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Writing Good Book Reports

The Modern Book Report
I used to regard book reports as evidence, nothing more. They were the hard-core proof that you'd done your summer reading or completed an English assignment. You churned out a few paragraphs, received a grade, and that was that.

Kids today are being asked to do more. That old war horse, the book report, has taken on new dimensions.

Starting Early
Educators say that book reports help students structure and articulate their thoughts. From the earliest grades, they provide a way to develop communication skills sequentially, through speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Can you remember the first book report you produced? It had to be after you learned to read. . . or was it? Increasingly, today's kids are getting into the swing as early as kindergarten. "Children don't have to know how to read in order to evaluate and discuss books," said an elementary teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota. "Parents are reading to them at home; we're reading aloud at school, so the kids are already making connections. They're entirely capable of analyzing the stories they see and hear." Indeed, the early grades are an ideal time for kids to experience all the elements that make up a story and to use them to make predictions and draw conclusions.

Practicing for the Real Thing
These days, it's not unusual for first graders to keep journals of books they've explored at home. Teachers say that even a couple of sentences recording a personal reaction to a story are enough to trigger a lively classroom discussion. "Book discussions are great," says one third-grade teacher. "The kids share their observations about what motivated characters to behave the way they did or why an author decided to begin or end a chapter in a certain way."

A good transition between discussion and writing is making a book poster. "Tell the world about your book!" one teacher challenges her fourth graders. The students produce posters with different decorative sections: one contains sentences describing the four parts of a story: the problem, ways to solve the problem, the climax, and the resolution. Another consists of a written description of a favorite character. "Be sure to use examples from the book," she cautions. Other parts of the poster might involve personal critiques of the plot, characters, or the author's style. It's an informal way of leading up to the Real Thing.

Getting it Down on Paper
In later elementary grades, students concentrate on learning to write coherent plot summaries, character sketches, theme analyses, and critiques. They practice giving opinions about different aspects of a book, such as the author's use of language and dialogue. They work on character sketches, describing physical and personality traits. Themes, or big ideas, are considered (what can we learn about life or living from this story?) along with plot: Did the story keep you involved? Why or why not? Examples from the book are essential.

Although the emphasis is on clear and expressive writing, good teachers come up with projects that keep interest high and appeal to a variety of student strengths: designing book jackets, putting together puppet shows, pantomimes, and simulated radio interviews. After reading Aesop's fables, one teacher told her fourth graders: "In presenting your book, plan to become the main character of your story and tell the book's adventures from the point of view of that character. Summarize the story relating a few of the important adventures. Be sure to dress up as a mouse, as a dog, or a rabbit."

Whether your child is a mouse, a dog, or a rabbit, book reports will continue to be a scholastic fact of life. They're the vehicles through which kids learn to summarize, compare and contrast, make predictions and connections, and consider different perspectives--skills they'll need well beyond their school days.

How can Parents Help?

  • Get kids to read their favorite sections of a book aloud. Encourage them to ham it up. Give prizes for the most dramatic renditions.
  • Break out the art supplies and invite your children to illustrate their favorite scenes. Display these around the house or tuck them in an envelope and send them to the grandparents. Older children can accompany their illustrations with written comments about the story.
  • Debate over dinner. Ask kids to justify why they favor a certain book. Make sure they give concrete examples and illustrations.
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