________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 31. . . .April 17, 2015


Exploding the Reading: Building a World of Responses From One Small Story, 50 Interactive Strategies for Increasing Comprehension.

David Booth.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2014.
157 pp., trade pbk. & pdf, $24.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55138-299-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55138-903-5 (pdf).

Subject Headings:
Language arts.


Review by Barbara McNeil.

*** /4



Mr. Booth had the students stand to read the poem chorally, line by line; students took turns and eventually, they were asked this question: “Should she leave the man who has kept her from the water and her other children, or should she stay with her children on the land?” This dilemma was difficult to resolve as this woman had been lied to; however, she had children she would be leaving behind. “What would you do?” the students were asked. They were prompted to stand if they believed she should stay. Students were standing and sitting so quickly it was hard to see an answer. Then the students were tasked with this question: “What should the woman do?” Silence, and then the room exploded. Students ran to grab paper and pencils. Some ran to get an iPad to answer the question orally...

Their answers proved that the lesson was not over. Their responses brought forward new and challenging ideas, such as domestic abuse, imprisonment, women’s right, and identity. In less than an hour, reading the text had created something bigger than the moment. It made the students think about their understanding of not only the poem but of issues that are faced by women every day, locally and globally. (p. 39)


Every book that helps to dispel the myth that reading is a passive process and that adds to the rich data we have about the effectiveness and delight of engaging learners in responding to literature is worthy of acknowledgement and dare I say—praise. David Booth’s Exploding the Reading: Building a World of Responses from One Small Story, 50 Interactive Strategies for Increasing Comprehension delivers on the promise of its title.

      This professional resource is based on collaborative research whose goal was to ascertain what could be learned “from having 40 teachers and 1000 students exploring one text at the same time in different school districts in Ontario, New Brunswick, and the Northwest Territories” (p. 7). The collaboration is an impressive one; it involved teachers and students from K-12 classrooms in a variety of creative strategies. An outgrowth of what came to be known as the “Selchie Project,” Exploding the Reading invites and privileges multi-modal responses to a “single universal story, told in several versions and formats, about selchies, mythic creatures of the northern seas, who once a year take human form” (p. 7).

      One of strengths of Booth’s latest contribution to teaching and learning is the overall structure and organization of the book. In addition to the clearly written, theoretically grounded, and informative introduction provided in Chapter One, the 12 chapters that follow are jam-packed with meaningful details that are likely to be relished by emerging as well as seasoned professionals. Booth’s book is informed by the theoretically important work of Louise Rosenblatt, the influential icon of reader response theory. In addition, he references Allan Luke and Peter Freebody (1999), and a number of other literacy scholars to stress the “meaning-making power of student response.” Chapter Two focuses on organizing a response-based classroom and some approaches to doing so. It was satisfying to see the work of Kelly Gallagher highlighted in Booth’s discussion of reading and responding groups, information literacy in today’s reading environment, the importance of making connections, and an explicit articulation of key comprehension strategies. These include making inferences, visualizing the text, determining and prioritizing ideas, summarizing the text, and synthesizing information from text. Overall, the introduction and Chapters One and Two are worth readers’ time because of the care invested in identifying the history, purpose and pedagogical value of the book.

      Beginning with Chapter Three, Booth offers up an enticing menu of what he terms the “response repertoire.” Listed on the menu are: text talk, telling and retelling stories, reading and viewing connected texts, giving voice to words in print, writing as response, responding through the arts, responding through role-play, research and inquiry, technology and texts, and texts as sources of knowledge. These 10 modes of response are generative and transformative and are intended to broaden and deepen student’s engagement and comprehension of text, self, and other.

      In Chapter Three for instance, Booth introduces “Demonstrations of Talk Responses” and shares six articles that recount what transpired when he made visits to the various classrooms of his school-based collaborators. Of considerable interest to educators here are the summary “questions” and “statements” from the students with whom the author interacted. In addition, we hear the voices of some of the teacher research-participants involved in Booth’s study. On page 34, teacher Lynda Marshall describes what took place in her class—Group Talk Using Ipads—and includes compelling examples of students’ work that emanated from reading and discussing a version of the selchie story. Here is an example from one of the groups in the class:

Group #3
“Someone stole someone’s skin?”
“The guy took the skin from the seal.”
“He made her his sex slave.”
“But maybe they had a good marriage.”
“But she goes back to the ocean because she likes it better than she likes her husband.”

     Such textual examples. as well as the photographs and samples of students’ responses through visual art, add spice to the book and provide a sound evidentiary base for educators (like me) who are interested in how the strategies are unfolded and work in real classrooms with real students. I cherish the authentic student-crafted responses that enliven the book. A case in point is Chapter Four; it includes examples of students’ responses using story maps for retelling and Booth’s dialogues with students after reading versions of the selchie folktale: The Seal Mother and The Selchie Wife. As a researcher, I welcomed these concrete examples of Booth in situ, as a research participant and observer and see how they can be instrumental to my own work in classrooms.

      Chapter Five, “Reading and Viewing Connected Texts brims with richness. Readers are guided on how to engage students in “comparing and using related texts, ways to classify stories, and are gifted with a list containing variations of the same folktale motif that features seals (e.g., The Selchie Girl by Susan Cooper and The Boy Who Lived with the Seals by Rafe Martin). Some of the demonstrations of responding to texts used by one of the co-researchers include employing a Venn diagram to compare story versions, dancing story meanings (dance and movement creations), and weaving Una’s sea cloak after reading and reflecting on Una and the Sea Cloak by Malacy Doyle. A refreshing response activity implemented by another teacher (Sarah Craig) called for the use of a drum to represent the main character’s heartbeat after discussing the story of Greyling. This was followed by the recording of heartbeats and subsequently drumming them in order to explore the seal’s emotional state. The activity positioned students to experience the emotions (via heart beat) of another and of self and, if enacted carefully, may strengthen their ability to empathize and act in caring ways.

      Chapter Six showcases “giving voice to words in print” in multiple ways: through reading text aloud, and crafting and performing a readers’ theatre script based on The Seal Child. In Chapter Seven, the focus shifts to “Writing as Response.” Though writing is one of the traditional ways of responding to literature in school settings, this chapter should not be overlooked. Worth repeating is Booth’s reminder that when what students “write is dependent upon another source, students have a resource that they can draw upon and that teachers can offer” and that this “type of dependent authorship lets students look at their own work and at the work of the text all at once” (p. 72). Examples of productive writing ideas discussed in this chapter include diary entries, “writing reflections on recognizing inferences” using a graphic organizer, and recounting a scene from a text from the perspective of different characters to illustrate author’s purpose.

      If a reader’s purpose is to be empowered by well-articulated, meaningful ideas and strategies for enhancing literacy development, then Chapter Eight will not disappoint. It brings forward a bevy of strategies for responding through the arts that include: the use of clay sculpture to interpret a story, creating sculptures as expressions of understanding, and working with Grade Nine students to develop non-traditional soundtracks inspired by the Orkney folktale, “The Great Silkie of Sule Kerry” –the story of a “silkie”—a man on land and a seal in water—who is prophesied to be killed along with his son by the mother.

      Exploding the Reading is strategies-based and is a book that gives and gives. Chapter Nine begins by contextualizing the response mode. This is followed by a useful narrative on ways “in which we can involve students in developing and demonstrating their understanding of text through role-playing.” It is likely to be appreciated by readers who are new to and/or experimenting and emerging in this area. In this chapter, we hear from teacher/co-researcher Justine Bruyere who teaches Kindergarten in French. She shares an outline of a three-week unit in which she uses Greyling by Jane Yolen as a source text for response through role-playing. Also, Booth includes a detailed “record” of a Selchie unit he developed with teachers that featured role-playing for a Grade 6 class. The “record” lists the role-play response strategy, the activity generated from Greyling and assessment ideas for that activity. I know that I will definitely be using this nifty record.

      “Research and Inquiry| are the subjects of Chapter 10, and they are worth the journey. In his contextualization, Booth lists a number of specific research and inquiry possibilities that are not necessarily new but well worth the reminder. In this chapter, we hear from kindergarten teachers engaged in inquiry. I was impressed with Sarah Papoff’s narrative about her visual art exploration of a big question (What is special about home?) that emerged from using the story: The Seal Mother. Additionally, teacher Dianne Steven’s students “provocative” inquiry of the theme of immigration (that emerged after reading the The Seal’s Skin) generated multiple and insightful responses that contribute to the strength of Booth’s book.

      Chapter 11 spotlights the symbiotic relationship between technology and texts in today’s classrooms and feature teachers who develop class websites, engage students in using technology to connect with the world beyond the classroom via social networking, write and submit online “text inventories” that allow a teacher to check students’ understanding “without interrupting their initial interpretations or rushing to offer [her] own insights”, and publish response to text via online diary entries. Similar to earlier ones, this chapter demonstrates how a particular response mode can be actualized with students at varying grade levels.

      The final chapter, “Texts as Sources of Language Knowledge”, is an important and vibrant one. Here, Booth emphasizes texts as sources of language knowledge where learners “step back from making contextual and personal responses” … to “explore the practical details of language …responding to the pieces of language as artifacts” to deepen comprehension (p. 138). As Booth’s discussion makes clear, this kind of work should only come after texts have been savoured and/or interpreted. He explains that students need to “experience text as a whole—its content, its emotional or informative effects” prior to zooming in on the details of language. Using the metaphor of archaeology, Booth provides solid examples that students, as linguistic and story archeologists, used to respond to texts. The poster and puzzle found on page 140 and 141 invite students to provide justification to explain why the story, The Seal’s Skin, was a folktale. Another excellent example is “blackout poetry.” It asked students to read a text and “black out” portions so as to illustrate the essential ideas or meaning of the text to them. This short, but important, chapter reminds us that “deepening [students] understanding of how language works—how text is constructed, the vocabulary, the sentence structures, the unusual expressions and phrases, the type of punctuation that assists the reader” is a perennial vital component of all that is done in classrooms (p. 138).

      Exploding the Reading is a valuable resource grounded in research, reflection, and extensive collaboration. The ideas in the text are not revolutionary but are nonetheless useful and highly creative. Frankly, the creativity of the teachers (including Booth) and students charmed me. In addition to the 12 estimable chapters discussed above, the book has a detailed table of contents, an appendix of resources for exploring selchie tales and a fine index. However, the absence of a reference list of the professional sources cited is lamentable. Also, my exploration of this work has left me with questions. One of my questions relates to the declaration that the book is “built around a single universal story …” (p. 7). What is the universe to which Booth refers? From what location is universality defined? Booth suggests that it is the “northern seas”, that is, northern European seas.

      Caution is needed: we need more than a single story or multiple versions of similar sourced stories in Canadian schools. I am sure that Booth is well aware of this and imagine that his choice of literature was related to the intentions and needs of his research and inquiry. Using a single story likely satisfied the requirements of the project, and there may be some good in having Canadian children reading a single story or versions thereof as a way of knitting them together, developing shared understandings, knowledge, and values. But as Barry (2002) pointed out, a story, a book is a cultural product “of a specific socio-cultural situation, it cannot be regarded as “great” and “universal”, especially when human nature is not the same everywhere.” (p. 32). Barry cautioned that belief in a “universal human nature” could result in practices that marginalize, subjugate, denigrate or minimize those from non-dominant groups (p. 32). Therefore, alongside the Selchie Project, we need others that feature folktales and other literary production from the diverse regions from which Canadian students originate so that their cultural products are included and not sidelined. Perhaps the Selchie Project may inspire readers to conduct inquiries similar to Booth’s but that make use of literature originating from Indigenous communities across North America, as well as areas such Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean etc.

      The issue of origins, dominant discourses, power, and diversity became important subjects for reflection in Chapter 10 where Booth featured content from some of the independent research projects he undertook with students. In connecting aspects of his personal life story “initiated by an Irish version of the selchie story”, a Grade 8 student describes how one of his ancestors came to Canada from Ireland. The student explains how a “boat load of hopeful” Irish Catholics were brought to Canada because “Canada needed people to populate the unpopulated areas.” The student further explained that “[w]hen the ships reached Canada, Denis [Hurley, his distant relative] along with everyone else got seven acres of forested land for free!” “All they had to do was clear the trees and build a house” (p. 117). In this example, the student’s response shows evidence of inherited discourses about “free land” that are inaccurate and are insensitive to Indigenous land claims, dispossession, and ongoing contestation about colonialism.

      This type of student response calls for critical deconstruction and analysis, an aspect of Booth’s book that needed greater emphasis. Now that the student has responded, has made a personal life story connection initiated by the selchie tale, historical accuracy and the need to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives mean that teachers need to create space to probe and challenge, in sensitive and developmentally appropriate ways, this dominant, perspective about colonization that ignores the views of Indigenous peoples. As this example shows, reader response can open avenues for provoking critical inquiry that have implications on the socio-cultural as well as the political planes. When these avenues are opened, teachers and other knowledgeable others are encouraged to lean into such opportunities to push thinking.

      Overall, Exploding the Reading showcases numerous response strategies and scenarios that Booth and his collaborators deployed with élan in diverse school sites. Such strategies are useful for uncovering and excavating some of what students feel, know and think, and to subsequently engage them in more critical reflection and action in the material world.


Dr. Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.


Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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