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Creating Learning Guides and Instructional Activities for Trade Books

*Written by Amy M. O'Quinn/Originally posted on the National Writing for Children website

Why Learning Guides Are Important

Authors write books. Educators purchase many of those books to use in the classroom or for other instructional purposes. It is a wonderful partnership, and everyone benefits—the author, the teacher, the students, and the publisher. But there is something else to consider.

Teachers are increasingly using more and more trade books in the classroom along with or in lieu of traditional textbooks to teach everything from A to Z. There are books on every subject or topic imaginable, and these ‘real’ books written by (usually) one author who is passionate about the topic appeal to students on many levels. Whereas textbooks can be a bit dry and tend to summarize, ‘real’ books are exciting, compelling, informative, and immediate.

However, teachers (and librarians) often want some sort of learning guide or additional instructional activities to go along with the books they have chosen. Many authors and publishers are catching on to this trend, and they are delivering just what ‘the teacher ordered.’ They are discovering that if they create learning guides for their book(s), they will probably sell more copies to teachers and librarians. Again, everyone benefits!

I’ve noticed that many children’s authors, especially those who write non-fiction, have all kinds of links, activities, and lesson plans to coordinate with their books right on their websites. And some publishers, such as Sylvan Dell, are doing the same. In fact, Sylvan Dell provides a page on their website that aligns all their titles to science and math standards for every state.

So if you are an author, consider creating a simple learning guide or some instructional activities to go with your book(s). These can be as basic or as complex as you want to make them, and you can easily make these available to educators via your website. Perhaps you can even include links to resources you found during your research. Carla McClafferty’s website is an excellent example. Just remember, teachers love it when much of the educational legwork is done for them. Instead of starting from scratch, they get to do what they do best—teach!

Teachers Can Also Create Learning Guides

However, if learning guides are not available from an author or publisher, teachers can still create their own to align with state standards.

  1. First, review a list of standards for your state. Most educators are already very familiar with these standards, and they can easily be found online as well. Since I live in Georgia, I went to the website and chose to review educational standards for fourth grade. For residents of other states, you can simply go to your state’s Department of Education and follow the links to the appropriate grade level.

  2. Next, you can match up specific standards with a book or books that apply. Or if you have a special book you really like, you can probably find a standard that correlates, especially in the areas of language arts and social studies. Most of the time, the spectrum is rather broad.

  3. Have fun coming up with activities and lesson plans that will enhance the book’s content, reinforce learning concepts, and provide an enjoyable alternative to run of the mill worksheets.

An Example of a Learning Guide/Instructional Activities for Fourth Grade

A Fourth of July on the Plains

Written by Jean Van Leeuwen

Illustrated by Henri Sorenson

Pre-Reading Activities:

Meet the Author: Jean Van Leeuwen (Give brief biographical information about the author and perhaps look at her website.)

Meet the Illustrator: Henri Sorenson (Give brief biographical information about the illustrator.) Show a few illustrations from the book and discuss the medium used.

Story Summary (from the publisher): Young Jesse and his family are with a wagon train traveling from Indiana to Oregon when they stop to celebrate the Fourth of July, but Jesse is too young to go hunting with the men, so he comes up with his own contribution to the festivities.

Background: This story is based on an account of a July 4th celebration along the Oregon trail in 1852, as recalled in the Diary of E.W. Conyers, 1905 and combined with the lively memories of Jesse A. Applegate, a seven-year-old traveler, as told in Recollections of My Boyhood, 1914.

Set the Scene: Discuss the setting of the story and view photographs of a plain. Discuss the Oregon Trail and geographical features encountered along the journey.

Vocabulary Words: Introduce new vocabulary words/terms.

Meet the Characters: Introduce characters and give their ages if relevant.

Reading: Read the book aloud or let students alternate reading orally in small groups.

Discussion: What was it like to travel in a wagon train? Talk about and make a list of some of the things Henry and the other travelers experienced. What were some of the dangers? How long had they been traveling? Would the students be willing to face the hardships of such a journey, regardless of the adventure? Why or why not?

Patriotism: Why was a Fourth of July celebration so important to the travelers? What are some things we do to celebrate in modern times? What did the travelers do to celebrate the day? How did Henry and his friends participate? What happened to make Henry declare that they got their cannons after all?

Creative Writing: Have students pretend they are part of Henry’s wagon train and write a diary entry about the Fourth of July celebration—including all five senses.

Summarizing/Sequencing: Discuss the events of the story. Let students orally narrate what happened. What was the climax? Make a list of the events in the order they occurred.

Map Work/Math:

Trace the route of the Oregon Trail on a U.S. map. Pinpoint the general area of the story. Identify the states along the trail and calculate the number of miles covered in the journey. If the wagon train traveled an average of fourteen miles per day, how long would the trip take, etc.?

In Conclusion

The suggestions above are just a sampling of learning opportunities or instructional activities that can be used with the book, A Fourth of July on the Plains by Jean Van Leeuwen. Notice how well they correspond to the Georgia educational standards for fourth grade listed below. And there are many more standards I could have chosen as well.

SS4H6 The student will explain westward expansion of America between 1801 and 1861.

a. Describe territorial expansion with emphasis on the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the acquisitions of Texas (the Alamo and independence), Oregon (Oregon Trail), and California (Gold Rush and the development of mining towns).

SS4CG5 The student will name positive character traits of key historical figures and government leaders (honesty, patriotism, courage, trustworthiness).

ELA4R3 The student understands and acquires new vocabulary and uses it correctly in reading and writing.

ELA4LSV1 The student participates in student-to-teacher, student-to-student,

and group verbal interactions.

SS4G1 The student will be able to locate important physical and man-made features in the United States.

SS4G2 The student will describe how physical systems affect human systems.

e. Describe physical barriers that hindered and physical gateways that benefited territorial expansion from 1801 to 1861 (SS4H6a).

SS4CG4 The student will explain the importance of Americans sharing certain central democratic beliefs and principles, both personal and civic.

SS4CG5 The student will name positive character traits of key historical figures and government leaders (honesty, patriotism, courage, trustworthiness).

M4P1. Students will solve problems (using appropriate technology).

Map and Globe Skills

If you are an author, creating a learning guide is a great idea. It does not have to be complex, but you know your book(s) better than anyone else does, and you can provide teachers with some guidance for using your work in the classroom. Moreover, you increase your chances for more sales if you have additional resources for educators and librarians.

If you are a teacher, the sky is the limit. Using trade books in the classroom is a refreshing change for both you and your students. You can easily align your choices to state educational standards, all while choosing books that are fun and interesting to reinforce or introduce new topics or events. With just a little bit of planning, you can create learning opportunities and activities that your students will remember for years!

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