Fifth Graders Respond to a Changed Reading Program

Cora Lee Five, a fifth-grade teacher, puts into practice innovative ideas gleaned from the work of other teachers and re­searchers. She realizes, however, that she must rely on her own observations and questions to test these ideas in her class­room. Five concludes that through her own study of her students’ responses to literature she has become more able to follow their development as readers.

How can teachers continue to learn about teaching? This question receives much attention in the current discussion about improving schools. Throughout my teaching career I have attended many uni­versity courses and inservice workshops. Usually these are opportunities for teach­ers to learn about new curricula and teach­ing approaches. Although these sessions have introduced me to many ideas I would not have come across on my own, I have had to find my own ways to make new ideas work in my classroom.

My own classroom research has helped me understand the impact new approaches have in my own classroom. As a teacher­ researcher I welcome the opportunity to test hypotheses and pay attention to what my experiences teach me. Observing, lis­tening, and questioning keep me alert to my students’ needs and help me find ways to improve my instruction. Often this means involving the students in the research. I do this by telling them that I, too, want to learn, and by explaining what it is I want to learn. As my students become an active part of my research, we  become a community of learners rather than a teacher-centered classroom. The result is reciprocity in out learning: I learn from my students as they learn from me. 

Classroom research helped me improve the way I teach reading. What follows is an account of my efforts to adapt and try out a new reading program with my fifth graders. I will acknowledge the ideas I re­ceived from other people who inspired the various changes I attempted. But I will concentrate on what I learned as I made these program changes and how my re­search enabled me to figure some things out for myself.

Over the past few years, the work of three people-Nancie Atwell, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, and Jerome Hars:te-has pro­foundly influenced my teaching of reading. Atwell’s (1984, 19 85) description of how her eighth graders responded to their read­ing by writing letters to her, in dialogue journals stimulated my own thinking. She became involved in students’ reactions to books by writing letters back to them. Giacobbe (1985) made me realize that teachers must be responsive to children and their reading. She described ways to hold a quick reading conference with each child every day. Harste (1984, 1985) interested me in viewing children as in­formants and learning from them. His ideas helped me recognize the benefits of encouraging children to use many strategies to make meaning and of allowing time for collaborative learning­ time for students to talk, time for them to think and respond.

Inspired by the insights of these three people, I embarked on a new venture years ago-the creation of a reading gram that would give children time to and time to make meaning through ing and talking about books. The twenty-five students in my self-contained classroom had a wide range of abilities. The class included children who had learning disabilities and children who spoke En­glish as a second language. I hoped all of these students would tum into readers who loved reading, and I hoped research would help me recognize how that happened.

The first thing I did was the most diffi­cult: With much trepidation, I gave up the reading workbooks. As an alternative, I set up a reading program based primarily on Atwell’s approach using dialogue journals. It had worked with her eighth graders; would it work with my ten-year-olds? The answer turned out to be, “Yes.” My stu­dents became immersed in books-they began to talk books, authors, reading, and writing. And so did I.

As I considered how I wanted to use the ideas of Atwell, Giacobbe, and Harste, I noticed that three crucial elements-time, ownership, and response-made my new approach to teaching reading similar to the process approach to teaching writing. It was essential to increase the amount of school time children had for reading. Each forty-five minute reading period began with a mini-lesson during which ‘the class and I discussed character development, set­ting, titles, different genres, or various as­pects of the reading process. Following this lesson, students read books of their own choosing. During the reading time I spoke briefly with each child about his or her book, and then I spent the remainder of the period reading a book of my own choice. We ended the period with either a group sharing-time, often related to the mini-lesson, or discussions among two or three students who talked about some aspects of their books.

The children maintained ownership in this process because they decided what to read. Books from home, from the public and school libraries, and from the class­room all became texts for our reading pe­riod. Children read the books they selected, not those assigned by me.

The third element, response, became the focus of my research. Discussions during the reading period were not the only way the students communicated about what they read; they also responded to their reading in a variety of ways in their litera­ture journals. The primary way of responding was a letter to me when they finished a book. I read their journals and wrote letters back to them. They also wrote several letters each month about their books to a friend or partner in the classroom. This written communication following the completion of a book or the arrival of a partner’s letter was completed during the reading period.

One of my first observations was of the difference between the oral and written re­sponses. When the students talked to each other, they usually retold the literal details of the story. When they wrote, they apparently used time to reflect, to think. The letters, in particular, fascinated me because I could return to them and read them again. As each child’s work accumulated, I could more easily follow the changes and development in their thinking about literature. At the beginning of the year the journal responses resembled the book reports which the students had prepared in their earlier grades. The children summarized plots and offered recom­mendations about their books. Gradually, the topics addressed in the mini-lessons and in our discussions of the books I read aloud began to appear in the children’s journal entries. Their letters to me and to each other eventually included discussions of the following:

  • the characters, often making personal connections to them
  • the main idea or focus of the book
  • the tone or mood
  • characteristics of a particular author or techniques used by the author that they wished to apply to their own writing
  • the way a certain lead, ending, image or a particular voice or feeling contributed to a story
  • their predictions, inferences, and questions based on the books
  • their own interpretations of their reading
  • their own reading process, and of how they learned to read

As I collected and compared students’ responses and asked myself new questions about how students handled this task and became more involved in their reading, I learned much from Danny. Danny, who did not like reading at the beginning of the year, used one of his journal entries to de­scribe his experience of learning to read.

Dear Miss Five 

when I was 4 years old my mom ust to read to me. sometime she would let me try. I was pretty  pitifull. then in kinder­garden I always acted like I was reading and never raised my hand to read out loud. then in first grade we had a reading period and I sat and turned the pages. by this time I was a pro at turning the pages. when the teacher came over I don’t know how she noticed but she did and she knew I didn’t know how to read and she taught me how to read. Also the new kid on the block was danish and he didn’t know any english so as I taught him I taught myself in a way.

After two months of the school year there were signs of Danny’s increasing in­volvement with books. Here is how he responded at that time to Okimoto’s (1982) Norman Schnurman, Average Person. November 27

Dear Miss Five,

This letter is about Norman Schumnman – “Average Person.” The things I liked best about this book were, feeling and comedy. Especially feeling. Because when I read the part when he told his Dad, he didn’t want to play football. I think he deserved “Ten Medals!” Because if I had a Dad like that I would have probably played the whole season even if I was that bad and got hurt alot. Because I wouldn’t have the heart to watch him put his head down in disappointment. And if he did put his head down, I would have felt so guilty I would have came back ten minutes later and said Dad I’ll play. No matter how bad it felt. But I guess me and norman are dif­ferent people. And I thought the author had a good ending because it made you in a way forget about the incidents with·his Dad.

Truly Yours,


In my letter back to Danny I commented on the personal connections he was beginning to·make with the characters.

November 27

Dear Danny,

I could tell you were really involved with the characters in this book. I agree with you that Norman had a difficult deci­sion to make. It must have been very hard for him to tell his dad, but I imagine it was also very hard for Norman to keep playing on the team. I guess Norman felt he did the best he could do and had to make his own decision.

You made a good point about the end­ing. Perhaps the author wanted a happy ending, and the ending in the book does make you forget about the situation with his father.


Miss Five

Four months later Danny loved to read and write and developed an interest in the authors of the books he was reading. He discovered the writer Byars through Good­ bye, Chicken Little (1979) and began to wonder about the basis for her story.

… I thought that this book was so true and this may have happened to a kid. I think I might send a letter to Betsy Byar to see if this book was based on experience. I thought his biggest mistake  was fighting with conrad. this book was so good I wish I could read it forever.

That discovery was important to Danny in several ways. He wrote to Byars and treasured the letter he received in return, stapling it into his literature journal. He read all the rest of her books. He also decided to write in his personal journal every: night because, as he explained it, “In case I really do become an author, I want to remember all my experiences so I can put them in books for kids my age.” 

As the year progressed, many students began to experiment, struggling to inter­pret the ideas in the books they read. Josh described the character Jess in Patterson’s (1977) Bridge to Terabithia.

Dear Miss Five,

Jess has so many feelings its hard to discribe him. Let’s say he had three stages. First, a normal, hardworking stage at the beginning, and feelings, if he had any, would never be shared with anyone else.: The second stage, when Leslie came into his life, turned into a kind of magical stage in a way for him. The third stage, when Leslie died, he began to relate to: adults. These three stages make him real.



John, a less able reader, responded to the same book.

Dear Miss Five,

I think that Jess is changing on the inside because of Jesslys death. He is starting to understand not only his father but all groups and I think that he likes his sister better. 

Etay began to interpret and extend his ideas after only a few weeks. His response to Byar’s (1974) After the Goatman and his other letters showed his developing ability to look beyond the story line.

Oct. 21

Dear Miss Five,

On Thursday I finished After the Goat Man. I thought it was better than all the other books I read by Betsy Byars. I think she got the idea of the goat from as goats are supposed to be stubborn and the char­acter is stubborn. I think thats her symbol for the character. I also like the way she puts Harold as a kid still in his fantasys and still dreaming about himself. I like the way she put her characters. there is also something that I liked about an analogy about life. Figgy puts life as a spider-web and everybody’s all tied up except for him and he’s only tied up by one string which is his grandfather (the Goat Man).


Etay found a connection between The Night Swimmers, also by Byars (1982), and Patterson’s (1977) Bridge to Ter­abithia.

. . . In the end of the book Roy asked his oldest sister “is the Bowlwater plant really a big gigantic plant with bedspreads for flowers” and he went on explaining his fantasy. His oldest sister answered “no.” At that moment I thought about the book. I thought maybe that was Roy’s bridge (like Bridge to Terabithia) from his fantasy world to reality world.


The development of the comments in the letters uggested to me that students become better readers when their early, and perhaps less successful, attempts to search for greater depth, in their books are not treated as comprehension problems. Just as experimenting and risk-taking are im­portant in learning -to write, they are also important in learning to read. I began to pay more attention to how students found ways to express what certain books meant to them.

In the winter Etay discovered Alexan­der’s (1981) Westmark trilogy. When he finished the last of the three books, he wrote a long letter relating the ideas throughout the trilogy. The conclusion of the letter summarized his thoughts.

… In the end it wasn’t the monarchy that won the war but the people. And the people are the ones who took over everything. I think in this trilogy Lloyd Alexander shows what happened in Eng­land. In the start England’s monarchy had power over everything, like in the first book (Westmark). Slowly the power of the monarchy lessened, until now the monarchy has probably no power at all. In the Beggar Queen, in the end, the monar­chy was overthrown by the people.


Many students, including David, used their letters to express the joy of finding a wonderful book.

Dec. 17

Deal Miss Five,

Yesterday I finished the best book, called. The Green Futures of Tycho. As soon as I read the back of it at the book fair I knew it was the book for me. And I was right, it felt as though it was made especially for me. . . Ever since I was a little kid, I loved the thought of going

into the past & future, & telling my future, & thinking about all of it.

But David’s response was not limited to this personal interest in the book’s topic. He also commented on the author’s craft.

…I like how the author kept changing & making the future & past more exciting. Like in the future he invented things, but didn’t tell what they did, he let you figure it out. You should definitely read it to the class. 



The letters to partners raised some new questions about children as responders to literature. Three or four times a month each child would write about his or her book to another child in the class. The understanding was that if they received a letter, they were required to write back.

Their letters to each other often differed from the ones they wrote to me; they struck me as having a more casual tone, and the writers seemed less concerned with what they thought I expected them to say in their response. Early in the school year David and Etay started to write to each other.

Oct. 8

Dear Etay,

I just finished A Wrinkle in Time. It is great book. I think you should read it again. Some parts of the book are pretty confusing though.

From, David

Dear David,

I hate science fiction!!!


By November more of an exchange of ideas appeared.

November 14

Dear Etay

I am reading a book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I don’t like it very much. I think it is to boring! It seems that it takes forever. I have always liked Alice in Wonderland, but I don’t like this one. Even though it is by the original author, Lewis Carrol. I am up to The Mock turtle’s story. My favorite parts so far is when she was playing croquet & when she kept growing & shrinking when she ate the mushroom, even though those parts are not so good. I am not going to read, Trough the Looking Glass.


Dear David, 

I can see that you didn’t like this book. I didn’t like, it either. I thought it was just an adventure after an adventure and then all it lead to was a dream. It was written the best way it could but I don’t think it was made for our age. I think it was made for smaller kids (who see it as cute little fantasy) or for grownups (who see it with some meaning). We’re in the middle because we’re too big to see it as a cute fantasy and we’re too small to see it with some meaning.


The letters my students wrote to me and to each other also made me think about the classroom context needed to support their reading. I realized that they read with greater depth when they selected their own books.,.ones that appealed to them rather than those that I thought they “should” read. I also realized that they probably took risks to find ways to express them­selves because, did not label their com­ments as “correct” or “incorrect.” A classroom environment that accepted and re­spected what children said about books was necessary for these journal entries and their increased interest in reading. Furthermore, the example of the peer cor­respondence shows that the acceptance from other students can be as important as the teacher’s.

Writing letters was not the only way my students ·responded to literature. “Mapping” is another strategy. Krim (1985, 1986) uses mapping with her se­nior high school students. Intrigued with her concept, I decided to try it with my fifth graders. I asked some students to map Patterson’s (1977) Bridge to Terabithia. Some of their drawings appear on this page.

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about fifth-grade boy, Jess, who has difficulty relating to other people. He has no friends until Leslie moves near his home. To­gether they create Terabithia, a kingdom where Jess is king and Leslie queen. Jess loses his friend when Leslie has a fatal ac­cident in Terabithia. As he tries to adjust to her death, Jess grows and begins to build a closer relationship with his father and others. In the end, Jess is able to give the magic of Terabithia to his younger sister Maybelle.

In his map Josh used lines and numbers to connect his drawings of important events. Although most of the events ap­pear in comparatively small drawings, Josh represented twq key points of the story with larger drawings. In one he made a bridge between Jess and his father; in the other he showed Jess rebuilding the magic of Terabithia for his sister Maybelle.

Amy mapped the story in a different way. She saw the book in terms of feelings and made a flowchart with the char­acters Jess and Leslie at the top. They come together at school, where Jess is at first “anxious” and Leslie feels “different and out of place.” “Proud but mad” are Jess’s feelings after a specific school experience that made Leslie feel “happy.” As their friendship progresses, they are both happy but, as Amy notes, in different ways. Amy follows with other feelings that describe the characters until Leslie’s death. Then she continues with the range of emotions Jess experiences as he tries to deal with and accept the loss of his best friend.

Another strategy I. used is one suggested by Harste (1985) called Sketch to Stretch. In this approach, as in mapping, the stu­dent picks out the most important ideas in their books and combine them in a sketch. This turned out to be a good way to de­velop sequencing skills as students con­nected events in a logical order to make a meaningful whole.

David has sketched the important parts of Good-bye, Chicken Little and has numbered his sketches to show the order in which they occur: the uncle drowns, Jimmy feels guilty and responsible, he fights with Conrad, they become friends again, and in the last picture David wrote that Jimmy “almost” forgets, and “everything turns out-almost perfect.”

The effect this kind of reading program had on both my students and me continues to amaze and excite me. By the fourth month of the program I could see children listening to each other and seeking rec­ommendations for their next selections. They wondered about authors and tried to imitate authors’ techniques in their own writing. They looked for feelings, for be­lievable characters, and for interesting words, and they were delighted with effec­tive dialogue.

Another indication of students’ interest and joy in reading was the number of books they read during the year. The less able readers, including students with learning disabilities and those for whom English is a second language, read between 25 and 42 books each; the average readers read about 47; and the top readers between 47 and 144 books.

And the new approach had an effect on me. My students and I began to talk books before school, at recess, and at lunchtime; their reading period never seemed to end at twelve, even though the bell had rung. Their enthusiasm was infectious. I was constantly drawn into their discussions and especially their thinking, as I became more and more involved in their reading responses: This approach and my researcher’s role helped me continue to learn more about these students, their reading processes, and their attitudes. Again and again, I saw the importance of giving them freedom to read and opportunities to experiment with and to explore their own ideas.

By collecting, sorting, reading and rereading their letters, maps, and sketches, I found for myself a much closer view of how children struggle and then succeed to find meaning in books. The process also kept me engaged in learning because it led me to new questions. What do children learn from my mini-lessons? In what situations will children take more risks with interpreting what they read? These new questions might be ones that help me reach more children in the way I reached John.

John, a real hold-out in terms of reading and loving books, a boy who completed reading few books in the fourth grade, could … not have given me a greater gift. One day I found him at his desk when everyone else had gone to lunch. He was reading. When I walked in he looked up and smiled, saying, “I love this book. I just have to finish this chapter before I go out. 

Five, Cora Lee, “Fifth Graders Respond to a Changed Reading Program,” Harvard Educational Review, 56:4„ 395-405. Copyright   1986 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.


Alexander, L. (1981). Westmark. New York: Dutton.
Alexander, L. (1982). The kestrel. New York: Dutton.
Alexander, L. (1984). The beggar queen. New York: Dutton.
Atwell, N. (1984). Writing and reading literature from the inside out. Language Arts, 61,-240-252.
Atwell, N. ‘(July; 1985). Reading, writing, thinking, learning [course]. Institute on Writing, sponsored by Northeastern Univer­sity. Martha’s Vineyard, MA.
Byars, B. (1974). After the goatman. New York: Viking.
Byars, B. (1979): Good-bye, Chicken Lit­tle. New York: Harper & Row.
Byars, B. (1980). The night swimmers. New York: Delacorte.
Giacobbe, M.E. (July, 1985). Reading, writing, thinking, learning [course]. Institute on Writing, sponsored by Northeastern University. Martha’s Vineyard, MA.
Harste, J.C., Woodward, Y.A., & Burke, C.L. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons.
Harste, J.C. (July, 1985). Creativity and intentionality [course]. Institute on Writing, sponsored by Northeastern University. Martha’s Vineyard, MA.
Krim, N. (1986). Where do we go from here? Try mapping. Unpublished manuscript Krim, N. (March, 1985). Integrating reading, writing and critical thinking skills in the teaching of literature: Focus, mapping, and sequencing strategies. Presentation at the annual spring conference of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Okimoto, J.D. (1982). Norman Schnur­ man, average person. New York:·Putnam.
Patterson, K. (1977). Bridge to Terabithia. New York: Crowell.
Sleator, W. (1981). The green futures of Tycho. New York: Dutton.