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October 15, 2012 A Closer Look at Characters By Julie Ballew
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    One challenge inherent in teaching reading is that much of the work students do as they read is invisible. How can we meet their individual needs if we can’t get inside their heads? A reader’s notebook is one tool that makes the reader’s thinking visible. We can prompt students to move from thinking to talking to drawing and writing about their reading. This gives us a much clearer picture of their understanding and allows us to adjust our instruction accordingly. This month, students in every grade level at my school are taking a closer look at characters. We use the reader’s notebook in a variety of ways, but this post will focus on reader’s notebook entries dealing specifically with characters.

    Character Maps for Young Readers

    Even our youngest students use character maps to demonstrate their understanding. The simplest character maps have a drawing of the character in the middle and some character traits and/or feelings in a web around them. Pictured below are a modeled character map (based on the book Willow’s Whispers by Lana Button) and a 1st grader’s interpretation of the same character map.

    Character Map of Willow     Student Character Map of Willow

    Characters Change Over Time

    Once students are comfortable with describing characters and naming their traits, it is important to teach them that characters are not just one way — they change over time. One way to do this in the notebook is to create three small character maps — one for the beginning of the story, one for the middle, and one for the end.  The examples below are based on The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds.

    Character Change Map of Jean     Character Change Map of Vashti

    Increasing Complexity

    As students get older and become more proficient readers, character maps can grow with them. One change we push for beginning in 2nd grade is the addition of text evidence. The goal is for students to be very comfortable with text evidence. This will become more important as the texts they are reading become more complex. The chart below (based on the book Chowder by Peter Brown) shows some inferred traits of the main character (in boxes), along with examples from the book for support (in bursts). Another way for them to give evidence is by drawing a simple character map and writing a few sentences below it explaining their thinking. One 1st grader did this with Chester from The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.

    Character Map of Chowder      Character Map of Chester


    Character Analysis for Older ReadersCharacter Map for Ida B.

    More advanced readers are asked to focus on the evidence behind the traits they name. Their writing is longer and might include direct quotes from the text.

    The picture shows a character analysis that I completed at the end of the year with 3rd graders, but it could be used in older grades as well. It is based on the book Ida B. . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan.



    When we invite students to take a closer look at characters, we are inviting them to do more than just read the words on the page; we are asking them to do some heavy thinking work. Reader’s notebooks help that thinking come to life so that we can see their level of understanding, assess their needs, and move forward.  Look for more posts about possible reader’s notebook entries in the future!



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Susan Cheyney