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Engaging with Literature: A Video Library, Grades 3-5

Responding to Literature

Rich Thompson works with a small student group as they explore the text Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. Mr. Thompson becomes an active participant in their discussion, modeling ways in which students can take more active roles in classroom discussion through preparation, turn-taking, receptiveness to alternate views, posing (and trying to answer) authentic questions, and a willingness to accept ambiguity.

“I see my role in two ways. One is as a reader, responding just like the kids while having a watchful ear on how their reading and thinking are going and how they are growing through the story and learning. [While] I’m helping kids make connections, at the same time I want to be involved in that reading and thinking process myself in a natural way. I don’t want to come up with a ‘teacher question’… I want to show my own reactions and my own responses as a reader…”

Rich Thompson, 4th-Grade Teacher
Canyon Elementary School
Hungry Horse, Montana

Not every class is ready for independent participation in literature discussion groups. Assessing the needs of their particular student populations, some teachers find that taking a role as an active participant in literature discussions can help students learn some of the important components of good discussions: preparation, turn-taking, receptiveness to alternate views, posing (and trying to answer) authentic questions, and a willingness to accept ambiguity.

About This Video

In this video, you will see Rich Thompson working with a small group in this fashion. The discussion you see is only one small aspect of literature study in Mr. Thompson’s classroom. Typically such discussions are prefaced by a full-class read-aloud of a book other than the ones students are working on in their individual groups. Mr. Thompson customarily uses the whole-class meeting to introduce a focus lesson that has to do with the development of what he labels “Critical Reader Thoughts” — in-depth or alternative ways to think about their reading. Students are encouraged to apply these lessons to the independent reading they discuss in small groups.

As students discuss the text in their literature groups, Mr. Thompson poses questions and helps them expand their answers. He reminds them of comments they made during previous discussions, and helps them connect those observations to their developing envisionments of the text. At the end of the session, he helps them reflect on their discussion processes, praising the thoughtfulness of their readings and their response logs and pointing out the effective discussion strategies they employed. Literature discussion group time is customarily followed by half an hour of independent reading. Mr. Thompson uses this time to meet with individual students.

As you watch the video, note how Mr. Thompson assumes the role of engaged reader, and how he uses the discussion not only to support student contributions, but to model additional ways they might approach the literature.

For resources that can help you use this clip for teacher professional development, preservice education, administrative and English/language arts content meetings, parent conferences, and back-to-school events, visit our Support Materials page. There you will find PDF files of our library guide, classroom lesson plan, student activity sheets, and other Teacher Tools.

Featured Texts

Rich Thompson tries to find books for his students that will engage them as readers while offering them windows into the lives and experiences of people different from themselves. Because his students come to him with a wide range of abilities as readers, he also needs to find a variety of books that are accessible to weaker readers and challenging to stronger readers. While this particular group discussion focuses on Because of Winn-Dixie, the following selections were those from which students could have chosen for literature discussion.

Sounder by William Howard Armstrong

This Newbery Award-winning novel portrays the lives of a family of poor southern sharecroppers. To feed his family, the father resorts to stealing food and is hauled off to jail for stealing a hog. During his capture, Sounder, a coon dog that the man has raised since he was a pup, is shot and disappears, reappearing later tattered and emaciated. The son is forced to take on a man’s work to help support the family. He searches for his father who has been sent to do hard labor, eventually finding him. After being maimed in an accident, the father eventually returns before he dies.

Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

Tom is unhappy when he is sent to spend the summer with his Uncle Fred and Aunt Millie on their farm. After his arrival, a fox begins eating the chickens. Instead of killing the young animal after its capture, they lock it in the shed, raising it as a pet. By the end of the summer, Tom has acclimated to life on the farm, and finds himself sorry when he has to leave.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Ten-year-old India Opal Buloni has recently moved to Naomi, Florida with her father, a preacher. Because of Winn-Dixie, the big, ugly, friendly dog she adopts at the grocery store, she makes new friends among the unusual residents of her new hometown and learns about the mother who left the family when she was only three.

Just Juice by Karen Hesse

School lessons are a mystery to nine-year-old Juice who simply cannot manage to understand letters and reading although she likes to explore and learn and has a talent as an apprentice metalworker in her Pa’s makeshift shop. In spite of her family’s persuasions, Juice avoids school as often as possible, choosing instead to work with her father who has been laid off from his work at the mine. Pa keeps it a secret that he can’t read either, and because he can’t deal with the official papers regarding past-due taxes, the family could lose their house. When her diabetic mother gives birth, Juice is the only one home. She forces herself to read the sugar monitor, does so properly, and saves her mother’s life.

Pigs Might Fly by Dick King-Smith

Daggie Dogfoot is in danger because he is the runt of the litter and the Pigman is coming to get him. He runs away and decides to learn how to fly. Instead, he learns how to swim when he leaps off a cliff-a talent he uses to save the entire farm.

You can access additional resources related to this video clip’s text in the Additional Resources section.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Canyon Elementary School
Location: Hungry Horse, Montana
No. of Students in School: 250
Teacher: Rich Thompson
No. of Years Teaching: 27
Grade: 4th Grade
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 17

Canyon Elementary is part of the Columbia Falls School District in northwestern Montana and serves the rural towns of Hungry Horse, Martin City, and Coram in grades K-5. Nestled in a wooded area on the perimeter of the town, the 14-year-old school complex is comprised of 12 classrooms wrapped around a central open library. The multipurpose gymnasium is attached to the east end, and serves as a center where community members join in school presentations and activities promoted and supported by a strong PTO. An up-to-date computer lab helps the students reach and research locations far from their rural community.

Because Canyon Elementary School is close to the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness regions to the east and south, and only 10 miles from Glacier National Park, connections to the history, habitat, and natural resources of the area are central to the curriculum. Local community members as well as agency employees and researchers from the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks offer their expertise and guidance in these areas. Studies in social and natural sciences, math, and language arts are woven into the lesson plans and units of study for each grade level. Students learn about careers in these areas, as well as how to become good stewards of the territory in which they live.

Students gain in many ways from Canyon Elementary’s relatively small school community. Staff and students on all grade levels get to know each other through inter-grade level teaching and learning and extracurricular interactions. A hands-on supportive administration, teachers, counselors, and special service staff, as well as a PTO parent support group combine their efforts to serve the students’ educational, emotional, social, and family needs.

Teachers are involved in in-service and staff development studies, gaining expertise from specialists, professional literature, professional organizations in their subject areas, and collegial sharing and inquiry. Rich Thompson works as part of the language arts committee and is a facilitator in the language arts staff development program. Curriculum studies are developed from state and local standards, the results of district standardized testing, and use an integrated, personalized portfolio system to track the growth and development of each student.

Classroom Lesson Plan

Literature Discussion Groups

Rich Thompson’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets related to the lesson.

Teacher: Rich Thompson, Canyon Elementary School, Hungry Horse, Montana
Grade Level: Fourth
Topic: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Materials Needed:

Background Information:

Small-group discussions, where students choose their texts from several possibilities, form a core component of Rich Thompson’s envisionment-building classroom. In addition, during regular read-alouds, Mr. Thompson chooses high-interest literature that may be beyond the independent reading level of many of his students. He uses these literature experiences to frame discussion and sharing activities that help students expand their repertoire of textual responses. Student Response Logs and the formulation of what Mr. Thompson calls Critical Reader Thoughts, expand the range of possibilities students have available for individual response. One-on-one reading conferences allow Mr. Thompson to check individual student progress on a regular basis.

In preparation for the literature discussion groups, Mr. Thompson begins with book talks about the texts available. Students then list their first, second, and third choices. From these Mr. Thompson makes assignments, considering the number of students in each group while trying to give as many as possible their first or second choice. Once the groups are complete, he schedules the meeting dates and times for each group.

Students each receive a copy of their chosen book as well as copies of Critical Reader Thoughts for that book and Using Response Logs if they have not received it earlier.

During the discussion group meetings, Response Log sharing often begins discussion. Students discuss their responses, reflections, and materials from Critical Reader Thoughts, referring to the text as appropriate. Literature discussion groups end with the members determining a way of sharing their book with the rest of the class.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Read and enjoy literature.
  • Read the assigned pages from the literature before each meeting.
  • Prepare for discussion by writing in their Response Logs and preparing Critical Reader Thoughts.
  • Participate in group discussions of the literature by sharing their thoughts and connections.
  • Participate in planning and presenting the book-sharing activity at the end of the reading.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular entries in Student Response Logs
  • Regular formulation of Critical Reader Thoughts
  • Presentation of a book-sharing activity to the class

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Regular read-alouds
  • Modeling of response and discussion strategies
  • Small group discussions of shared texts
  • On-going assessment of student response and discussion strategies

Collaborative Structure of Class:

Students in this class chose a text from a selected list, and read them independently. Every other day they gather at a meeting table at the back of the classroom with Mr. Thompson for their literature discussion groups. Full-group activities often find the class seated on the floor in a carpeted area of the classroom. Independent reading and Response Log writing typically happen at individual student desks.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Independent reading of a shared text
  • Writing in Response Logs
  • Formulating Critical Reader Thoughts
  • Discussing shared texts

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

  • Discussion of readings and interpretive processes
  • Sharing text with classmates through a group presentation


Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • Completion of assigned reading for discussion.
  • Response Log entries.
  • Preparation of Critical Reader Thoughts.
  • Discussion participation.
  • Individual and small-group meetings with the teacher.

The following activities might receive holistic or scaled evaluation (see Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and scaled evaluation).

  • Quality of Response Logs
  • Quality of Critical Reader Thoughts
  • Book-Sharing Activity

Professional Reflection

Take a step back from your classroom and examine the video clip in relation to your own instructional practices. Use the questions below to spark discussion about instructional practices in department meetings, team meetings, or as a prompt in your own professional journal.


  • How independent are your students during small-group discussions?
  • How do you support growing student independence?
  • What else might you do to help them be more independent?
  • What role(s) do you assume in small-group discussions?
  • What else might you do to help them become better readers and discussants?

Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles
The terms assessment and evaluation are often used as synonyms. Distinguishing between them can be helpful as you plan instruction. Assessment means looking at what students can do in order to determine what they need to learn to do next. That is, assessment, whether of individual students or an entire group, is done in order to inform instruction and is a critical teaching tool. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded simply as “credit” or “no credit.”

Evaluation occurs after a concept or skill has been taught and practiced and is typically scaled, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Choosing Good Books for Literature Discussion Groups
Books that provide for successful discussion are those that are meaty enough to provide students with plenty to talk about. While students may enjoy reading a number of the series books, many teachers have found it difficult to initiate and sustain conversations about such titles. Here are some things to think about as you select books for your students to choose:

  • Is the reading level appropriate? Teach students the “three finger rule” to help you identify those books which are too challenging for your readers.
  • Does the book arouse an emotional response?
  • Does the book offer insights into individuals, time periods, or cultures different from those your students have experienced personally?
  • Are the characters believable and worth knowing?
  • Is the content compelling? Is there action, suspense, good dialogue, humor, or controversy?

If you are unsure where to begin, consult the many booklists published by professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English. Begin with award winners such as the Newbery Award books. Another useful starting point might be the Librarians Index to the Internet ( which has useful sections on children’s and young adult literature.

The Three-Finger Rule
Teach students the “three-finger rule” for determining if a book is too hard: Ask them to choose a page in the middle of the book to read. When they encounter a word they don’t know, instruct them to raise a finger. If they have raised three fingers by the end of the page, the book may be too difficult for easy reading. They can then decide if they are willing to continue.

Sharing Instruction With Other Teachers
Mr. Thompson and a colleague who also teaches fourth grade share their literature discussion groups. Students from the two classes are offered choices of the same books. Each teacher then assumes responsibility for leading two or three discussion groups, comprised of students from the two classes. Not only does this help the two teachers target their instructional efforts, but both students and their parents appreciate the value and flexibility of such exchanges.

Text Pairings
As you plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings. Some teachers like to introduce students to a number of books by the same author. Others try to find books with similarities in theme or content. Books that have received awards and appear to be developing into contemporary classics are also favored choices. No list of suggestions can be complete or can address every criterion. However, the following list of texts may help you choose titles to complement the ones used in this lesson plan:

For Because of Winn-Dixie
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Hold
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

For Just Juice
Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse
The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Witness by Karen Hesse

For Midnight Fox
The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Gentle Ben by Walt Morey
Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey
Rascal by Sterling North
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

For Pigs Might Fly
Racso and the Rats of NIMH by Jane Leslie Conly
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse by George Selden

For Sounder
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Savage Sam by Fred Gipson
Star in the Storm by Joan Hiatt Harlow
Gentle Ben by Walt Morey
Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Rascal by Sterling North
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Rich Thompson’s classroom:

Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Just Juice by Karen Hesse

Pigs Might Fly by Dick King-Smith

Additional resources related to the tenets of this series:

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site

This site provides lists of children’s books and ideas of ways to use them in the classroom as well as activities and topics of professional interest.

Children’s’ Book Council

The Children’s Book Council is a non-profit trade organization dedicated to encouraging literacy and the use and enjoyment of children’s books.

Children’s Literature

This site provides a wealth of reviews designed to help teachers, librarians, childcare providers, and parents make appropriate literary choices for children.

Children’s Literature Web Guide

This Web site categorizes the growing number of Internet resources related to books for children and young adults. Much of the information found on this Web site is provided by schools, libraries, teachers, parents, and book professionals (such as authors, editors, and booksellers). It includes quick references to lists of award-winning and bestseller children’s books, teaching resources, links to parent resources, and journal and book reviews.

deGrummond’s Children’s Literature Collection

From the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries, the deGrummond Children’s Literature Collection is one of North America’s leading research centers in the field of children’s literature. Although the Collection has many strengths, the main focus is on American and British children’s literature, historical and contemporary. Their What’s New section details upcoming exhibits, many of which are available online.

The Doucette Index

The Doucette Index provides access to books and Web sites that contain useful teaching suggestions related to books for children and young adults, and the creators of those books. The searchable database enables teachers to search by author and/or title of the book, leading to lesson plans and curriculum ideas.

The Institute for Learning

A liaison between its parent institution, the Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh, and working educators in school systems nationwide, The Institute for Learning brings to educators the best current knowledge and research about learning processes and principles of instruction. Its mission is to provide educators with the resources and training they need to enhance learning opportunities for all students. The Institute serves as a think tank, a design center for innovative professional development systems in the schools, and an educator of core groups of school professionals.

KidSpace @ The Internet Public Library

The Reading Zone at KidSpace provides a number of online texts for children, including works in French and Spanish. A number of the links provide activities connected to the literature as well.

Planet Book Club

This Web site is devoted to book clubs and provides and overview, management suggestions, and a teacher forum. Guides to a number of popular novels are available for purchase at the Planet Book Club store.

Reading Online

This Web site is an online journal of K-12 practice and research published by the International Reading Association. It includes helpful links to book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, discussions about literacy, and ideas and information about applying technology in literacy instruction.

SCORE [the Schools of California Online Resources for Educators (SCORE) Project]

This Web site provides teachers with online resources connected to a number of literary titles commonly used in language arts classrooms as well as CyberGuides, supplementary lesson plans centered on core works of literature. Each CyberGuide contains a student and teacher edition, standards, a task and a process by which it may be completed, teacher-selected Web sites, and a rubric (based on California Language Arts Content Standards).

Articles related to effective literature instruction from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement:

“Classroom Discussion: Teachers’ Perspectives on Obstacles and Strategies” by Samantha Caughlan

“Engaging Students in Meaningful Conversation Leads to Higher Achievement” by Arthur Applebee

“How Classroom Conversation Can Support Student Achievement”

“Supporting the Process of Literary Understanding: Analysis of a Classroom Discussion” by Doralyn R. Roberts and Judith A. Langer

“Taking Risks, Negotiating Relationships: One Teacher’s Transition Towards a Dialogic Classroom” by Julie Nelson Christoph and Martin Nystrand

“What Do We Know about Effective Fourth-Grade Teachers and Their Classrooms?” by Richard L. Allington and Peter H. Johnson.

Professional Organizations:

American Educational Research Association
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
International Reading Association
National Council of Teachers of English
National Writing Project