Last week, in celebration of Roald Dahl’s September birthday, we explored how to teach writing using his novels as mentor text. Mentor texts are real-life examples of wonderful writing pieces students can emulate. This week, we are going to jump in and discuss teaching reading comprehension with Roald Dahl.
Roald Dahl wrote some amazing children’s novels and we explored Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and his autobiography, Boy on our last blog. You can check it out here.
Roald Dahl is known for his ingenious and unique writing style. The unusual characters in his novels come to life in intriguing ways. Paired with out-of-the-box events and peculiar settings, Dahl’s novels are a recipe for a memorable read.
Not only do these memorable reads make for marvelous mentor text for writing, but it’s also perfect for teaching reading comprehension.
The BFG: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl
Beginning with what I feel is the most eccentric, yet most interesting book, The BFG stands for big, friendly giant. The BFG is a dream catcher, plodding through the streets of England nightly using a trumpet to catch dreams. He gives children good dreams and destroys the bad ones. Sophie, a little girl, catches the BFG in the act. The BFG plucks her up, puts her in his pocket, and takes her home. In his home, she learns about the way of giants including their favorite fizzy drink called the ‘frobscottle’ that makes you ‘whizzpop.’ She learns about the English cucumber he eats called ‘snozzcumbers.’ They go on some crazy adventures including stomping through giant territory and encountering the man-eating giants. Sophie and the BFG even visit the queen at Buckingham Palace. Eventually, Sophie teaches the BFG how to speak proper English.
I first used this book as a read-aloud in a 3rd/4th grade combination classroom. It was a challenging read-aloud because of the made-up and outlandish words. Yet, that is exactly what helps review phonemes. The BFG’s sentences can be used to promote fluency as a mentor text. Placing sentences in front of students and reading the text in unison helps tremendously with fluency.
Dissecting the words and practicing inferencing skills to figure out the meanings of these words helps with decoding. Students can determine that ‘snozzcumber’ has ‘cumber’ in it from cucumber and could infer that ‘snozz’ sounds slimy, and it must be a slimy cucumber. Giving students these kooky words ahead of time to have them predict what the story may be about. This will really help with student buy-in as I’m sure they’ll wonder what kind of story this is!
Students could also do some word work of their own, putting words together to create their own silly, nonsensical words. In a 2009 study by Dilberto, Beattie, Flowers, & Algozzine, “Students who practiced syllabication skills by reading and spelling nonsense words made significantly greater improvements in word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension than their peers who did not have practice with pretend words.”
Roald Dahl knew what he was doing promoting pretend, nonsensical words. He definitely knew what he was doing when writing these unforgettable tales.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl
This story hardly needs a summary as most of the world is familiar with either the book or movies made from it. Dahl published this book in 1964. Eleven-year-old Charlie lives in poverty with his grandparents and leads a rather sad life, until the introduction of a golden ticket contest livens up his world. Willy Wonka, an eccentric chocolate business owner has closed down his factory, but decides to open it up to five golden ticket winners for a tour. Consumers must buy chocolate bars and open them to find a golden ticket. Charlie is the fifth winner of the golden ticket, and he and his grandfather go on the chocolate tour. They are in for a wild ride and an experience that changes the trajectory of their lives.
When teaching this novel, the skill of sequencing should definitely be utilized. With so many fantastical events occurring in the tour, mapping down everything in a sequencing organizer can help students keep up with the timeline of events. Sequencing skills help in other areas such as problem-solving, reading comprehension, and information organization. Older students can complete a plot line as a sequencing map and learn all about climax and resolution.
The lively and wacky characters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory make it perfect to teach character traits. From the bratty Veruca to the gluttonous Augustus, there are a wide range of character traits for students to explore. Students can also examine inner and outer character traits. They can also illustrate the characters as they imagined them when they read the novel. Character analysis can be taken a step further for older students as they dissect why the grandparents have been bedridden and how their poverty has played a role in this. Personality types vary for each character and even enforce certain societal stereotypes. Dahl’s huge imagination makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory perfect for character analysis.
Students can also investigate setting as it plays a huge role in this novel. The main setting is listed in the title and plays such an important part that the story would not be the same without it. Students could illustrate various settings and using text-based evidence by writing a sentence from the novel adjacent to their illustration as confirmation. Students can analyze how this setting is like a character of its own and how the setting’s transformations really propel the storyline.
The Witches: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl
With Halloween coming up, The Witches is a spooky read-aloud that will have students on the edge of their seats. I don’t recommend watching the original movie however, as it gave me some pretty horrible nightmares when I was a child! The book nonetheless is the perfect mix of fear and outlandishness. I recommend this book for ages 8 and up.
The Witches is about a boy whose parents die in a car accident, and he is sent to live with his grandmother in Norway. His grandmother warns him about witches in their community who turn children into mice. (Disclaimer: Definitely inform children this is fictional and part of the fantasy genre.) The grandmother and the boy go on vacation to a fancy hotel where the protagonist soon encounters the witches he was warned about. The main character and a friend he gains at the hotel named Bruno become detectives. Their first mission is to figure out who the witches are and how best to rid the world of their evilness.
The Witches is perfect to teach about different genres and how to identify a genre. For instance, fantasy must contain elements of some type of folklore and this novel does. Students can review the differences between fiction and nonfiction and learn that dark fantasy is the proper terminology for spooky stories. This all further emphasizes to kids that this is not a story to be scared of. For more about teaching genre, check out our genre resources below.
Next, students can practice inferencing skills as they become detectives piecing together the information about witches with the women that the protagonist encounters. Additionally, teaching students what a universal theme is can help aid in reading comprehension. Students can investigate the theme of heroism as the main character acts as a hero to save the community from the witches. The theme of good vs. evil and how good always triumphs over evil can also be examined.
Furthermore, students can practice comparing and contrasting skills. The witches can be compared and contrasted using inner and outer character traits using a combination of illustrations and text-based evidence. Additionally, metaphors and similes are abundant in The Witches. “Her shrieking voice echoed through the ballroom like a trumpet,” is an example of just one of the similes present in the book. Students can go on a simile and metaphor hunt throughout the novel, recording their findings and creating some of their own.
If you’re looking for an interesting October read-aloud or short novel unit, The Witches is too interesting not to pass up.
We have had a blast exploring Roald Dahl and celebrating his September birthday! His creative writing, bizarre characters, and peculiar storylines have intrigued students year after year. His novels can be used to teach writing, like we spoke about in Part 1, and can be used to teach a variety of reading comprehension skills from sequencing to theme. Next time you’re looking for a new novel to read with your kiddos, consider Roald Dahl: one of our favorites.