It is the first day of school; the classroom crackles with whisper voices as a new group of fifth graders investigate my classroom library. I stand back, giving my students time and space to look through my book collection. Eavesdropping on their chatter, observing book perusing, previewing behaviors and book choices, cast first impressions as I try to sketch portraits of my new students, and their experiences with reading. Playing back this scene at the end of the school day and recording a few anecdotes, a pattern emerges. Familiar books that fourth-grade teachers have read aloud or books the children have read themselves are discussed and recommended. Some students decide to stay with what is familiar and read the text again.
Abby, who seems to wear a perpetual smile, has picked up The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant, one of my favorites. On the third day of school I notice she has a frown, so I touch base with her. Abby advises she is confused, she can’t figure out the characters, they just don’t make sense. As we chat I discover she has read this book in both third and fourth grade. Curious, I probe, “Why do you reread this book?”
“I can’t get it. I don’t understand it. The words are easy to read, but the story isn’t.”
We decide that this book would make a good read aloud for the class. She hands me The Van Gogh Cafe and I reflect on my own reading life, prior to bringing closure to the day’s reading workshop.
While talking with my students I recount a morsel of my reading life, a time when I realized rereading an entire novel could change my thinking. In 8th grade we all had to read Huck Finn. At that moment I wasn’t ready for the book. I read every word, stumbled when Twain spliced in the Missouri vernacular. The text was hard. This turned me and my buddies off from reading classic literature. In high school English we were allowed to pick a classic book to read, so I gave this book another try, and because I had grown as both a person and reader, my second read was enjoyable. In fact it catapulted me into rereading a variety of classics while in the Navy. Then in college I read it for a third time and began to understand Twain’s writing style, metaphors and symbolism. This was a book that my friends and I referred to and talked about, connecting to other literature we were being exposed to and exploring. I still reread parts, and ponder Twain’s meaning.
This tale, now a cornerstone in the effort to encourage students to reread, began a reflective conversation with students. My fifth graders began recalling books: Mick Harte Was Here, Fig Pudding, Loser — all these books looked easy and were small and thin, and they could pronounce all the words, but they felt something was missed during that first read. The kids felt that they could get a lot from a second read. I now refer to this as “second-draft reading” which I adopted after hearing Kelly Gallhager present. He uses this metaphor with his high school students, convincing them that rereading is a powerful strategy.
Second-draft reading, like second- and maybe third-draft writing, is a revisionary process, a building or pruning process. While rereading the reader builds on existing knowledge (schema), adding new insights, focusing thinking, and noticing different details, all leading to new understanding. My fifth graders believe that their older, wiser and maturing thinking helps them dig deeper into texts, feeling a head taller after rereading. As classroom teachers we cannot always be fortunate enough to have an epiphany moment like I had with Abby. So, by rereading aloud a challenging picture book we leave kids scratching their heads. This allows the teacher to show the value of rereading, paying close attention to the author’s words and crafting techniques.
Allen Say’s Home of the Brave is a wonderful text to read aloud to encourage the notion of rereading in the classroom. Say takes the reader on a journey into his past, uncovering parts of his heritage, and at the same time exposing the reader to the concept of Internment Camps, a means for segregating Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. During the first reading of Home of the Brave it is a challenge to get the literal meaning of this text. Students ask for the meaning, and it becomes easy to discuss rereading as a means of unearthing the meaning, especially during a community experience of read aloud. One of the outcomes of these conversations has been students rereading books their fourth grade teachers read aloud. The students want to reread these book as an in-depth book group or literature circle, working together to notice aspects of the text not picked up because the teacher held the text or they were not ready to think about the ideas. In this type of reading situation, my students comment and reflect that their reading is more focused, richer, and by rereading with others they have a new and different perspectives about the text. Students remark that the experience of rereading has helped them pay attention to text features and author’s craft when first reading a text because they have added that type of thinking to their schema and their reading process.
I encourage my students to reread a variety of texts: picture books, poetry, novels and curriculum content materials. Rereading is just a slice of my reading program, a habit of mind I want my students to adopt and use as a tool for thinking. With the wonderful range of children’s literature that exists and is constantly being added to, it is challenging to encourage students to reread familiar books. I ask myself, “Am I teaching for depth or breadth?” I want to teach my students how to dig deep, understanding what they read. Yet at the same time I want my students to explore the wonderful world of literature that they are privileged to sort through. I think back to my own reading. Huck Finn is on my bed stand along with a stack of periodicals, professional reading materials, and novels. The question I want to continue pondering is, “How can rereading help our students understand and enjoy text?”