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Engaging With Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 3-5

Looking at Literature

The teachers in this video program talk about ways in which story affects their lives and the lives of their students. They move on to talk about selecting texts, considering age- and interest-appropriateness, text availability, and other issues. Classroom visits punctuate the discussion, showing practical ways to implement the suggestions the teachers discuss.

“Literature to me has always meant a gateway into a world that has been created by people who have thought deeply about many different issues. It has meant a chance to explore issues…and to try to understand how I can become a better person.”

-Bileni Teklu, 5th-Grade Teacher,
Fair Oaks School,
Marietta, Georgia

Language arts teachers are often those who initially came to the profession because of their own deeply felt love of literature. Novice or maestro, they typically enter their classrooms seeking to transfer that passion to their students.

In this workshop you will listen to eight such teachers, passionate about literature and about conveying that passion to their students. They share their understandings of the deep human and social values literature offers them and their students. They discuss how they choose books to tempt reluctant readers or find ways to fill their classroom shelves with books to appeal to all their students. They discuss the importance of story and suggest ways they use picture books and basal readers in their literature programs.

They recognize that their task is not always easy. Class demographics, mandated curricula, and entrenched pedagogical cultures can present even the most energetic and well-meaning professional with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Still, the mission is intrinsically worthy, and the challenges can be met—as evidenced by the many passionate voices of their students.

Key Points

Literature offers readers opportunities to:

  • gain personal insights and knowledge,
  • broaden their global understandings,
  • appreciate and value differences,
  • explore personal options, develop social awareness, and learn to read and write better.

When choosing texts for students, teachers consider:

  • richness of language
  • thematic significance
  • the interests and needs of their specific student populations
  • the potential for powerful student engagement and rich conversation
  • their own passions for an author or title
  • a particular pedagogical purpose.

Other key points include:

  • A teacher’s passion for literature provides a model for students that opens the way for their own literary enthusiasms.
  • Students often follow the lead of their peers when choosing something to read and are even willing to struggle with difficult texts to experience literature recommended by classmates.
  • It is important for students to have choices and a sense of ownership about what they read.
  • Some students choose thin books because they know they can finish them.
  • Picture books can remain positive choices for students at many reading levels, although less proficient readers are often reluctant to choose them.
  • Teachers often make picture book reading a whole class activity in order to acknowledge their literary value publicly.
  • Effective envisionment-building classrooms offer students a wide range of literature selections that vary in subjects and levels of difficulty.
  • Read-alouds and buddy reading are ways teachers can support less proficient readers who are having difficulty with a particular selection.
  • Teachers can gather many texts on a single topic and make them available for students reading at different levels.
  • Teachers can demonstrate to students the factors that influence their own text selections as they help students become aware of their text selections.
  • Literature helps students learn to make personal connections with fictional characters and themes, enabling their own growth and enriching their understandings of the world.
  • Envisionment-building teachers find creative ways such as second-hand sales, discount stores, and book clubs to enrich their classroom libraries.
  • Professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association provide annotated listings of literature titles to help teachers find appropriate selections for students.
  • Librarians can be extremely helpful when teachers are seeking titles on a particular topic or to suit a particular group of students.
  • The Internet is an excellent source of materials and suggestions for both students and teachers.
  • The appreciation of story—both their own and those they encounter in literature—is a central factor in students’ literary development.
  • Basal texts can be used effectively in envisionment—building classrooms.
  • Read-alouds allow teachers to share their own passions about literature while introducing particular themes or new authors as a background for classroom conversations.
  • Read-alouds also help teachers engage reluctant readers and create a community of readers.
  • Teachers can help students value reading a book more than once.
  • Helping students learn to love literature may be the most important goal in an envisionment-building classroom.

Learning Objectives & Background Reading

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Identify a number of ways in which literary encounters enrich human lives.
  • Apply a range of criteria for choosing texts appropriate for an individual student or for an entire class.
  • Determine several additional sources of literature to develop your classroom library.
  • Consider ways in which to incorporate students’ stories into your literature instruction.
  • Effectively integrate picture books and basal readers into your literature program.
  • Include read alouds as an integral part of your literature program.

In preparation for Workshop 2, read “Literary Thought and Literate Mind” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement’s Web site.

Explore the “Envisionment-Building resources” to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.


Respond to the following in your journal:

How might you give your students a greater sense of ownership of what they read?
What additional strategies might you incorporate into your literature program to enhance student engagement?

In preparation for Workshop session 3, read “Building Envisionments” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

For additional resources, refer to the Additional Reading section of this workshop session’s materials.



Classroom Connection

Student Activities

Try these activities with your students.

  • Have students choose a book and a partner with whom to read together. Refer to the Book Buddy Reading Guide (PDF) for help organizing this project.
  • Do a series of book talks in which you describe 6-10 different titles. Ask the class to choose one for the next read-aloud.
  • Offer students a choice of 4-5 titles and have them read and discuss the title of their choice in book clubs groups. You may want to use Choosing a Good Book: Modeling Text Choices (PDF) if students need help learning how to make good choices.
  • Assemble a number of picture books on a similar theme or by the same author. Have students spend several days reading them, independently or with a buddy. In groups of 4-5 students, have them prepare a report for the class on their experiences as readers. You may want to use some of the discussion activities from Appreciating Stories (PDF)to prepare students for this activity.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Make a list of ways in which you might share your appreciation of literature with your students, and ways in which they might share their enjoyment with one another.


Additional Reading

American Library Association’s Great Sites
Booklists and an excellent list of screened Web sites provide a helpful starting place for teacher inquiry into children’s literature.

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site
This site offers reviews of great books for kids, ideas of ways to use them in the classroom and collections of books and activities about particular subjects, curriculum areas, themes and professional topics.

Newbery Medal Homepage
This site lists all the Newbery winners and authors as well as providing information about the selection process.

This non-profit site collects booklists, authors, reviews, and “must reads.” The children’s literature section of the site features a wide variety of links and author lists.

PBS TeacherSource
This site offers lists of recommended books as well as lesson plans and activities for teachers.

Sites Directly Related to This Workshop Discussion:

Melba Pattillo’s story of The Little Rock Nine
This Web site tells the story of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1955.

Mem Fox
Author Mem Fox’s site offers information about the author and her books as well as audio readings of selected texts by the author.

Patricia Polacco
In addition to offering information about the author and her books, this site has a section for teachers interested in using her books in the classroom.

Professional Journals About Literature Instruction:

CELA Newsletter
The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, State University of New York, Albany, publishes a newsletter in the fall, winter, and spring. The newsletter addresses a wide range of issues concerning literacy.

The National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE publishes many subscription journals including Language Arts for the elementary school level. Many are available on-line to members.

The International Reading Association
The Reading Teacher from the International Reading Association typically includes excellent articles about literature instruction as well as regular reviews of new children’s literature titles.

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

Sounder by William Howard Armstrong
The Big Bike Race by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Grossology: The Science of Really Gross Things by Sylvia Branzei
The Wall by Eve Bunting
“Get Help Now” in Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul, edited by Jack Canfield et al.
Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary
The Jacket by Andrew Clements
Counting on Frank by Rod Clements
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
The Half A Moon Inn by Paul Fleischman
The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Floranoy
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
Just Juice by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Color of Words by Lynn Joseph
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
Hatchet by Gary Paulson
Nightjohn by Gary Paulson
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
“A Good Cry” and “Things” in Hey You! C’Mere: A Poetry Slam by Elizabeth Swados
Blitz Cat by Robert Westall
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima
Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep
Dragonwings by Laurence Yep
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Series books mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

The Tribes of Redwall series by Brian Jacques
The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Magic Schoolbus series by Ann Schreiber
The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine