My middle grader needs to read Romeo and Juliet next fall. It is so HARD to understand. How can I help?

Reading Shakespeare is reading a foreign language to 21st Century English speaking people who struggle with 400 years of changes in pronunciation, meaning, and even the existence of many words.

Reading a children’s version of a classic can help establish the main ideas and character relationships.

Even so, educated English-speaking people are expected to know Shakespeare.  Words from his plays are quoted or alluded to more often than anything except the Bible in Western literature.  Shakespeare is to the English language what Lincoln is to American democracy.

So how can you help a student to read Shakespeare?

  • Buy your son his own copy of Romeo and Juliet so he can write in it. The No Fear Shakespeare series which prints the original Shakespearean version on the left and a modern paraphrasing on the right, is good.  So are other annotated versions.
  • Keep and annotate a list of characters which your son can use as a bookmark. Shakespeare populates his plays with many characters.  List Romeo and his friends, for example, and identify them (hot-tempered, funny, talks in puns, or mixes up words).
  • Read Shakespeare as you would read poetry, with pauses at punctuation, not at the ends of lines. Shakespeare wrote in verse.  Some of the lines end with a period or comma, and you should pause there.  But many lines end without punctuation and should be read without a pause until the next punctuation mark, usually in the next line.  Reading this way will help with understanding.
  • Rewrite the words in normal word order if they don’t make sense the way they are written. In English, we usually have a subject–verb-direct object word order.  But Shakespeare sometimes uses a direct object-verb-subject word order.  “Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v) puts the verb before the subject.  The quote makes more sense if you read it as “No one has ever seen a day as black as this.”   If there is not room in the margin, rewrite on tiny post-it notes.
  • Supply missing words. Just as we leave out words today (Haven’t seen y’in a while), so did Shakespeare.  Since his original audiences left out or shortened the same words he did, there was no problem to understand what he meant then.  But now, 400 years later, you need to write in the missing words or parts of words. Shakespeare contracted words to keep the meter of the verses and because his generation used those contractions.
  • Identify pronoun antecedents. Identifying who or what the pronouns refer to helps with understanding.  If your son owns the copy of the play he is reading, he can draw arrows to show relationships.  Or you can highlight using matching markers.  Take, for example, this quote from Romeo and Juliet (the boldface is mine):

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art more fair than she:

“It” refers back to light.  “Who” refers to the moon.  “Thou” refers to Juliet.  Both “her” and “she” refer to the moon.  Drawing arrows helps.

  • Paraphrase confusing verses. The above quotation can be rewritten as, “But wait.  What is that light starting to come through the window from the east?  That light is Juliet, the sun.  Rise up, beautiful sun, and overshadow the envious moon which is already growing dim. The moon realizes that you, Juliet, are more beautiful than it is.”  Not as elegant as Shakespeare’s words, for sure, but the rewrite in modern English is easier to understand.
  • Figure out metaphors. Shakespeare used lots of them.  Encourage your son to write them in the margins of his book.
  • Identify allusions. Just as authors today refer to Shakespeare, Shakespeare referred to the Bible, to British history and to ancient Greek and Roman myths.  Again, annotate.
  • Untangle wordplay. Shakespeare delights in puns and words with double meanings, especially words whose secondary meanings are sexual.  Some children need help understanding the secondary meanings.  Write the meanings in the margins.
  • Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Even though almost all of Shakespeare’s words are still in use today, some are not, or their meanings have changed over the centuries.  In dictionaries, such meanings might be listed as archaic.  A long list of such words can be found at shakespearehigh.com
  • Reread some parts several times. Once your son has analyzed words, phrases and verses, another reading will make more sense.  And if he reads aloud, the play will make even more sense.
  • Watch a good film or stage play after you have analyzed the written play. Even then it might take some getting used to the British accents (if it is a BBC production) and to the unfamiliar word patterns.  But Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted out, not read on a page, and will come to life when acted.

10 picture books with simple illustrations

Picture books with simple illustrations and bland backgrounds—the kinds which appeal to toddlers and children with sensory integration problems—can be hard to find if you search online or on shelf.  Even harder to find are such books which tell a story.

But they are great books for reading aloud to sensitive children.  And they are equally valuable for suggesting story ideas for children to write.

Here are ten such books from all over the world which your child might enjoy.  Many have won awards.

 

Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl (the version illustrated by Quentin Blake)

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde by Joyce Dunbar

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (wordless)

Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle (wordless)

The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Snow White and the Fox by Niroot Puttapipat

Lon Po Po:  A Red Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young

For kids with sensory integration issues, choose picture books with pared down shapes, colors, focus

If your child resists being read to or resists reading certain picture books, it could be the pictures themselves that discourage reading.

Look for books with no backgrounds, solid colors, and focused on one or two characters.

Picture books with detailed backgrounds or with copious patterns can turn off children with sensory integration issues.  Such children have difficulty focusing if there is too much pattern, noise, motion, or texture in any experience.  They prefer plain painted walls and plain bedspreads, not papered walls and patterned bedding; low, instrumental music by a single instrument, not loud music or music with lyrics; sitting or standing still, not rocking or dancing; and loose knit clothing, not clothes with tags or clothes that are tight-fitting.

When you choose books for children who show sensory integration issues, search for picture books with these characteristics:

  • Pictures with no backgrounds, or just the hint of background—a wash of green to represent grass and trees, for example, or one or two birds in the sky, not a whole flock.
  • Characters dressed in solid colors without shading or patterns in their clothes. If you have seen Pippa the Pig books or cartoons, with their simplistic images, that is the kind you want to show your child.
  • Pictures using flat shapes and limited colors, the kind that children themselves produce. (Think of the way Peanuts cartoon characters are presented—Charlie Brown with his round head and Lucy with her dress of a single color.)
  • Pictures focusing on one or two characters, not groups. Look for pared down, minimalist images which have removed everything but the essential elements.

Likewise, when you look for  picture books for children with sensory integration issues to write about, search for picture books with the same features.  Some wordless picture books offer these kinds of pictures, but not all do.

Finding such books in your library or book store is not easy.  A section labeled “simplistic art” doesn’t exist.  I have had to scour shelves to find what I am looking for.  But the search is worth it to entice a reluctant child reader or writer.

Next blog:  Names of some books that might appeal to kids showing sensory integration issues.

Can listening to music help kids to focus?

Yes, it can if it is the right kind of music.

For work requiring focus and concentration, children should listen to instrumental music with no voices or lyrics.  Such music works even better than ambient noise, such as a ceiling fan or hair dryer in the background.

If listeners become accustomed to hearing the same kind of music when learning, they respond repeatedly in the same way, much like Pavolov’s dogs in his famous experiments.  Children learn to associate a particular stimulus—the instrumental music—to a particular behavior—focused attention.

On the other hand, for work requiring little thought but a great deal of energy, children should listen to music with a quick beat and energizing lyrics.

Why does music help?  Listening to music releases a chemical called dopamine which turns on different parts of the brain known to be important for learning.

 

Books for your child to read this summer

To maintain your child’s reading level during the summer and to avoid the summer slide, make plans now to stock up on good books.

Below are hyperlinks to lists of books appropriate for child readers. However,  the grade or age suggestions might not correspond to your child’s reading level.  Check out books in nearby grade levels too.  If your child is a precocious reader, keep in mind that books recommended for higher grades might not contain suitable content for a younger child.

boy reading on the floorAnother place to find good lists is from your child’s school or from your public library.  In the summer, children’s books tend to fly off library shelves. Reserve books now before your name goes on a waiting list.

Grade 1

Goodreads grade 1 reading list
Greatschools grade 1 reading list
Scholastic ages 6 to 7 reading list
Educationworld geade 1 reading list
ALA grade K to 2 reading list

Grade 2

Goodreads grade 2 reading list
Greatschools grade 2 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to 10 reading list
Educationworld grade 2 reading list
ALA grades K to 2 reading list

Grade 3

Goodreads grade 3 reading list
Greatschools grade 3 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to10 reading list
Educationworld grade 3 reading list
ALA grade 3 reading list

Grade 4

Goodreads grade 4 readinglist
Greatschools grade 4 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to 10 reading list
Educationworld grade 4 reading list
ALA grade 4 reading list

Grade 5

Goodreads grade 5 reading list
Greatschools grade 5 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 5 reading list
ALA grade 5 reading list

Grade 6

Goodreads grade 6 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 6 reading list
ALA grade 6 reading list

Grade 7

Goodreads grade 7 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 7 reading list
ALA grade 7 reading list

Grade 8

Goodreads grade 8 reading list
Educationworld grade 8 reading list
ALA grade 8 reading list

Grade 9

Goodreads grade 9 reading list

Grade 10

Goodreads grade 10 reading list

Grade 11

Goodreads grade 11 reading list

Grade 12

Goodreads grade 12 reading list

Maintain reading skills during the summer

Students loose reading skills during the summer if they don’t continue reading.  Educators call this loss the “summer slide.”  It is most severe among low-income students who lose up to two months of reading skills.  Yet it is sometimes nonexistent among middle class students who make slight gains in reading during summer months.  Why the difference?

Summer slide (decline) of reading scores.

  • A study of 3000 sixth and seventh graders in Atlanta Public School showed that students who read at least six books during the summer maintained or improved their reading skills.  But students who didn’t read lost up to a whole grade of reading skills.  (B. Heyns, 1978)
  • A study of Baltimore students over 15 years found that By the end of fifth grade, Baltimore students who didn’t read during the summer measured two years behind their classmates who did.  They concluded that 2/3 of the reading difference in ninth graders can be attributed to reading or not during summer school breaks.  (K Alexander, D. Entwisle and L. Olson, 2007)
  • A study of students completing third grade who took part in their local libraries’ summer reading programs scored 52 Lexile points ahead of their classmates who did not. (Dominican University)
  •  Children’s absence from reading during the summer is a major hurdle for achieving good reading skills by the end of third grade.  (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading)
  • The summer slide is cumulative.  Some estimate that by the end of high school the summer slide can account for up to a four year lag in reading achievement, and it can have an effect on high school graduation rates.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.”

So how can you combat the summer slide?

  • Sign your child up for your local library’s summer reading program, and make sure your child completes the reading.
  • Go to the library regularly and let your child select books she will enjoy.
  • Help your child to read a chapter book a week, or a picture book each night.
  • Encourage your child to read the newspaper, television guides, magazines and online articles.
  • Reward your child with a trip to the book store to select her very own book.
  • Read to your child every evening, and let him read to you.  Your reading will teach fluency and pronunciation, and establish the notion that reading for pleasure is fun.

(This blog first appeared on May 16, 2014.)

How to build reading comprehension skills in a child who can’t read yet

Though toddlers can’t read, they can begin to learn the comprehension skills they will need when they do read.  Here’s one way you can help.

Improve their listening comprehension by orally quizzing them—as playfully as possible—when you read stories to them.

Ask them questions after each page or each part of a story. “Now I forget.  Is Little Red Riding Hood going to her grandmother’s house or her big sister’s house?”  In this case you offer two suggestions, one of which is correct, and the children can choose the correct answer.

Later, as the children grow, ask them to supply the answer. “How many little pigs were there?”  “Was one of the houses made out of leaves?”

Questions about the sequencing of a story encourage children to pay attention to what comes at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. “When did Sylvester find the magic pebble?  Was it at the beginning of the story or at the end?”

Questions about the setting encourage children to pay attention to the where and when of a story.  “I think Cinderella lived in a tent.  What do you think?”

As much as possible, make the quizzing seem like a game. Use gestures, facial animation and your “big, bad wolf” voice.  Limit the number of questions you ask to the child’s age plus one so the child doesn’t tire of this activity.

Some children will enjoy asking you the questions. Go for it.  This will make the activity seem more game-like since in a game, everybody gets a chance.

If you make remembering information and asking questions a normal part of telling stories, children are apt to bring this habit to the stories they read themselves.