Sometimes we ask students to identify key elements of plot, perhaps even placing them on a plot diagram or timeline. This can be a valuable activity as we look into whether students comprehend the text. Advanced readers often have no problem recognizing literary elements and are ready for more challenging ways to interact with those events. If we ask them to first identify elements and then examine the effect on the text if an element were removed, deeper thinking can occur. Students will be able to evaluate the way seemingly small events affect a larger work, or they can analyze both the short- and long-term effects of a plot event on a story as a whole.
Examining what’s missing could take a couple of different forms in the classroom. Here are a few ideas:
- Ask students to analyze the effect of removing a key idea.
- Ask students what text detail they think could most easily be removed.
- Ask students to articulate how a story would change if a character were absent.
No matter what task we choose, it’s important to continually direct students back to the text to support their answers. As we do so, we are able to support not only their comprehension skills but their skills of analysis, inference, and use of textual evidence as well.
Recently, I put this into practice with a group of advanced second-grade readers. We read a version of The Princess and the Pea and put what they thought were the five key text events on sticky notes. Then, I asked each student to choose one of those notes and imagine that the event had been removed from the story. They studied the element, created cause-and-effect maps, and discussed the text with their peers as they approached the task. Students were able to analyze the effect of events on the text, relate to larger concepts, and think at high levels. Students made connections with the political effect that not finding the pea could have had on the entire kingdom, the emotional effect on the prince if the princess had never knocked on the door, the way the life of the princess would have changed if she hadn’t felt the pea, and more—all from the removal of one small thing.
It’s true that sometimes we don’t realize the effect of something small until we no longer have it. Although this task may not be the right fit for all students, advanced readers will thrive as they engage in it and rely on inference, critical thinking, and creativity.