Tara and her husband both love to read, but they choose their books in different ways. Tara likes to choose books by authors she knows well and that friends recommend. Even after that, she’ll pick up a book and flip through it, reading the back cover before deciding if it’s the right choice for her.
Her husband likes to get recommendations too, but he wants them to be To. The. Point. Tell him if this book is worth reading. If it is, he’ll read it. But don’t tell him anything about it. He won’t even read the back cover for fear it will give something away that he’d prefer to discover all for himself. You won’t be surprised to learn that he also doesn’t like movie trailers.
Although we could never choose a book with that process, we can appreciate his method. How exciting to begin a journey with no idea where you’re headed. Starting a new journey can be exciting but also a little scary.
In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton discuss the journey that readers take when they begin a new book and how they are expected to construct meaning right from the very beginning. They discuss a tool to help readers construct this meaning that made us think about the way Tara’s husband chooses books. The tool is a chart that we’ve been calling Know/Wonder.
Here’s the premise behind their thinking: When we begin a book, we are thrown into a world that has been created by the author. This is the part Tara’s husband loves. He wants to discover everything on his own.
But here is where some of our readers start to unravel. Although the thrill of discovery can be exciting, it can also be intimidating and frustrating to feel lost in the pages of a book. There’s a lot thrown at readers in those first couple of chapters, and much to be figured out.
We often have reading conferences with readers who express confusion at the start of a book. They try rereading because they’ve been taught to do so as a strategy, but you can’t reread for details that haven’t yet been revealed. Sometimes, you just need to hold on to your confusion and know that the writer will clear it up for you if you continue.
Think of the books that you’ve read. This is almost always true. We immediately need to start figuring things out: Who’s telling this story? A male or a female? Where are they? Who’s important, and what are they like? And so on.
So, we give book introductions that simplify the figuring out. We give guiding questions that help students know what’s important to stop and think about. And these can be good, supportive things for readers.
But if we are always telling students, we’re taking away the opportunity for them to figure it out by themselves. And figuring it out is valuable work.
In seventh grade, we launch our historical fiction unit with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Although it isn’t technically a piece of historical fiction, we’ve found it to be an engaging dive into this time period as our whole-class read, pairing well with the nonfiction articles we read alongside it.
Instead of giving a detailed introduction to a small group of striving readers, we decided to try to let readers construct meaning as they read—in other words, let them do the figuring-out work right from the very beginning.
We started by displaying a previously made chart on things readers think about at the beginning of a book and reading the first page. When we got to a good stopping point, we paused to ask, “What do we know, and what are we wondering?”
Title: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
What we know:
What we wonder:
After reading a few lines, Sam glanced at the chart and said, “Well, we know that the character is a little kid, but he’s not the one telling the story.”
“So a narrator is telling the story in third person,” I said. “How do you know?”
Asking how you know is important. It pushes students to explain their thinking and support it with text evidence. It also pushes them to change their “know” to a “wonder” when there isn’t sufficient evidence to support it.
Sam looked back to the text and pointed to the use of pronouns. He saw a he and didn’t see any I’s, telling him that the story was being told about someone by someone else.
We continued reading about Bruno packing to leave his house and board a train, and neither he nor his mother seeming very happy about it.
“Oh, no,” James said. “I think I know what’s happening. I remember that assembly where the woman told us that the Nazis lied about where the Jewish people were going, and they packed their bags thinking that they were going to a good place. Bruno must be Jewish and he’s going to a concentration camp but doesn’t know it.”
“Do you know that, or are you wondering if that is true?” I asked.
James looked back at the text and realized he didn’t know that for sure. “I guess I’m wondering, but I have a bad feeling,” he replied.
We added this to the wonder side of our chart and continued reading, with one of our purposes being to look for confirmation that this was true.
Soon afterward, students discovered some other details that helped them revise this theory, and we drew some arrows to connect what we had previously wondered about to the new details that helped us know. We continued on this way throughout the first few chapters and worked our way from not knowing anything to knowing a lot. More importantly, we had a way to track our thinking in a way that let readers know that we’re supposed to have questions and that if we’re patient, the writer will help to answer our questions.