Five ways to make books with unfamiliar contexts accessible

The assistant vice-principal of a primary school shares his advice for helping children to engage with books that have unfamiliar contexts

Aidan Severs

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Stories are often the means by which we have experiences that our everyday lives could not possibly provide. It is right, therefore, that we should expose children to narratives with unfamiliar contexts.

But how can we make those texts, and their contexts, more accessible to the children that we teach?  

Here are five ways to help children to engage with books that have unfamiliar contexts.

1. Use images

Photographs, drawings, paintings, illustrations from other books and even 3D models can be used to enhance a child's visualisation. Read texts yourself ahead of the lesson and collect images, particularly of potentially unfamiliar nouns, that can be used to support understanding. This can bring a child into the realm of a book. Even stories with a fairly standard setting, such as a seaside town, can be full of things like quays, harbours, lobster pots and yachts, which might be alien objects to some.

2. Use film

Film has the power to convey action and sound as well as show what something looks like. Archive footage, movies, documentaries and news stories can all provide an immersive experience that stimulates the senses more than an image could. This moves understanding beyond word and sentence-level comprehension to give a sense of the bigger picture. For example, newsreel footage of children being evacuated would help children to understand the opening chapters of Carrie's War, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Goodnight Mr. Tom.

3. Use other books

In 'Reading Reconsidered', Doug Lemov et al suggest that when fiction and non-fiction texts are paired, children better comprehend both texts. For example, pairing a non-fiction text about the Holocaust with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas will help children to understand the context better. You don’t always have to use fiction or non-fiction. You could pair a graphic novel or a picture book with a novel or use a diary entry or webpage to support a newspaper or magazine article.

4. Use drama and real-life experience

Act out movements to help children understand new verbs and adverbs, pull faces to show how characters are feeling; go on museum visits to see recreations of settings and historical artefacts, go on trips to old mills, little villages, steam railways, the countryside, the coast...make the stories come as alive as they possibly can by giving children the experiences that will help them to engage more deeply in a text. Even dramatising the way you read aloud can have an impact ─ do the voices, pay attention to your dynamics and tone and make gestures to mirror the characters' actions.

5. Use dictionaries

Vocabulary is key to understanding new contexts, so dictionary work should be a given. Once children have looked up and defined new words, there are plenty of follow-up activities that could aid children in their understanding of a whole text. For example, ask them to rewrite a line of a poem in their own words, draw the setting that an author is describing or discuss why the author has chosen a particular word rather than one of its synonyms.

If we regularly provide opportunities like these then we will help children to connect with and better understand the novels they are reading. The more they understand what they read, the more likely they are to enjoy it ─ and the more they enjoy books, the more they will want to read.

Aidan Severs is an assistant vice-principal at a primary school in the North of England

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Aidan Severs

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