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Things Good Readers Do: Make Connections

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In the previous post of this series, I went over the strategy of visualization and how I teach it. This strategy is part of what good readers do while they read. There are so many more ways that readers interact with the text while they read!

One of those ways is the strategy of making connections.

Let’s dive in!

What is “making connections”? | How do I teach it? | Tips for Grownups at Home

What is “making connections”?

There are different kinds of connections in this world: connecting people, connecting to WiFi, connecting to books…but you already know that.

When educators talk about making connections to texts, they usually group the kinds of connections into three or four categories:

  1. between the text and the reader
  2. between multiple texts
  3. between the text and their knowledge of the world
  4. within the same text

Let me quickly give you some examples so that we’re all on the same page.

Between the Text and the Reader

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This connection comes the most naturally to the majority of students. Why? Because we all view the world through the lens of our own experiences. When readers can empathize with a character because they recognize in the main character a reflection of their own experiences, it not only enriches their own lives, but also their understanding of the text.

Here’s an example:

Last school year, the first read-aloud I did with my kiddos was Fish in a Tree. The main character, Ally, struggles to read even though most people think that by sixth grade a kid should have no problem. Turns out, she has dyslexia.

Several of my students needed no prompting to make a connection to the text, because they saw in Ally’s life a reflection of their own experience with reading: it was hard and the letters squiggled around on the page, and they have had to work their little tushies off to keep up and make progress.

In Ally’s life, they all of a sudden had something in common and could see that their struggle to read wasn’t isolated to just their own lives. Some of them were even brave enough to say it out loud during our Zoom class.

And you know the freedom that comes when you admit a struggle and then find out you’re not the only one? Yeah, that happened in my class this year.

I, on the other hand, connected in a different way to the text. With the main character, I could connect to the fact that her father was deployed, because I experienced that at about her same age (though we didn’t have Skype back then).

I also connected to the teacher in the book and his desire to help Ally in any way that he could.

Connecting the text to one’s own life is as simple as saying, “what? you too?” – which is one of the richest parts of reading for me. Sometimes your own experience isn’t mirrored by the people in your life. But someone in the world has most likely written about it. And when you discover the book, you all of a sudden know that you are not alone.

Not only does this connection enrich one’s life, it also deepens the reader’s understanding of the text. Instead of just reading the words, all of a sudden, they’re penetrating the heart. It’s basically magical.

Between Multiple Texts

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Connecting between multiple texts is really just saying, “hey, this part of the book reminds me of [book xyz].” Okay, we can talk about deeper connections than that, but that’s level 1 where we start readers.

Here’s what it looks like. One year, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my class, and then later in the year, we did a unit on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. My class and I noticed some similarities between the books – they both have siblings sets, there’s a professor, they both involve going to a magical world from the real world, etc.

This type of connection isn’t always as profound as connecting the text to self, but it is still an important type of connection to learn to make.

Why?

Put one way, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Though the author of Ecclesiastes wasn’t being really positive about life when he said that, readers really benefit from the fact that most books fall into specific patterns:

  • boy and girl meet and they fall in love
  • boy and girl were enemies and then they ended up falling in love
  • kid happens to enter a magical world and a quest ensues
  • the world is ending and it is up to this one, young, unassuming character to save the world through their grit and determination – and the help of some other people of good character
  • Once upon a time…bad things…good things…happily ever after

Our brains like to make sense of things. When we as readers start to notice similarities between other texts, it helps our brains understand what we’re reading because it knows what to expect and can then look at the nuances and differences from the typical pattern.

Between the Text and the World

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An enormous aspect of reading is using what we know about the world to make sense of what we read. Typically, educators describe this as more of a connection between some knowledge that a reader has about the world – maybe they’ve read other books on horses, so they make the connection between the way a horse is measured in a book. Or, perhaps they have seen how fireflies look on a summer night, so when they read a description, they visualize it and make a connection from the text they’re reading to what they know of the world.

This kind of connection is less personal than the text-to-self connection; however, it is still extremely important, because it, too, is crucial to understanding the text thoroughly.

Within the Same Text

This type of connection is actually more difficult for young readers, sometimes, because they have to keep track of details and events from earlier in the book to connect to the part they’re currently reading. This type of connection is a bit more difficult for kids to grasp, but it isn’t impossible.

Connecting within the same text could look like:

  • remembering a description of a character (“he was left-handed”) to the fact that the crime was committed by someone who used their left hand
  • noticing that xyz character always repeats him/herself, bringing up the same topic over and over
  • analyzing how a certain character acted in the beginning of the book compared to near the end

How do I teach making connections?

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I love helping kids start to make connections by first teaching about the above types of connections explicitly. We make anchor charts and I also have students share when they’ve connected something in a book.

Often, I begin with the text-to-self connection, because it is the most relatable. (Humans tend to think about themselves a lot, especially kids, so it just makes sense to start there.)

This type of explicit teaching involves a lot of discussion, because as they start to grasp what I’m teaching, they get excited about sharing their own reading experience.

The sharing aspect of this strategy is really important, I’ve found. More than me modeling making connections (which I do), for some reason, kids start to “get” this topic when their peers share.

As I’ve considered why, my hunch is that this abstract topic is made more concrete when they hear connections that match with their developmental age and stage. I definitely try to think of examples from my own reading life that are at their level, but there’s still something different (and more effective) about them learning from hearing their classmates’ ideas.

After I explicitly teach and we discuss this, I make brief asides about my connections as we continue whatever the current class read-aloud is:

  • “I’m connecting this to when…”
  • “This part makes me think of…”
  • “Huh. This aspect of the book reminds me of [insert familiar book here]”

The key is to make the connections brief so as to not interrupt the flow of the story (and therefore their comprehension), and to also make connections that they will be able to make as well: I connect to stories that we have all read, or previous class conversations, or shared experiences that I know they had in prior school years or in the current one.

Usually, when I voice a connection, I’ll hear a “oh yeahhh I was thinking the same thing!” or “me too!”.

Often, that’s all we say and we keep reading. Occasionally, it sparks a longer discussion, or other connections.

I add “connections” to our annotations that we make when reading, and I will ask students periodically to write down a connection of any kind that they made while we read. This helps practice this strategy over and over again to help it become more automatic.

Speaking of annotations, I tend to ask students to jot down on a scrap piece of paper or sticky note any of the following things about a text:

  • predictions
  • questions
  • connections
  • things that seem important or surprising

Tips for Grownups at Home

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I could summarize my tips for grownups at home with three words: model, ask, and prompt.

Model

If you’re wanting to help your little one(s) get better at this specific strategy, I highly recommend doing the brief “think aloud” idea that I discussed above. Having a stronger reader model their thinking helps give kids a framework to use as they try it out on their own.

As you model, or perhaps after you’ve modeled the strategy for awhile, make sure that you ask them what connections they can make.

Ask

If they struggle to come up with one on their own, I find that leading questions help prompt their thinking. Obviously, you won’t be able to think for them forever (nor should you), but because you’re their grownup, you know what kinds of experiences you both have in common to help prompt their thinking.

For instance, if you’re reading Blueberries for Sal, and you just went blueberry picking the week before (or any kind of berry picking), you can ask/prompt them to make a connection between how many berries ended up in their pails vs their mouths. 🙂

If you’re reading a book where the main character is struggling in school, and you know that your child has had a similar struggle, you can ask them if they connect to how the character is feeling about their struggle.

If you’re reading a book about a topic of their interest, say, construction, or animals, you can ask them if they have a connection to when you passed a construction sight or went to the zoo, respectively.

Asking is an effective way to job their thinking and helps them practice the type of thinking required for connections.

Prompt

Eventually, your child should be able to come up with connections on their own, just by you saying something like, “What connections do you have to what we read today?”. Rather than prompting by asking for a connection to a specific part, you make prompt more generally. This takes away a bit of the support from the previous step.

It’s okay if they take awhile to come up with a connection.

It’s also okay if their connections are somewhat simple at first. (But don’t let them get away with a simple one when it’s a great opportunity for deep discussion!)

It’s okay, too, if they don’t have a connection to everything they read.

But the more they read, the more they’ll have in their little noggins to be able to connect: to previous texts, to things they know about the world, and to their own hearts and lives.

The more they can connect their lives, their world, and the texts they read, the richer their understanding – of books, of the world, and of themselves.

And that, my friends, is the goal of reading.

Previous posts in this series:
Series Introduction
Part 1: Habits of Good Readers
Finding Just Right Books
Abandoning Books
Setting Goals & Tracking Reading
Make it a Habit
Talk About Books
Part 2: Strategies of Good Readers
Skim and Scan
Predict and Question
Visualize

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