The Grand Illusion

  • David Hoffman image
    There is a wonderful scene in Jean Renoir’s 1938 cinematic masterpiece Grand Illusion where French prisoners-of- war receive a crate of smuggled goods from their loved ones. They hope it is filled with food. The men anxiously encircle a comrade as he pries open the wooden box. Looks of awe, surprise and then confusion fill the captives’ faces as they discover that their contraband nourishment has arrived in the form of books instead of food.
    In his rumination on war, Renoir may be subtly suggesting that a bit more book knowledge and a little less frivolity may be what is needed to move countries toward finding ways of getting along.
    I have written before about the power of books to transform lives. Books can take us deep inside ourselves as we seek to better understand our thoughts and feelings. They can also shed light on the human condition, transport us to new lands and landscapes, elicit a myriad of emotions or simply allow us an opportunity to learn about our world without ever having to venture from a favorite sofa. I truly consider reading to be a quality of life issue. Take away books and you take away a vital source of mental and spiritual sustenance.
    Reading, however, is not always an easy endeavor. Whether a beginning or advanced book lover, we all struggle at one time or another to make meaning of text. Sometimes literal meanings disguise greater truths. When assigned Animal Farm in seventh grade, I thought I would be reading the sequel to Charlotte’s Web. During the summer of 1975, while immersed (submersed?) in Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, I realized that his fishy protagonist just might be a symbol of something bigger and insidious.
    We become more sophisticated readers by reading more. We also learn to comprehend more difficult texts and dig deeper into seemingly simple texts by being taught comprehension strategies through others modeling their meaning making processes, talking to each other about a shared text (book clubs and study groups) and reading “just right” books, those that we can understand.
    Along with other components, the district’s comprehensive reading program provides instruction in all three of the above stated routines. Teachers, like parents providing initial bike-riding instruction, help students learn to navigate through and balance reading comprehension strategies while gradually taking off the training wheels when the children are ready to ride (i.e. read) without support.
    You too can help your child increase his or her comprehension skills (don’t forget, reading is thinking; it is making meaning of text and not simply decoding words) by doing the following:
    • First and foremost, demonstrate your pleasure in reading. Children need to constantly receive signals that reading is joyful and worth their time and energy.

    • When reading with your child, model good comprehension strategies: Ask meaning making questions, make text to text/life/world connections, offer predictions/inferences, visualize passages, distinguish main ideas from details, apply knowledge to what is known and generate new ideas—take risks when making meaning-- support your thinking with details in the text.

    • Have your child practice asking questions about something in the book that he or she is pondering or unclear about. Are there details that support an answer?

    • Reread passages that are enlightening, complicated or unclear—share your thinking about how rereading helps clarify text.

    • When reading non-fiction, talk about graphs, charts, captions, photographs and the other similar text features, if they are present. How do these text features help make meaning?

    • Ask your child to retell what was read. When retelling fiction, encourage these words: First, next, then and finally.

    • Embolden your child to start or participate in a book club with friends or family.

    • Reread favorite books over and over again. This practice increases fluency and sometimes allows a reader to discover new meanings or find fresh details in the text.

    • Above all, talk about what you are reading and struggling with as a reader. Share how you are making meaning of text.
    Thank you for supporting our work at school. Your assistance in modeling and fostering effective comprehension strategies will greatly help your child attain a lifetime of reading pleasure. Like the prisoners in Grand Illusion, your child will learn to relish the truly liberating nature of books.
    David Hoffman