How to use high quality books to support student writing

How to use high quality books to support student writing

Author Mike Dumbleton says different books can be used by teachers to support student reading and writing.

Providing students the chance to engage with quality books is key to building their own writing skills, whether it’s for developing stories, adapting and experimenting with texts or identifying techniques like repetition.

On Episode 82 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy, literacy expert Sharon Callen was joined by author Mike Dumbleton, who talked about how his latest books can be used by students for their own writing.

Sharon, who works with coaches and teachers in literacy learning all over Australia, said engaging with quality books is key.

“The important thing is that students have this opportunity to feel like they are sitting with an author when they have got a book in their hands,” Sharon said.

“And that they have this experience and they can recognise well-crafted writing, and discover what the author is doing that makes the writing good and explore it and try it out in their own writing. And that’s why we bring great writers in like Mike, because it’s the well-crafted text, it’s the thought, and it’s the time and energy that goes into the process.

“And when you get the kids writing, you want them doing different things. So to switch from something serious, to something comical, to something that’s personal, all those kinds of things are always good.”

Drawing on experiences

Using books like Anisa’s Alphabet – a story about Anisa’s journey from a war-torn country to a refugee camp to an overcrowded boat – can be powerful in allowing students to draw on their own experiences, which can then be brought into their writing.

“If I just read a couple of pages from it – A is for Anisa, B is for Bombs … C is for Carrying all that we have … D is for Danger … E is for Endlessly having to hide … F is for Fear … So there’s a lot to take in,” Mike said.

“It says Anisa’s Alphabet, and we know it’s about refugees, but the concept of refugees is in front of us, day in, day out, and it’s not necessarily restricted to war situations. Around the time the book came out, we had massive fires here in Australia and there were people who refugees from their own homes, and the fire was such that people were forced down to the beaches and boats and ships were sent in to evacuate them from the beaches. And more recently we’ve had the evacuations in the floods. So you’ve had people who’ve been refugees from their homes and their communities as a result of those things.

“So then one of the things at one of the presentations I did was I said to the kids, well, it says Anisa’s Alphabet, but my name’s Mike and it could be Mike’s Alphabet. If you’ve been in a situation that’s like this, it could be your alphabet.”

Developing your own stories

One effective technique that can be used with Anisa’s Alphabet is allowing students to write a narrative version of this poem.

“I knew a teacher who got the book and she asked the students to write a prose version of the poem to unpack the poem, to look at the pictures closely and see all the things. If you start to write it as a prose version, there’s lots that you can draw out from the text and illustrations. So I think that’s a great exercise to transpose it. It shows that kids have got the concepts and they’ve got the ideas,” Mike said.

“And from there, there are similar stories that students can write based on other situations like the flooding or fire events, which includes people and animals moving out. So you can develop your own stories around that.”

Sharon added: “It is about having a response and it’s about being able to work with high quality literature to be able to do that examining, thinking, building ideas and making connections. I think we, as the reader, then can really honour the work, the writer and the illustrator, who have brought together lots of research for choosing the right words, getting those sentences into powerful sounding sentences, and putting that punctuation in the exact right spot to get the meaning that we’re after.”

Adapting and experimenting with texts

Comical books like Mary Had A Monstersaur are useful in exploring parodies, provides a starting point for students to adapt and experiment with texts.

“So now we’re in the sort of nonsense, fictitious, imaginative area of kids’ literature. And this book in particular is a parody of Mary Had a Little Lamb, and that opens up the ability to do different versions or modern versions of any number of nursery rhymes and familiar poems, including Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muffet or Incy Wincy Spider. There’s lots of places they can go to get a starting point, which is always tricky from my point of view, and it’s good because you can always go back to the original and look at what happened there, and then change it from there,” Mike said.

“So there’s an immediate chance for kids to do the same thing – to choose something they think they can write differently and present in a more modern way. And it’s a good one for teachers to connect with that experimenting and adapting and creating literature part of the Australian curriculum.”

Understanding repetition and pace

Let The Singing Begin is a book based on research from Flinders University which looks at Fairy Wrens, how they build their nests, lay their eggs and sing to their eggs, much like a woman speaking to her baby while in the womb.

This particular text can be used to explore the construction of sentences and how pace is created.

“So this book you can tell has a very different pace to that of the other texts. This is a quieter narrative, and kids can do a similar thing with any animal you care to choose. And there are small things that contribute, like the length of the sentences ‘Piece by piece. Hour by hour,” Mike said.

“And Let the Singing Begin is in prose. So it hasn’t got rhyming because I think it could’ve trivialised it, but it was fine with the short, understated sentences, but with some definite information.”

Mike also explored the power of repetition, especially when used in the right context.

“So we have the word ‘here’, which is written three times in the sentence ‘Here she was hidden, here she was safe, and here she laid her eggs’. There are a lot of times when you’re talking to students and you tell them not to repeat the same word that rapidly, but it works in different contexts for effect. It’s deliberate repetition, and people refer to it sometimes as the rule of three. Including two ‘heres’ doesn’t have have the emphasis or the feel, and four is too many and just destroys it. So three is a great option for those repetitive phrases,” he explained.

Find out more on Episode 82 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy below and subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

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