Writer and literacy consultant Mike reveals innovative writing techniques that have been most effective in engaging students in his children’s books.
Mike has many years of valuable experience in the literacy world, having written several award-winning children’s books, teaching in schools in South Australia and New York City schools as well as spending time as a Literacy Curriculum Officer for the South Australian Education Department.
On episode 20 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, he delved into many of his popular picture books with literacy expert Sharon Callen, and explained some of the key innovative techniques that have enthralled students in the classroom, especially during Read Alouds.
Firstly, through his picture book Cat, Mike explained how sometimes ‘less is more’.
“It was a very simple idea of just inverting or reversing words. So when it starts off, it says ‘Cat, Dog. Dog, Cat’. Now, just that inversion, if you say ‘cat’ first and then ‘dog’, the implication is the cat has seen the dog. That’s not a big problem, because the cat will just go the other way and move away from the dog. But if you then say dog first, it’s all on, and basically the chase is going to ensue. But there’s a lot of inferring happens on the previous page as to what the reversal of words,” Mike said.
Sharon added: “I have used that book with students. It is absolutely embedded in my mind, the faces of students as once they know what’s going on here, when they’ve worked it out, it’s just that savouring of what’s going to come next. So it’s wonderful, very few words, but the power of them”.
Mike also explained that illustrations are just as powerful in telling a story and allowing students to deeply think about literature.
“There are some things that aren’t in the words, because there was a bike in the story and the cat is distracted. He’s looking at some fish. There’s no mention of that, it’s just in the pictures. But I’ll say to them, ‘why didn’t the cat notice that this child on a bike was coming towards him?’ And then they’ll point out that he likes fish and they thought he’d perhaps got a meal there, and that was enough to sort of take his attention away,” he said.
“So there are lots of opportunities to do things, and it just shows them that you can get a narrative without having to write lots and lots and lots necessarily.”
Mike went on to discuss his book Digger, which commemorates the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day, 1918. He particularly explained the need to (where necessary) prepare an introduction before reading and ensure your students fully understand the topic.
“It’s one of the books where I can’t just talk about the cover and then move on. I show some slides and things like that to make sure the kids are aware of what trenches are, because if you say ‘Digger’, and then you say ‘trench’, you’ve suddenly got a machine digging up the road. But this is not what it was in the First World War. It has a very different meaning,” he said.
“So I make sure all the kids understand the context and we talk a little bit about it and show them some slides and then some of the more, well, the nicer things as much as often, such as how the trenches were named after places in Adelaide or streets that they knew.”
He also said it’s important to not shy away from these confronting topics with young children and to still strive to make these connections.
“It’s really good to just a strong connection there with a serious subject, but in a way that’s accessible for younger kids,” he said.
“I think it represents a platform, because there are obviously other books and there are longer books and books with fewer illustrations that people can move on to. But this makes it very immediate, as you can see them in the trenches.”
Sharon added: “As generations, we lose some of that story, I think it’s important for this awareness raising that’s continued that we bring to students in an accessible way so that they understand not only the heritage of what’s happened for and between countries, but what that means”.
But literacy learning and Read Alouds are so much more than just listening to the teacher. That’s why Mike’s more recent picture book Jump and Shout is a fantastic example of engaging students through verbs and physical actions.
“So clap, cheer, walk, run, jump, climb, reach, monkey bars, sit, swing towards the stars. Now it keeps going like this, but I found very early on that you could actually coach people in what was coming up,” Mike revealed.
“Any age, you’d say, ‘okay, I want you to do these things, clap … Do it together. And then jump and shout …’ I tell them to remain on their backsides, but just move up and down a bit and wave their hands and things like that. And they can cheer from those positions.
“So I get them to do the actions, and they love it. And we go through the whole book with them doing the actions and some of the sounds that turn up later on. And there’s a section where it says something a time to eat, and then it says slurp, and we practice the slurp …’
“Someone I used to teach with a long time ago sent me a video, it was of a young child acting out everything, but his sister was reading the book, and he did the whole book and just enacted the whole thing. So we had someone who could obviously read the book and he’s acting everything out, and you can do that kind of thing.”
Sharon added: “And the response with that is certainly engaging … that lovely exploration of words, just by introducing words like ‘slurp’, you know, language should be fun. [It’s about] having fun with it and really being able to use it to describe the things that we do every day.”