets practiced is what we strengthen.  This strengthens their writing muscles to be able to write more in each workshop session, just as training for a race by running for increasing distances strengthens our muscles to run longer distances.

Living the workshop with you!


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic

Increasing Reading Volume

reading volume

A few years ago I decided to run a 5k for the first time ever.  I had a goal and as a former (let’s not talk about how long ago) track and field athlete I had the skills.  So, I should have been successful, right?  Well, although I did “complete” the 5k, I walked more than I wanted to and my time was much slower than I expected.  What went wrong?  I had not trained long enough and frequently enough.  I lacked the volume of training that was needed.  The same problem occurs with some of our readers in workshop.  They have goals and they have the skills to read, but due to a lack of reading volume they are not as successful as they could be.  Fortunately, there are many things we can put in place to help students increase the volume of their reading.

Ensure Adequate Access to Reading Materials

 On our Title I campus, we have an ongoing goal to help build classroom libraries. We have found ways to be resourceful as we work at building our collections.  We have found several digital resources to supplement our print books.  One of our favorites is the digital collection from Epic! Educators can register for a free account using this link  The app is available from Apple and Google Play.  The site includes an ever growing collection of fiction and non-fiction texts. Many popular titles such as the Scaredy Squirrel  and Memoirs of…books can be found here. For our readers who crave non-fiction we use the free website Wonderopolis which posts daily wonders in the form of a question with informative answers.  All the wonders are archived for easy searching.   Our school library is growing our collection of ebooks to help with access as well.  We all recognize that in order to increase volume students need access to a wide variety of texts.

Create an Excitement About Books

Our community is in a “book desert” according to the latest census data (only 6% of households in our community have 100 or more books) so most of our students do not come to school with a love of reading.  We work to grow that love of reading by creating a sense of excitement about books. All staff members have a sign outside their door with what they are currently reading.  We post pictures of teachers reading on a bulletin board in our main hall. We want our whole community to see us a reading community.

summer reading

Author visits in person or through Skype are a wonderful way to increase interest in books and therefore student reading volume.  In classrooms, the importance of book talks cannot be overstated.  There is nothing like word of mouth about a book from a peer to create a frenzy about a title.  Book trailers are another way to increase excitement about a new book.

Use a Toolbox of Strategies

 For some students having access and creating excitement will not be enough.  These students need specific and targeted strategies to increase volume. Reading logs are an important tool in monitoring and creating an awareness of reading volume.  Alice wrote a post about this on September 20th. One of my favorite tools is to the use of stamina graphs.  Our primary classes use these as a whole class to track minutes read as students learn reading behaviors.  In our older grades, stamina graphs can be a tool for individual students to visually see their progress in increasing stamina.  There is a wonderful description of using them at the older grades in Jennifer Serravallo’s book, The Reading Strategies Book (2.14).

                                 stamina graph 1     stamina graph 2

The Reading Strategies Book has several suggested strategies for increasing stamina which will help increase volume.  There are ideas on how to set small goals then take a break to read a favorite type of text or celebrate.  Ideas on how to teach students to monitor their engagement in the text or to make future reading plans.  Serravallo teaches us that engagment should be the first goal to take on, because if students aren’t engaged the other types of reading work will not be able to happen.  Increasing engagment should lead to greater volume.

Donalyn Miller has written entire books that address the topic of increasing reading volume.  In both of her books, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, she shares how her students took on her 40 Book Challenge.  Choice was a major factor in encouraging all her students to make volume gains.Teaching students to always have a book on hand for “reading emergencies” such as waiting for appointments is one of her ideas.  As a school we embrace this idea and have baskets of books in our front office, clinic, and other areas where parents or students may be waiting. We want to be role models for reading whenever and wherever we can. I have taken on Donalyn Miller’s summer challenge for teachers, #bookaday, for three years now.  I am able to talk to students and teachers about many new titles after participating which further helps with student reading volume.  I am thrilled that I have been much more successful with my reading volume than my running volume.

Next Steps

We would love to hear your best ideas for increasing reading volume.  Please comment below to share with other teachers.

I’ll see you again on Wednesday with ideas for increasing writing volume in workshop.

Living the workshop with you!


Essential Engagement!


When starting the work of readers’ workshop, I found many of my students were passive readers that read on autopilot. Some read for plot fixes, some read because they were supposed to, and others tried to fake read. It was a definite struggle to get my students to read with meaning. In writing, my students struggled to find their voices and usually began by staring at blank pages. They weren’t truly engaged.

In 2002, a researcher, named Schlechty, defined five levels of student engagement in his book Working on the Work:

  • Authentic Engagement – students completely immersed in valuable and meaningful work
  • Ritual Compliance – students are doing work for an external reward like grades, but the work is not meaningful
  • Passive Compliance – students are doing the work to avoid consequences, but find little to no meaning or value in the work
  • Retreatism – students are not engaged in the work, but do not disturb others
  • Rebellion – students refuse the work and are disruptive

When I look at all these levels, I can picture students’ faces in each category. Ideally, we want all our students to be authentically engaged as that is where they get the most instructional benefit. The question then becomes how can we get as many students authentically engaged as possible and to do the work necessary to grow them as readers and writers? Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer. We have to find what makes each one of our students tick. Like Tracy wrote a few weeks ago, it starts with relationships.  Here are my top strategies for helping students get engaged.


Choice is a huge motivator for students. If they get to choose the work they are doing, it instantly becomes a lot more meaningful and relevant to them. When starting the work in reading, many teachers focus on the reading levels of their students. The intent is to have students working in texts they can be successful with.  That is a great idea. However, there is much more to a reader and a book than a reading level. After all, book stores and libraries usually don’t have books organized by level.  We need to help our students become independent at selecting just right books. Donalyn Miller talks all about finding just right books in her book, The Book Whisperer. Jennifer Serravallo has a great strategy in her new book The Reading Strategies Book.  The strategy asks the student to read the first page of the book. Then ask:

  • Does it grab you and make you want to keep reading?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • Can you see the story or topic?
  • Do you care to find out what comes next?

If the answers are negative, that is probably not a just right book.

In writing, it comes down to student choice as well.  Do students have the choice on what to write, or are they always writing to a prompt? A choice in prompts can be useful when starting with writers that don’t know what to write about. By that I mean, showing them some prompts to trigger a few thoughts.  Yes, students will need to learn to write to a prompt for standardized testing, and we can transfer those writing skills to prompts as review for testing season.  After all, are we teaching test-takers, or are we teaching writers?

Instruction: Beyond the What

Instruction is a vital piece to engagement.  It is an important piece for students to find value and meaning in what they are doing. When I’m talking about instruction, I’m thinking of all the instructional components of workshop (mini-lesson, conferring, small group, etc.). As a teacher, my first instinct is to teach what the students need to do.  That’s the content. Too often, we forget to teach the how, why and when. As a learner growing up, I was taught what to do as a reader and writer, but not how to do it, why to do it, and when to do it.  That caused me to be a passively engaged.  I tried, but really had no clue what I was doing because I was not taught the how, why, when.

Let’s take a look at a teaching point about monitoring for meaning while decoding that is written both ways.  The first is just the what, the second includes the why, how, and when.


Example 1:
Today I’m going to teach you that readers slow down when reading to check if what they’re reading makes sense.

Example 2:
Today I’m going to teach you that readers slow down when reading to check if what they’re reading makes sense. Readers do this to make sure they are understanding what is really going on in their books. Readers always ask themselves, “Is what I’m reading making sense?” If the answer is “No!” they go back and fix it up.


Which teaching point will be more meaningful and valuable to a student? Making sure our teaching points include the what, why, how and when can make a world of difference to our students.

Conferring for Feedback and Accountability

Feedback while conferring is good. Specific feedback is even better.  The specific feedback shows students that you value what they are approximating and their attempts to be better readers and writers. I use feedback primarily when giving a compliment to a student. I name what they are specifically doing correctly and encourage them to keep doing that work.  What a great way to open a conversation! For example, I might say, “When I read your piece, I noticed that you had a lead, focused on one small idea and had an ending to your story. That is important work to do when writing a narrative. Keep doing those!” That type of feedback tells the student exactly what they did correctly, because our students often don’t know what they did right.  By naming and complimenting what they did well, students grow with confidence and independence in the work they are doing. The fact that you noticed and valued it, helps create meaning and value for them.

One type of accountability that I use with students is the research part of my conference. When checking in with a student I may ask what they are working on as a reader/writer, how the last strategy we worked on was working, or take me on a tour of their work.  All of these help keep our kids accountable to the work they need to be doing. It shows that you are interested in what they are doing and gives the clear expectation that they need to be working on making themselves better. Regularly meeting with and checking in with students while conferring is an amazing accountability tool, and will work more successfully when you have quality conferring notes to help you remember what every student is working on.

I will totally admit that all students may not completely value and find meaning in their literacy work to be at the top level of engagement as described by Schlechty. The important thing to remember is that these levels are a progression of engagement. Students will most likely not move from the rebellion stage up to authentic engagement stage with one strategy. They will need many. We need to think of ways to move students up one level at a time to allow them to grow as an engaged reader and writer.

Please help us all grow by leaving engagement strategies with which you have been successful in the comment section below.

Make it a reading and writing –tastic week!


Twitter: @ICchiller