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Building a Better Book Report

In school these days, kids have to prove that they're reading and understanding what authors are saying in books – not merely memorizing a few facts

"I'm making a book report sandwich," my third-grade daughter announced when I asked about homework. Her teacher related the parts of the report to sandwich ingredients: main character tomatoes, plot summary lettuce, personal opinion turkey, high plot points mayonnaise and a cheese setting – squashed between two pieces of "bread," on which my daughter drew a picture of the book jacket that included the title and author. She couldn't wait to show me her creation.

What's happening on the book report scene gives parents a peek into how kids are learning differently than in the past – and how teachers are giving assignments in new ways to meet those needs. State requirements too reflect a focus on informational writing and analytical thinking that your book report standby may not have encouraged. Children are being asked to demonstrate that they can understand and analyze what they read, not just report on the details.

The "reading log" replacement

These vary in format, from a recording of the minutes a student reads to a written dialogue about the text between teacher and student – or a mix.

"Response logs really help students become more reflective about what they've read and, then, to express their thoughts on paper," says Grace Velchansky, an elementary language arts consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District.

In the process, she adds, kids become more comfortable talking about a book in class discussions. They have time to think about what they've read and to record those thoughts beforehand.

Another compelling benefit? Logs ensure students really are reading. Kathleen Bertolini, a language arts teacher at Abbott Middle School in West Bloomfield, says, "What (teachers) have found in the middle-school level is that kids are able to write a fabulous book report without ever having read the book."

She requires her sixth graders to read at least 20-30 minutes four times a week, then summarize what they've read and respond to it. Specifically: Students write five sentences of summary and five sentences of their reaction every time they read. It helps them think more deeply about what they're reading.

Spark the discussion at home

Parents can help their children become more thoughtful, analytical readers by asking questions about what their kids are reading. Here are some suggestions.

In elementary school, kids are just beginning to understand plots and characters. Keep your questions very simple.

  • Ask about the progression of the story: "What happened first? Second? Last?"
  • Help them consider characters: "Who was your favorite character? Why?"
  • Get their opinion: "Did you like the book?"

In middle school, tweens may be more hesitant to talk to mom or dad about what they're reading. But they usually still like to express their opinions, so try to get them talking with open-ended questions.

  • Ask them to describe the general plotline.
  • Help them consider the way the author told the story: "Wow that sounds like a scary scene, why was it so freaky?" (Hopefully, your child's response will include some mention of the details the author used to give readers goosebumps.)
  • Get their opinion: "Would you recommend this book to your friends? Why? Why not?"

And by high school, teens will most likely shun any obvious questions about their reading assignments. Catch them in a weak moment – like in the car on the way to soccer practice or maybe even over dinner. Try these approaches.

  • Make it seem nostalgic: "I see you're reading The Crucible. I remember reading that too, but I don't remember much about the story. What's it about again?"
  • Relate it to something they're already familiar with: "Can you imagine if they had texting instead of letters in Pride & Prejudice?"
  • Get their opinion: "Hey, you've really been busy with that book. You must like reading it, right?"

Raising thoughtful writers

Reading logs aren't just for school. You can create your own version with your kids at home (just don't tell them it relates to their homework!).

Look over their reading logs from school. Ask questions about the books that they are reading.

Read your children's books along with them, so that you can have discussions together. If you don't have time to read each one, go to Amazon.com and go through the book's summary.

Start a response "notebook" at home. Pass a notebook back and forth with your child. Along with asking about the books he's reading, ask him about other topics of interest to him, like his friends at school. Write a thought in the notebook; then, leave it under your child's pillow. He'll respond and give it back to you. Make it a game between the two of you. Added bonus: His writing will improve, too!

Give your child a stack of sticky notes, so that she can mark her favorite parts of the book she's reading. Then go over those parts together.

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