Active Reading

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

For years I used to tutor high school students, teaching them how to recognize the elements of a good piece of writing and to duplicate it in their own work. Recently, a friend of mine, who now teaches third grade, asked me about strategies to help her much younger students do the same. Now, third grade is a different ball of wax than high school, where you expect that kids mostly have the basics down. But over the years, I’ve found that even in high school, not all kids do have the basics, and so it helps to understand how to develop writing skills from the ground up. There’s grammar and spelling, of course, but writing is more than mechanics, it’s also organization, a thinking skill that requires you to put ideas in an order that makes sense. And while I’ve often found that teachers excel at teaching mechanics, many struggle nearly as much as the rest of the world does with structure. It’s just so murky, isn’t it? What is it, anyway? The order of the sentences? Of the paragraphs? And does that really matter, after all? Isn’t it style that makes a good piece of writing? Or beautiful sentences?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I’m the last person to think style doesn’t matter. And beautiful sentences make my day. But the truth is, without a sound structure, a piece of writing fails, no matter how beautiful its sentences. After all, you’re trying to tell a story, and stories do have a shape, in the end. So turns out structure isn’t really that murky, if you actually know what it is. Even young kids are great at spotting the elements of a good story if they have a bit of a lesson in how stories work. And the best way to show them that, I think, is to illustrate how stories work for them. So when my friend asked me for advice, the first thing I told her was to teach her students to be active readers.

You often hear people say that if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read a lot. That’s true, but it’s more than just reading. The best writing lessons come out of thinking about what the writer is doing, how the story works. My friend went back to class and told her students that stories make us ask questions we want to see answered; they make us curious, and give us a reason to keep reading, so that we can get our questions answered. The writer’s job is to make us ask the right questions. She then began reading the wonderful story Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, to her third grade. (Fun fact – this book was banned in some places because in its animal world, the pigs were the policemen.) Immediately, the kids began to be aware of their questions, and to articulate them. Sylvester is turned into a stone! What’s going to happen to him? How will his parents react? Will anyone find him? Will he be a big rock forever? Now, William Steig is doing what great writers always do — filling his readers with the urgent need to get the answers to questions they never thought of before they opened his book. I mean, really, how often do kids go around thinking about the fate of a donkey turned into a rock? And so they keep turning pages until they get a satisfactory answer to what’s going to happen to poor Sylvester.

What’s wonderful about this process is that though readers always do have questions about what’s happening next, a character’s motivations, and the like, they rarely articulate these, and so don’t get the benefit of realizing that questions are exactly what drive a reader to read. Understanding that, though, is the key to writing anything someone else will want to read.

A side benefit of this technique is that the entire third grade got excited and involved in the daily reading. Next step will be to see if they can start to produce questions of their own to explore in writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.