“Would you like relish with that?”
I pulled the steel tongs out of my apron pocket and plucked a plump pink weiner out of the steaming vat of water.
“Just a smear of mustard with a few dabs of ketchup.” said the businessman, glancing at his watch. “And make it fast, kid.”
I rolled my eyes.
It was bad enough that I was standing in the middle of Times Square wearing a stupid weiner-shaped hat and Rollerblades. It was even worse dealing with cranky New Yorkers and picky tourists.
“Here you go, sir. That’ll be a dollar twenty-five.”
The businessman blinked his eyes. “A dollar twenty-five? When did the price go up?”
My brother Frank pointed at the sign on the side of the street vendor cart. “The price is listed righ here, sir,” he said with a polite smile. “And it’s worth every penny. You can’t buy a better hot dog than Weenies on Wheels. We use only the finest meat products. Absolutely no fillers.”
I looked at my brother – in his dorky hot-dog hat – and started laughing. I just couldn’t help myself.
We defined the words Haroun didn’t know, like apron and weiner. We check in on the ones he knew but struggled to decode, like relish and tourists. I described Times Square (Dundas Square but bigger and noisier). We talked about the hot-dog hats.
At this point I stopped and ask Haroun “What is going on, what are Frank and Joe doing?”. What I was looking for was that Frank and Joe were selling hot-dogs from a cart. But the text doesn’t actually say that, and Haroun couldn’t figure it out. He could tell me about Joe plucking, and Frank pointing, and the businessman blinking. He knew that there was a sign on a street-vendor cart. He knew about the Hardy Boys back-story. But he couldn’t fire up a context that made sense of the details.
If this was a Grade-3 books it would likely start “We were selling hot-dogs from a cart.” But grade-4 books start to challenge the reader to build an internal comprehension picture and form ideas about the story.
That’s hard for a reader when he is struggling with decoding and vocabulary, but it was hard even when we cleared those obstacles and ran through the facts cleanly. It’s not that Haroun doesn’t know about hot-dog carts, he’s a smart 14-year-old living downtown. It’s just that he hasn’t learned to read for comprehension, to look behind the literal words. Comprehension is a SKILL, and we cannot assume that our emerging reader has it. Imagine how boring, opaque, and demotivating a story like this must be to a struggling reader.
Comprehension can be taught explicitly, but we are not quite ready. Our focus is still on decoding and word recognition. Yet I am going to start asking ‘big picture’ questions whenever this text allows – and Haroun will quickly catch on. We won’t have many opportunities, the Hardy Boys aren’t very subtle. Grade-5 books take this skill to the next level, and I have an excellent one waiting: The City of Ember (free study guide here).