The Life of Bon: How to be a Better Fiction Reader

Monday, August 17, 2015

How to be a Better Fiction Reader

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Guess what I have learned in my five years of teaching?  Most high schoolers are not very good at paying attention while they read.  I can't tell you the number of times a student has told me that he or she read every page assigned and then got a zero on the quiz.  I think it is harder than ever for kids to concentrate while they read, and I don't really blame them.  We live in a world that has not trained us to do big chunks of reading, that has not trained us to focus.  Pinterest and instagram cater to pictures only, twitter can only be 160 characters max, and facebook will cut off your status if you go too long. Like my college professor used to say, we have no "reading stamina."  There isn't a lot in this world that is helping students learn how to digest big amounts of reading, and consequently kids have a hard time understanding what they read.  In order to help my students focus while they read, I have them do annotations on every novel. (Basically a big word for take notes.)  

At the beginning of the year I have students buy two packs of Post-it® Notes - a 1x1 four pack and a four pack of page markers.  Each four pack must have four different colors- green, orange, blue and pink, to represent four different things we will be looking for.  I have only been doing this system for a year, but it seriously amazed me how much more the students understood and retained from their reading by doing these annotations.  This year I am making it a requirement for all of my AP students to do my annotation system.  I think it is a valuable way for anyone to get more out of their reading, so I will share it with you... whether you use it for your own students, your own personal benefit, or for the benefit of a son or daughter who's in school.  I present to you... QTiPS

Like I mentioned, students buy two different sizes of notes... this is so that they can write more on the bigger Post-it® Notes if needed; the smaller Post-it notes are for quick and easy reference. I then tell them they will be looking QTiPS in their reading- important Quotes, Themes, People, and Symbols.  As they read and they come across any of those four things, they mark it with the corresponding color.  I'll show you some examples of how I do it in class using the first book I'll be reading with my AP class this year and one of my personal favorites, Lord of the Flies.

1.    Identify important Quotes (green):  Students must learn to find quotes that are especially significant, that foreshadow, that reveal character traits, etc.  At first it is hard for students to learn to pick out quotes that are important, but as they go it gets easier and easier.  On our first novel that we all read together I help them and give them lots of clues so that in no time they can find those quotes on their own.  In Lord of the Flies, we marked the quote "He was batty.  He asked for it" toward the end of the novel.  This is referring to a main character who the boys murder.  The quote is important because it shows the full effect of the island on the boys, that they so easily justify their heinous act.

2.  Identify the Themes (blue):  All great literature has a multitude of themes, and the themes manifest themselves over and over throughout the book.  I have students trace the themes as they read.  In Lord of the Flies the desire for power, the inherent evil or good nature of man, and the loss of civility are all huge themes.  I have students take note where the themes occur and reoccur.  This was very interesting to me last year because students would start to find themes within the novel that I had never even noticed.  When the students are teaching me is when I know they're really digging deep.  Those are my proudest teaching moments.

3.  Take notes about the People (pink)I have students make observations about characters as they go- what characteristics they notice, what the strengths and weaknesses of the characters are, and definitely any time they see a shift in character.  (That's a big one- it usually means the author is up to something!)  The main characters are obviously very important to annotate, but I always tell students to be aware of the power of minor characters.  Piggy, Jack, and Ralph are the main characters in Lord of the Flies who are obviously important but Simon and then later Roger are crucial to the plot, too.  I'm always really proud when students read the clues and can tell early on what "minor characters" will end up having major effects.

4.  Pay attention to possible Symbols (orange).   Lord of the Flies is rife with symbols- the conch, the glasses, the fire, the islandSymbols are something that students easily miss if they aren't actively looking for them.  Once they understand they symbols and their importance they are really able to analyze and think about the book on a deeper level.

The beauty of this system is that after we are done reading the book, the students have the perfect way to study for their test.  They go over their little Post-it® Notes and then they are good to go for the test day.  And for my AP students it is especially awesome to prepare for the big AP test at the end of the year.  At the end of each novel I have my students take out all their notes according to color and stick them on their notebooks.  They put QUOTES at the top of the page and then put all of their green Post-it® Notes on the following pages, next they put THEMES and that's where are their blue Post-it® Notes go, etc.  That way they have their notes for the whole year.  Also, there are a million and one things I could have students look for when they read, but I find that four is a good amount.  It keeps them busy without overwhelming them.  Any more than four and I think it would be too hard for students to remember what they're looking for, any less and I think they would miss important parts in the book.

I found my Post-it® Notes at Walmart in the Back-to-School seasonal area right at the front of the store.  You can also find the products in the stationary section.  

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