A couple months ago, a handyman came by to give us an estimate on some jobs. Somewhere in the middle of that, I learned that he had a daughter in fourth grade so I mentioned that I had taught fourth grade for several years. I asked him how she was liking it, since well, I loved it… and then I heard it all. His frustrations with the grade level. His frustrations with his child’s teacher and the new Common Core standards. How upsetting it was to suddenly hear that his daughter– who was doing just fine last year– was suddenly performing and reading below grade level. The teacher blamed it on the new Common Core standards, and he didn’t know who to blame it on. He was just frustrated.
This is a common thing I’ve heard from parents– “What do you mean my child is behind? He was doing just fine last year! His state test scores were just fine!” Maybe they don’t phrase it quite like that, but I can hear the alarm and disbelief in their voices. If their child performed decently on state tests, that must mean they’re getting it, right?
I’m afraid not. It’s not that simple. Reading fluency and comprehension doesn’t boil down to answering a few multiple choice questions about a passage. Good readers are engaging in a number of reading strategies all the time when they’re reading, considering questions far beyond Who is the main character? and Who won the race? Good readers don’t just answer questions while reading– they ask them. They consider their existing knowledge on the subject, and they are aware when they aren’t understanding the text well. In my current series, I am sharing reading strategies that we teach at school in the Reader’s Workshop to help students deepen their reading comprehension skills.
Today, I will share one of the most accessible strategies: making connections. This is the one nearly universal strategy that nearly every reader is already doing in some way, so it’s one of the easiest to teach. This is also one of the most effective in helping readers remember what they read, because when you can connect new material to existing knowledge, you are much more apt to remember it, as I described in this post. Making connections is exactly what it sounds like: you read something, and consider how it is connected to something else you know about.
The goal of making connections is to help kids attach new text they read to things they already know about. They can use that pre-existing knowledge to help them remember the new material they come across. This strategy makes texts more meaningful to readers, and it also makes texts easier to understand. This is usually an easy and enjoyable strategy for children to practice and use. When we talk with students about the reading strategy of making connections, we usually break it down into three types of connections: text-to-self connections, text-to-text connections, and text-to-world connections.
This is when you read something and can relate to it personally. When I read Jumanji to my students, there are all sorts of text-to-self connections I can model for them:
Me: Good readers make connections when they read. One way to make connections is to think about ways the text reminds you of something in your own life! I’m going to read Jumanji and show you how I make connections from this story to my own life.
“Now remember,” Mother said, “your father and I are bringing some guests by after the opera, so please keep the house neat.”
“Quite so,” added Father, tucking his scarf inside his coat.
Mother peered into the hall mirror and carefully pinned her hat in place, then knelt and kissed both children good-bye.
When the front door closed, Judy and Peter giggled with delight. They took all the toys out of their toy chest and made a terrible mess. But their laughter slowly turned to silence till finally Peter slouched into a chair.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m really bored.”
“Me too,” sighed Judy. “Why don’t we go outside and play?”
Whew! Already, I can think of ways this story reminds me of my own life. This reminds me of when I was a kid, and my parents would let me and my brother stay home by ourselves. We would also get really bored and have to find ways to entertain ourselves! I bet some of you have felt boredom before too, right? So you can relate to this part of the story. I also have a connection with the parents. I haven’t gone to the opera before, but I’ve gotten dressed up to see shows before, and I think that’s kind of similar. Let’s keep reading.
Peter agreed, so they set off across the street to the park. It was cold for November. The children could see their breath like steam.
I have another connection! My brother and I used to play outside across the street, too. There wasn’t a park, but there were parking spaces that were usually empty because they were reserved for guests. We would throw footballs and play games there, so it was almost as good as a park. Also, I have a connection to how cold it was. The book says “The children could see their breath like steam.” Just this morning, it was so cold that I could see my breath this morning during recess! I bet some of you have experienced that, too!
I would probably model making one or two more connections before inviting the children to share their own connections with the text. Pretty straightforward, right?
This one is similar to text-to-self connections, but instead of connecting it to your own life, you connect it to anything else you’ve ever read. This can include other books, newspapers, magazines, pieces from the Internet, and even television. I figure television makes its way on this list because at some point, someone probably wrote a script for it so it’s text… somewhere. (If you’re not buying that argument for TV, that’s fine– just consider TV part of the “world” part of text-to-world connections, in the next section).
Normally, I would do text-to-text connections as a completely different lesson, separate from (and after) text-to-self connections. I’ll use a different text here since this is a slightly different strategy and technically a different lesson. Here’s another one of my all-time Chris Van Allsburg favorites: The Wreck of the Zephyr
Let’s go ahead and pretend I already modeled the strategy, so now we are at the “shared practice” phase of the lesson:
Me: As I continue reading, I’d like to hear your text-to-text connections. Raise your hand when something reminds you of something you’ve ever read in another book, seen in a movie or on TV, or come across in any other text.
Once, while traveling along the seashore, I stopped at a small fishing village. After eating lunch, I decided to take a walk. I followed a path out of the village, uphill to some cliffs high above the sea. At the edge of these cliffs was a most unusual sight– the wreck of a small sailboat.
Yes, Dusty, do you have a text-to-text connection?
Student: Yeah! We just read the other book about boats– The Wretched Stone– and that one had boats and a wreck, too!
Me: You’re right! The other Chris Van Allsburg book we read recently has a boat and it gets wrecked. Great text to text connection. Yes, Valerie?
Student: Last night my dad and I watched something on TV about people who went fishing on a boat and they never came back. Maybe they had a wreck, too!
Me: Ooh, sounds mysterious. Yes, more boats and more possible shipwrecks. Great text-to-text connections. Yes, one more?
Student: One of the games we play on the Internet has a scene where you look for treasures in a sunken ship. The wrecked sailboat reminds me of that game.
Me: Ooh, so you have a visual idea of what a wrecked sailboat might look like because you’ve seen it in the Internet before, right? Nice connection. Okay, I’m going to keep reading.
We would continue in this fashion, with students making text-to-text connections until I felt they had a pretty good understanding of it before moving on to independent work. The main thing is to have them think about and point out the other texts that this one is reminding them of. While I accept TV and Internet image connections like the ones given in the example above, I much prefer when students connect the text with another book or actual written text they’ve seen. But for the first time introducing the concept, I’ll accept images they’ve seen in TV or print.
This is starting to lay foundations for compare and contrast work that students will do a lot more of in the future when reading books and writing essays, too. However, at this point, don’t be surprised if a lot of students accidently drop in text-to-self connections. When that happens, I just point out that they are text-to-self (and not text-to-text) connections before moving on.
I think of text-to-world connections as the catch-all for pretty much anything else that doesn’t fit into the first two sections (text-to-self and text-to-text). Here, readers consider ways the text reminds them of anything in the world. Chris Van Allsburg’s Just a Dream is a good text to use for this one, because it also allows for good conversation about bigger environmental issues going on in our world. Again, I’ll pretend I already modeled the text-to-world connection strategy, so we’ve moved on to “shared practice:”
Me: As I read this next section, I want you to share ways that the text reminds you of anything in the world.
Walter went to bed wishing he lived in the future. He couldn’t wait to have his own tiny plane, a robot to take out the trash, and a machine that could make jelly doughnuts by the thousands. When he fell asleep, his wish came true. That night, Walter’s bed traveled to… the future.
Does this remind any of you of anything in the world?
Student: My uncle is building his own plane!! He’s already in the future!
Me: Oooh what a great connection! Lots of people in the world DO already have their own planes, don’t they? Good text-to-world connection.
Student: I saw a robot vacuum at the store that will do the vacuuming for you! It’s kind of like having a robot take out the trash.
Me: Great text-to-world connection! Yes, those do exist! Okay, let me keep reading.
Walter peered over the edge of his bed, which was caught in the branches of a tall tree. Down below, he could see two men carrying a large saw…
“You must need this tree for something important,” Walter called down.
“Oh yes,” they said, “very important.” Then Walter noticed lettering on the woodcutters’ jackets. He could just make out the words: QUALITY TOOTHPICK COMPANY. Walter sighed and slid back under the blankets.
Student: They’re cutting down the tree for toothpicks! People are killing trees of no good reason all the time in the world. People use too many paper towels and paper and don’t recycle and all of that means we lose more trees.
Me: Yes, this text does make you think of all the paper waste that happens in the world, right?
Student: On Arbor day last year they gave us baby trees to plant. This reminds me of how people in the world still try to plant trees to make up for the ones we cut down.
Me: Ah, good point. That is a good connection– a text-to-self and text-to-world connection on cutting and planting more trees!
This particular book lends itself to environmental issues in the world, so it’s a great text to use to help kids connect texts with the other issues they’ve heard about.
Almost anything in any book can be connected to yourself, another text you’ve read, or something in the world. I mean, the world. That’s kind of an easy one, right? The point isn’t to make it hard, but to help kids see that they already have knowledge on a lot of topics and that this pre-existing knowledge can help them remember the new texts they are reading. It makes texts more meaningful to readers, and it also makes it easier to understand. This simple strategy can make a big difference, so try articulating it with your reading child today and see what kinds of connections they can make while reading!