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


This program introduces the principles that form the backbone of this video library — effective practices for engaging in literature. Dr. Judith Langer explains the characteristics that decades of research have shown to be most effective in building classrooms where students are active learners, building and sharing their individual and richly involved understandings of works of literature — what she calls envisionments. These characteristics are shown in action through introductory visits to the classrooms of the eight teachers who appear in this video library.

“In envisionment-building classrooms, students’ ideas are right in the center of the discussion, so the role of the teacher is to help students find new and more complex ways to grapple with both the content and the ways of thinking about the content.”

Judith A. Langer, Director
National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA)
University at Albany, State University of New York

Welcome to Engaging With Literature: A Video Library, Grades 3-5! Produced by Maryland Public Television with funding provided by Annenberg Media, this nine-part video library is designed to help language arts teachers in grades three to five enhance the literary experiences of their students. This series overview introduces Dr. Judith Langer’s theory of literary envisionment and envisionment-building classrooms and invites us into real classrooms of real teachers to see how this theory plays out in practice with real students.

Like all good pedagogical theories, Dr. Langer’s theory of envisionment building is philosophically concrete, yet allows for a widely diverse range of classroom practices. Grounded in key understandings about human beings as learners and as makers of meaning, the basic tenets of envisionment theory could productively underpin literature instruction in any classroom at any grade level.

About This Video

Dr. Langer identifies four central characteristics of the envisionment-building classroom:


  • Students are treated as life-long envisionment builders. Both teachers and students assume that students have been making sense all their lives. They have been hearing stories and creating stories. They have been building envisionments — worlds of images, questions, disagreements, anticipations, arguments, and hunches that fill the mind during every reading, writing, speaking, or listening experience — and they know how to create understandings. They know how to respond to pieces that they have heard, read, or seen. And their ideas are at the center of the envisionment-building classroom.
  • Questions are at the center of the literary experience. These are real questions about things that people really want explained or want to know more about, encountered as they immerse themselves in a text. While some of these questions may come from the teacher, many of them come from the students themselves as they expand their understandings of the literature. Teachers and students in envisionment-building classrooms know that making sense in literature involves asking questions.
  • Students are expected to develop and expand their understandings. Teachers and students assume that students come to class with understandings and interpretations based on the readings they did individually, but that these will not be final. Rather, these interpretations will be the beginning of provocative discussion that helps everybody develop richer and more complex understandings.
  • Students and teachers assume that multiple perspectives are useful. Envisionment-building classrooms encourage different points of view because multiple perspectives enhance interpretation. They lead to the development of more complex understandings of the text than any one individual is likely to reach alone. In the envisionment-building classroom, respectful conversation is a tool for exploring and testing these multiple points of view. It is understood that it is not always possible to reach a complete consensus about a literary work, although the group will probably agree on a number of shared points. This is quite different from the literature classroom in which a push for consensus is the norm, and one “best” interpretation is valued above all others.Dr. Langer developed her understandings of envisionment building and how it might play out in literature classrooms through years of research during which she and her colleagues looked at how good readers-including adults-grappled with, and made sense of, literary texts. In addition, the researchers went into the classrooms of teachers around the United States-in urban, suburban, and rural schools-and tried to identify common characteristics of effective instruction. What they learned is distilled into the four tenets of envisionment-building theory listed above.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

The classrooms shown in this clip — and throughout this video library — use a number of different texts. Those listed below are mentioned in this video. The remaining videos in this library may feature additional texts. Refer to the appropriate sections of the library guide for additional information about the texts used in each classroom.

Often the students in these classes are asked to make their own reading selections. They may be given complete free choice as in Ms. Teklu’s class, or they may choose from a selected list as portrayed in Mr. Hoonan’s, Mr. Thompson’s, and Ms. Rowley’s classes. When choosing or recommending books for students, all the teachers profiled here seek titles that will engage students and challenge them in some way to think about their own lives and about the world they live in.

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.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Set in the early years of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, this novel tells the story of 11-year-old Parvana who has rarely been outdoors since the Taliban gained power in her country. Barred from attending school, shopping at the market, or even playing in the streets of Kabul, Parvana is trapped inside her family’s one-room home. After the Taliban arrests her father and takes him to prison because he is a scholar, Parvana realizes that with her older brother dead, she has to become the “breadwinner” supporting her mother, two sisters, and baby brother. She disguises herself as a boy and earns money by providing a reading service for illiterates.

Just Juice by Karen Hesse

School lessons are a mystery to nine-year-old Juice, who simply cannot manage to understand numbers, 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.

“As I Grow Older” by Langston Hughes

In this frequently anthologized poem by Langston Hughes, the speaker talks about how he lost the dreams of his youth and appeals to his hands to break through the darkness and smash the night so he can recover the power of that dream.

Cold and Hot Winter by Joanna Hurwitz

In this sequel to The Hot and Cold Summer, best friends Derek, Rory, and Bolivia are reunited during Bolivia’s week-long visit to her great-aunt and great-uncle over the Christmas school break. The three fifth-graders play games, ice-skate, and build snow people (which they move from one house to the other in the dead of night). Things begin to disappear-Bolivia’s new Swiss army knife, Derek’s hamster and the money from his bank-and their friendship is tested by mistrust, especially when Derek’s suspicions of Rory’s dishonesty threaten to tear the trio apart.

The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph

Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa Hernandez wants to be a writer so much that when she has no paper she takes her brother’s notebook and fills it with her words. From a lofty perch high in her gri gri tree, she looks over her small seaside village in the Dominican Republic, oblivious at first to the developing political turmoil of her island nation. First she must confront more personal issues— her parentage and what it means to be part of a family and a community. Gradually she comes to understand the power of her words in a country where words are often feared. When the government tries to steal the villagers’ land, Ana Rosa’s writing is what enables her to transcend the tragedy of her beloved brother’s murder.

Rascal by Sterling North

Set in a small Wisconsin town during World War I, this Newbery Honor Book presents a first-person account of North’s boyhood and his relationship with a raccoon he discovered as an abandoned kit. For a year Rascal and North’s good-natured St. Bernard, Wowser, bounce from one adventure to the next. Trouble with neighbors over the raccoon’s antics forces a reluctant North to cage him. When the raccoon reaches adulthood and is able to fend for itself, North sends him safely back into the wild.

A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon

Based on the true history of the Orphan Trains (which ran between 1854 and 1929 and transported 100,000 children to the west for resettlement and adoption) this book follows Frances May Kelly as she and her five brothers and sisters are sent west to new homes. Recently widowed, their Irish immigrant mother tried to support her children by working nights cleaning in an office building. When her older son Mike is arrested for stealing, the mother realizes she can no longer keep her children safe and decides to send them away. Frances cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to protect her younger siblings and enhance her chances of adoption. She anguishes as her brothers and sisters are sent to different homes but settles in under the care of Jake and Margaret Cummings. Accidentally she discovers two runaway slaves hiding in the barn and realizes that her new home is a link on the Underground Railroad. Eventually it is up to her to enable their escape to the next way station.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Jeffrey Magee’s parents are killed in a trolley accident when he is three, and he is sent to live with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. His aunt and uncle won’t speak to one another, using Jeffrey as their go-between. After eight years, Jeffrey has had enough. He screams “Talk to each other!” and runs away — literally. He runs, searching for a real home, eventually ending up 200 miles away in the town of Two Mills, a community divided by race into an East and a West End. Jeffrey becomes “Maniac Magee,” a legend in the town — a boy who can outrun dogs, hit a home run off the best pitcher in the neighborhood, and untie the knot no one else can undo. In his search for a place to belong, he begins to unite the town by forcing at least some of the Blacks and Whites to know each other.

Dangerous Skies by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Growing up together, Buck Smith and Tunes Smith’s families share generations of connected history on Virginia’s eastern shore. However, their youthful companionship changes when Buck, the son of the white farm owner, and Tunes, African-American daughter of Kneebone Smith, find the floating body of a migrant worker. Twelve-year-old Buck is horrified when Tunes becomes a suspect. Sure that the real killer is prosperous, respected Jumbo Rawlins, Buck urges Tunes to tell her side of the story. Instead, Tunes disappears. Buck finds her and is horrified to learn that Rawlins has been abusing her physically and sexually. Although Tunes doesn’t think her word will be believed against that of a prosperous white man, Buck’s naive belief in justice persuades her to come out of hiding. As predicted, she’s arrested and tried while Rawlins remains untouched. Though not convicted, Tunes moves away and drops out of Buck’s life forever.

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


Classroom Snapshot

Schools: Eight different schools
Locations: Various locations throughout the United States
No. of Students in Schools: Between 125 and 3,700
Teachers: Various
Grades: 3rd to 5th
Subjects: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classrooms: Between 17 and 31

Schools: The schools in this video library are in geographically diverse locations throughout the United States. Some, like Jonathan Holden’s Roxbury, Massachusetts classroom or Latosha Rowley’s Indianapolis school, are in urban settings. Some are rural, such as Rich Thomson’s Montana school set at the edge of Glacier National Park and Barry Hoonan’s school on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. Others are in suburban locations. A wide variety of classrooms and teachers were chosen to help teachers everywhere see how envisionment building might apply in their own locations.

Number of Students in Schools: The schools in the video library run from the small and intimate (125 students at the Odyssey School on Bainbridge Island and 132 students at the Center for Inquiry in Columbia South Carolina) to the 76-acre campus housing Punahou School in Honolulu, the nation’s largest independent school with 3,700 students in grades K-12.

Teachers: The teachers in this library reflect the diversity of their profession. Both male and female, they come from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some are just beginning their careers; three are in their second or third year of teaching. Others have 20 to 27 years experience. All of them believe that every student is capable of learning and that it is their job to help learning happen.

Grades and Subject: All the teachers in this library teach language arts in grades 3-5.

Students: While some of the students portrayed in these classrooms come from comfortable economic backgrounds, a number qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; some children of migrant workers in Georgia may spend only a few months in any school before their parents leave the area to follow employment opportunities elsewhere. Students in these classes come with a wide range of ability levels and experience with school literacies. As is perhaps typical of the nation as a whole, most of the schools work with students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and even language backgrounds.

Classroom Lesson Plan

Envisionment Building With Literature

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

Teacher: Various
Grade Level: Third through fifth
Topic: Reading and appreciating literature

Materials Needed:

  • Literature books for students; either a class set or selected titles from which students can choose
  • Writer’s notebooks, literature folders, or other areas for written responses
  • Sticky note pads for student use
  • Student Activity Sheet: Comments, Questions, Connections (generic directions for encouraging student responses to literary texts)
  • Other materials as appropriate for specific titles (i.e. handouts for specific extension activities, copies of topically related poems or other short works, art materials, etc.)

Background Information:

This is a generic envisionment-building lesson that can be adapted to and used with any literary text. Its design reflects the key tenets of envisionment building: 1) students are life-long envisionment builders whose ideas are at the center of the classroom; 2) questions are essential to envisionment building; 3) students come to class after reading equipped with understandings about the literature. It is assumed that they will develop those understandings during class discussions; and 4) multiple interpretations of literary texts are to be expected and are helpful, both to the individual and to the class as a whole.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • read and enjoy literature.
  • use writer’s notebooks (or other forms of personal writing) to record their responses to their reading.
  • use sticky notes (or mark the text, if allowed) to indicate passages of interest, or areas about which they have questions.
  • participate in thoughtful discussions of the literature (in small groups and as an entire class) where they listen to and interact with one another about the interpretations they are developing.
  • develop fuller understandings of the literature through reflective writing, discussion, and other support activities.
  • use language to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • connect issues raised by the literature with their own lives.
  • create original products that demonstrate their understandings of the literature.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular written responses in writer’s notebooks
  • Regular use of sticky notes for comments, questions, connections, and identification of specific passages
  • Various extension and support activities as appropriate (see other programs for specific suggestions)
  • A final product designed to help the students and the teacher evaluate the students’ understandings of the literature

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Reading, either individually, with a Book Buddy, or as a read-aloud
  • Class and small-group discussions
  • Writing and talk as tools for making meaning
  • Teacher facilitation, guidance, and feedback

Collaborative Structure of Class:

Envisionment-building classes work well when the physical space is flexible and furniture can be rearranged to accommodate changing activities. Teachers directing whole-class discussion might favor circular arrangements so students can talk with one another easily. Desk clusters of four or five serve small-group discussions well. Linear rows of desks create an environment where easy conversation among peers is more difficult and where, as a result, a teacher has to overcome physical restrictions to keep student questions and ideas at the center of the literary experience.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Reading independently and in groups
  • Listening to oral reading
  • Writing responses to, and/or questions about the literature
  • Group discussion of the literature and the human issues it presents
  • Possible dramatic, poetic, and/or artistic presentation of ideas
  • Vocabulary development within the context of developing literary understandings

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

Teachers typically wish to give students some sort of closure after extended engagement with a literary text. In addition, they may need a tool for formal evaluation at this time. Final projects, formal writing, and oral reports are all possible means of addressing these needs. See the support materials for the various programs in this library to observe the choices these teachers made for their students.


Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • preparation and participation, and
  • writer’s notebook entries.
    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).
  • Responses to specific passages
  • Quality and quantity of response writing
  • Visual, poetic, or dramatic representations of passage or scene
  • Vocabulary activities
  • Formal writing in response to a literary work

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 writing prompt in your own professional journal.


  • What questions do you have about envisionment building and how it is implemented in the classroom?
  • What roles do you see the teachers in this video clip assuming?
  • How do these classrooms portray Langer’s four tenets of envisionment building (students are life-long envisionment builders, questions are central to the literary experience, students use class to build on the understandings and interpretations they arrived with, and the assumption that multiple interpretations are valuable)? Give specific examples.
  • What elements of the envisionment-building classroom occur in your own practice? What changes to your instruction would you like to make to bring it closer to this model?


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. 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 a scaled response, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Using a Writer’s Notebook To Enhance Literary Envisionment

Teachers often find it useful to have students keep an ongoing record of their responses to literature over a period of time. These records can form the basis for a discussion about a text, or about a student’s processes of making meaning. They enable students, teachers, parents, and administrators to observe a student’s developing powers as a literary reader. Because they offer teachers a window into student processes, they suggest opportunities for supportive intervention as appropriate. Some teachers ask students to provide special notebooks for such records. However, individual sheets of notebook paper stapled together at regular intervals and filed in the classroom for safekeeping work just as well and are less cumbersome to manage. Teachers with access to appropriate technology sometimes have students submit notebook entries digitally.

Developing Envisionments With Students

Envisionment-building classrooms depend on student questions-authentic questions about the real issues raised by their reading. Those questions become the center of discussions, which help students-individually and as a group-develop their understandings of the literature, and of the world in which they live.

However, many students are afraid to ask questions. Because questions reveal what they don’t know or don’t understand, students worry that they will look foolish or unprepared if they ask questions. Indeed, in some classrooms, questions are traps. Not having the right answer means nothing but trouble! If students are question-adverse, teachers may have to help them learn to value-and use-questions.

One way is to help students become aware of how they develop their understandings of the literature. As they develop a conscious recognition of how their perceptions of a literary piece change, develop, and grow throughout their reading and during discussion, they will begin to recognize the role questions have in that process.

Teachers can help students become aware of their developing envisionments by asking questions such as the following:

  • What do you know now that you didn’t know before?
  • What do you think will happen (next..? because of? to?)?
  • Now that we’ve talked a bit, how has your thinking changed? What made it change? Why has it stayed the same?
  • When you first read the title of this piece, what did you think it would be about? Were you right? How did the title help you understand how to begin? (Or how did it get in the way of your initial understandings?)


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, each program in this library offers suggestions for additional texts that complement those around which the lessons are centered.


Additional Resources

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.

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.

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 & 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 and Judith A. Langer

“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