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

Voices in the Conversation

A visit to Katherine Bomer's fifth-grade class showcases techniques for involving all students in a classroom read-aloud and the ensuing discussion that follows. Ms. Bomer respectfully models, supports, and encourages conversations among students on the text The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph.

“The read-aloud in my classroom is the center of the day. It’s a time when we have cried together. It’s a time when we have laughed together. It’s a time when kids have said, ‘This is how life is for me.’…And to me those moments where one child says, ‘I had no idea about what you’re going through,’ that’s what education is all about…”

Katherine Bomer, 5th-Grade Teacher
Pleasant Hill Elementary School
Austin, Texas

This video presents a close-up of Katherine Bomer using the daily read-aloud to help her students learn how to think and talk about literature. Because this experience is central to Ms. Bomer’s teaching, her approach is patient. She is careful to allow students time to experience the literature and tease out the meanings it has for them. The reading is unhurried and the conversation around the reading is thoughtful and respectful with students making direct connections to, and building on, comments classmates made earlier.


About This Video

As you watch, pay particular attention to the ways in which Ms. Bomer models, encourages, and supports genuine conversation. She has taught students to use some explicit methods for effective conversation such as naming the person they are responding to and explaining what they are thinking in response. Additionally, her use of informal response writing to prepare for meetings between Conversation Partners encourages rich, thoughtful talk. She encourages her students’ learning by explicitly celebrating what she observes them doing well, and, in so doing, gives them the confidence to continue to grow as envisionment-building readers.

The interactions between teacher and students reflect an interesting balance as well. Clearly Ms. Bomer is “in charge” and directing instruction. At the same time, she is genuinely receptive to learning from her fifth graders, asking for help with the pronunciation of a Spanish word from one youngster and enlarging her understandings of the text from the observations of others.

Additional core components of Ms. Bomer’s literature program (not portrayed on this video) are independent reading and Reading Clubs. Students are asked to read for 35 minutes a night and may choose whatever they wish to read for this independent reading. Ms. Bomer notes that at the beginning of the year, her students choose a lot of comic books to read during this time, but by the end of the school year, they progress to reading more appropriate texts.

On a typical day, read-aloud time is followed by Reading Club meetings where students meet in groups of five or six to discuss one of five novels from which they could choose. It is expected that they will apply the interpretive and conversational strategies demonstrated and learned during read-aloud time in these small groups as well. Formal evaluation is typically based on their work in these groups.

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

For Read-Aloud in this video:

The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph

Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa Hèrnandez 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.

For Reading Clubs (Ms. Bomer’s follow up to read-alouds, but not seen in the video):

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 Big Bike Race by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

It’s Ernie Peterson’s tenth birthday and he wants a sleek new racing bike, not the secondhand yellow clunker that is all his grandmother can afford. Ignoring the neighborhood ridicule, Ernie sets his sights on winning the junior division of the Citywide Cup. Fortunately, he meets Sonny, an experienced adult racer, who encourages and coaches him.

Yolanda’s Genius by Carol Fenner

After a murder in Yolanda’s school, her mother decides to move the family from Chicago to Grand River because she is worried about dangers to her children. Yolanda, a bright and thoughtful ten-year-old is devoted to her six-year-old brother, a musical genius who has trouble learning to read. Andrew plays his world musically on a harmonica given to him by his father before he died. When the family returns to Chicago to visit Aunt Tiny in June, they all attend the Chicago Blues Festival. There, Yolanda manages to get her talented brother on stage where he plays in front of blues greats B.B. King and Davie Rae Shawn.

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.

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


Classroom Snapshot

School: Pleasant Hill Elementary School
Location: Austin, Texas
No. of Students in School: 519
Teacher: Katherine Bomer
No. of Years Teaching: 7
Grade: 5
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 19

Pleasant Hills Elementary School is located on the original site of the Union School which was built in 1858 of red cedar brought from Bastrop County. The current buildings are the fourth iteration of the school, and opened in January of 1986. Today, Pleasant Hill Elementary finds itself on the corner of two major thoroughfares in South Austin, surrounded by car dealerships, fast food joints, warehouse business parks, and strip malls. Pleasant Hills is a bilingual (Spanish and English) school, offering at least one bilingual class per grade level with 73% of its students Hispanic and 8% African American. Coming from the adjoining trailer parks and low-income sub-divisions, over 77% of the student body receive free and reduced-price lunch, and over 22% are special needs and special education students.

Although the community population is stable — some Pleasant Hills teachers have taught two and three generations of youngsters from the same family — the school has been unable to have a PTO for years because the families simply do not have the time or money to contribute. Many families work two or three jobs, and a number of children are in school from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., often going to the homes of grandparents or aunts and uncles after that. In spite of busy schedules and complex arrangements, the Pleasant Hills families care deeply about their children’s success in school and their children are strong, sensitive, and thoughtful participants in the classroom.


Classroom Lesson Plan

Teaching Literary Conversation With Classroom Read-Alouds and Conversation Partners

Katherine Bomer’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file.

Teacher: Katherine Bomer, Pleasant Hill Elementary School, Austin, Texas
Grade Level: Fifth
Topic: The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph

Materials Needed:

  • Copy of The Color of My Words
  • Writer’s notebooks for each student

Background Information:

Ms. Bomer’s overarching goal is that all her students become lifelong readers. To that end, she centers her literature instruction on reading aloud and discussing a shared book. She believes that in this way she can introduce students to books that they are not yet ready to read on their own as well as teach them how to have good conversations about literature. She follows this instruction with Reading Groups during which groups of five or six students read and discuss a common novel. Nightly independent free-choice reading forms the final component of the literature program.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Listen to texts being read aloud.
  • Use language effectively to create knowledge, make meaning, challenge thinking, and expand their literary envisionments.
  • Respond to what they have heard through informal writing in their writer’s notebooks.
  • Read and enjoy the literature they read independently.
  • Use language effectively to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • Respond to what they have heard through group conversation.
  • Share their thinking about passages and events in the book with conversation partners.
  • Develop increasingly more thoughtful interpretations.
  • Transfer the interpretive and conversation strategies they learn by participating in the read-aloud activities to their reading and discussion in small groups.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Notes in writer’s notebooks
  • Participation in conversations with Conversation Partners and in whole-class discussions

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Reading aloud
  • Asking questions
  • Modeling uses of informal writing, responses and questions
  • Modeling respectful conversation strategies

Collaborative Structure of Class:

Ms. Bomer’s classroom is divided into two main areas. At the back of the room, student tables are arranged in groups of five to six. This is where students meet during their Reading Groups. At the front of the room, a large carpeted area offers space for the entire class to meet for the read-aloud and ensuing conversations. A comfortable chair allows Ms. Bomer to sit in a relaxed manner while reading aloud.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Students gather on the rug. Ms. Bomer reminds them of where they are in the reading and reads a new segment.
  • Ms. Bomer pauses and asks students to reflect on what they have just heard, incorporating it into what has transpired earlier in the book and making predictions about what they think will happen next. She encourages a number of students to contribute to the conversation before continuing.
  • Ms. Bomer identifies a particularly suggestive passage and reads it (perhaps more than once), asking students to listen closely. She then asks them to use their writer’s notebooks to record a response to the passage before joining their Conversation Partner for a few moments of discussion.
  • During these discussions, Ms. Bomer circulates and listens in to what students are saying, jotting notes to help her track conversations and student progress.
  • Bringing the entire group back together again, Ms. Bomer uses the opportunity to share some of what she heard during discussion and note effective student responses.

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

Students will complete one of the following activities:

  • After the read-aloud and conversation, students move into their Reading Groups to discuss their shared novels.
  • Typically an assessment activity such as Sketch to Stretch or a written assignment follows the completion of a Reading Group’s work with a novel.


Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • Using a checklist to track both the frequency and depth of thought in their contributions during whole-class discussions or while they are working with their Conversation Partners.
  • Observing Reading Groups and noting the range of student responses.

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).

The culminating book club activity, such as:

  • Sketch to Stretch
  • Poem based on a novel

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 might your students respond to read-alouds as portrayed in this video?
  • What kinds of support would your students need to be successful participants in literature conversations? Are there modeling or support strategies that Ms. Bomer uses that would work with your students?
  • What read-aloud literature selections might be particularly appealing to your students?

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.

Choosing Books for Read-Alouds
A number of considerations might guide a teacher’s choice of literature to read aloud to a class. Ms. Bomer uses her knowledge of her students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds as she looks for books her students will enjoy and that offer rich possibilities for conversation. She has had success with the following titles:

Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh
The Dumb Bunnies Go to the Zoo by Sue Denim
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Wild Fox by Cherie Mason
Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Conversation Partners
Pairing students is an effective way to support their development as conversationalists as well as enriching their understandings of literature. Additionally, working in partners ensures that all students-even the quiet ones-have an opportunity to share their thinking. After reaching an interesting point in the text, students are asked to jot informal notes about their responses in their writer’s notebooks. They then meet with their Conversation Partner, share their ideas, and respond to one another’s thinking in ways that lead them to new understandings.

Ms. Bomer works with her students to teach them explicit conversational strategies (e.g., “I agree with what ___ just said, and” or “I think ___ is right about ____, but”) to use with their partners or when engaged in whole-class discussion. For more information about developing conversational skills, you may wish to explore the Institute for Learning’s material on “accountable talk” at

Sketch to Stretch
Based on ideas developed by Phyllis Whitin and presented in her book Sketching Stories, Stretching Minds: Responding Visually to Literature, the basic premise behind Sketch to Stretch is that creating a visual based on a literary work stretches student thinking, helping them to see the text in new ways.

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, occurs as students are engaged in the act of learning in order to inform instruction. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded simply as “credit” or “no credit.” In this video, the notes Ms. Bomer takes as she listens in on the discussions between Conversation Partners are an example of assessment. Not only do the notes help her frame the discussion when the class gathers together again, but they provide a permanent record of what different students are thinking and talking about.

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.

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 The Color of My Words
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Wanderer by Sharon Creech
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Circuit: Stories From the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiminez
An Island Christmas by Lynn Joseph
Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems by Lynn Joseph
Jump Up Time: A Trinidad Carnival Story by Lynn Joseph
Mermaid’s Twin Sister: More Stories From Trinidad by Lynn Joseph
Wave in Her Pocket: Stories from Trinidad by Lynn Joseph
Silent to The Bone by E. L. Konigsburg
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
The Land by Mildred D. Taylor

For Book Clubs
Cougar Canyon by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo
Randall’s Wall by Carol Fenner
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Holes by Louis Sachar
Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid by Jerry Spinelli
Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the text used in Katherine Bomer’s classroom:

The HarperCollins Web site

Search for The Color of My Words to find a summary of the book and a brief biography of the author.

Political Background on the Dominican Republic

Jerry Spinelli

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.

The Literary Link for Researching Children’s/Young Adult Literature

This site is designed to provide key links to resources dealing with literature at many levels. The Children’s Literature section is of particular interest to viewers of this series.

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