November 17, 2017

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Inspiring Reluctant & Struggling Readers with Sharon Creech’s “Love That Dog”  | In the Classroom

“Laila, do you want to read?” I asked my 18-month-old niece as I used the American Sign Language sign for read with my hands. She nodded and wobbled toward her books in the adjacent room. I sat nearby, allowing her to pull books from the library shelves. She arrived at a decision, grabbed the Dr. Seuss classic One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and planted herself in my lap. I placed the book in front of us and delivered each word with emphatic pronunciation and excitement. She was mesmerized and signed for me to read it over and over, helping me to turn the pages each time.

In my classroom, picking out books isn’t always as blissful a scene as this one. I’ve been teaching English language arts for nine years to grades six through 12, and last year was my first experience teaching sixth graders in an integrated coteaching environment. I encountered many reluctant readers who searched my stacks of books with eyes that wished for summer. Knowing their love of reading hung in the balance, I sought out recommended titles for students who face particular reading challenges. Some may have reading difficulty due to weak decoding skills for unfamiliar words, whereas others are left more confused by idiomatic phrases or complex sentence structures, and then there are those with dyslexia who struggle with the size or style of the font or even the way the words are spaced out on the page. Hooking reluctant and struggling readers means finding books that provide a workout for their particular skill gap but that still fit their reading level and match their interests. This is a nuanced task and, luckily, one book I came across did it all: Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (HarperCollins, 2001).

000Love That DogCreech’s novel in verse was a constant hit for struggling and proficient readers alike. The blue color of the letters and the use of negative space meant the words didn’t visually overwhelm dyslexic readers. Students who have difficulty processing long, complex sentences instead found themselves enjoying a fluent reading of the plot. In reading conferences, the sincerity imbued in the voice of the narrator always came up. The protagonist, Jack, struggles to understand and write poetry. Students sympathize. They feel “he’s just like me when it comes to reading.” They also laugh at his worries about being a boy writing poetry. Their reading responses contain advice on how to shed this idea that poetry is for girls. One student wrote, “Just write. Share your emotions!”

The book’s length, at 86 pages, is yet another reason why it is a great fit for reluctant readers; it doesn’t intimidate them. I should note, though, that there is no loss of depth in the narrative left on the cutting room floor. Creech’s effective word choice fills the short tale to the brim with meaning. It is a model text for students learning to read not just the words on the page but what is left unspoken and between the lines. For instance, a phrase as simple as “and maybe it would look good on yellow paper” subtly communicates the protagonist’s burgeoning interest in the artistic presentation of his poems in class—a major shift from Jack’s early feelings of unease regarding poetry.

The character of Ms. Stretchberry is another example of subtlety in the narrative because she is such a softly drawn portrait of a teacher. Her voice is never heard in the book; the reader can only get a sense of her from Jack’s responses to her assignments. In this way, she becomes the foundation for the conflict as a positive antagonist of sorts. First she challenges Jack by having him read and write poetry, then by telling him that his poetry is good and worth displaying in the room. Jack does not share her perspective, believing his poems are merely words in a column. This is a wonderful opener for a genre question with students. I love to ask them how they view Jack’s assessment of his own work. Most don’t share his view. They believe what he’s created is poetry because it is real and meaningfully written (about the loss of his dog).

In these conversations with my students, Ms. Stretchberry reaches beyond the page to push my readers and Jack alike. She nudges us all to take risks in the classroom, ones that lead to personal growth. It is a lesson all struggling readers and the Jacks of the world need to hear: keep trying; what you’re doing is valuable even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

Valerie Sawicki About Valerie Sawicki

Valerie Sawicki is a teacher at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria. She has nine years of experience that spans both middle and high school grades. You can find her on the web at valeriesclass.weebly.com.

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Comments

  1. “What you are doing is valuable” – words we should all live by daily. Very interesting article. You are to be commended and, YES, what you do is very valuable!

  2. Please continue sharing the strategies you implement for struggling readers. They are helpful to teachers as well as parents/students.