Friday, February 22, 2013

Roald Dahl's: The Witches Literature and Writing

Witches is a tantalizing and horrifying book about Witches.  If you aren't already familiar with Roald Dahl and have an 8 or 9 year old - you are in for a treat!  At this age, kids often go through a stage where they love to moan and groan, "eww" and "yuck!" at stuff that is disgusting all while giggling.  This book is perfect for these kids. The mixture of tension due to scary happenings with descriptions of the gross and horrifying is engaging yet simple.

The protagonist in the story is the narrator and as such, we never learn his name.  So, for the purposes of this article, I will forever refer to our hero as "Nat" (which I see as a sort-of abbreviation for narrator).

Language Arts Ideas:

Meaning From Context

One of the really fun things about Dahl is his creative language.  Do remember the name Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?  How about Snozzberries?  Before you even begin a reading of Roald Dahl's, Witches, you will want to begin a "Dahlinary."  A Dahlinary is like a Dictionary, only it contains made-up words like splendiferous and frumptious. You will not find a huge list of these words in witches, but there are a few.  Extend the assignment by allowing the kids to choose one more book by Dahl to read and report on and they can include words from their other choice reading as well.  Kids that really enjoy made-up words should be steered toward The BFG and the gobblefunk it contains.

Here are just a few of this Dahl Vocabulary to be found in Witches to get you started:
  • tomfiddling (a.k.a. tom-foolery which is a real word)
  • swollop (spelled "svollop" in the book, as the witch says it in her accent.)
  • giganticus
  • bogwumper
  • boshwolloping
  • bogwomper
  • Witchophile
  • fantabulous
  • bisch
  • titchy
  • rootle
  • blabbersnitch
  • carrabcrunche
  • grobblesquirt
On a related side note, you may enjoy this article published as part of the collection of blarticles for the Oxford Online Dictionaries. It even includes an image of his handwritten list of made-up words for use in The BFG.

Using Witches to Teach Even More Vocabulary

Learning root words, prefixes and suffixes is helpful to kids for vocabulary building purposes because it helps them figure out the meanings of new words that use roots, prefixes and suffixes when such words are encountered.  Such a lesson is completely appropriate here. Kids can  add their own made-up words to their "Dahlinaries" if you choose to allow or assign it.   Dahl's made up words are a great tie-in for this grammar and vocabulary-building lesson and the kids can be required to use proper root words, prefixes or suffixes in new ways to create their own words for their Dahlinary.  Using real roots, prefixes and suffixes in this way, introduces them to the related concepts and material in a fun and engaging way that will prime them for more lessons, later.

You may want to have your Dahlinary include some real word sections as well, kids pick up a great number of vocabulary words on their own if they read enough, but by being explicit about it, they learn even more.  Many of the free guides and activities I found online, didn't go into a lot of depth in terms of vocabulary.  Even one website that carried the title "vocabulary flashcards" on my search page only included these seven words.  I did find that as I delved deeper into the book, there were fewer and fewer vocabulary words to list per chapter, as many words used in the beginning get used again (this is partly why the book is such a nice easy read for young ones).  Different children will come to a reading of a book with knowledge of the meaning of different sets of words.  However, I have attempted to create a more comprehensive list here.  Simply click on the image to open it as its own page for a table listing words found by chapter.  I'm sorry about the "Sample" across it.  My converter is automatically adding that.  You can still see most of the words.  You should also be aware that most of these words are used for the first time in the first six chapters of the book. 

Using Witches to Teach About Grammar

Parts of Speech:

One second grade objective in our list is "learn to distinguish between adjectives and adverbs."  For us, the last section of the Dahlinary, will be for collecting adjectives and adverbs.  I will be assigning Alice specific categories of adjectives and adverbs to look for at different points during our reading (or she'd be writing a word down nearly every sentence).

Here are a few examples that come to mind:
  • Find adjectives and adverbs describing Grandmama's cigars and cigar smoking.
  • Discover adjectives describing things that are disgusting.
  • Look out for adverbs describing movement. 


Geographical Spelling and Naming

You may want to discuss the fact that just as words can sound different in the way they are pronounced depending on the region to which you travel, words can be spelled differently too.  Having grown up on the US/Canadian Border, I was well aware of this at an early age and I feel any good reader should become aware immediately of the differences in UK and US spellings because there are so many "fantabulous" British Authors.  Some differences will include; recognise, favourite, realising, swop and colour.  Here is a resource listing most-often encountered differences, for reference.  By the way, a bilberry is a real berry - it looks a bit like blue berries, but is not the same as blueberries (though the two plants share the same genus).

You might also want to note phrases and words that are used differently.  For example, "ring each-other up," may not make a lot of sense to a child from the US, but you adults will know it means to "call each-other."  Likewise with things like dressing gown (which is really just old-fashioned), and  Conker Tree (Horse Chestnut I have to say, I like Conker-Tree better.)  Not related to geography, they may also need help with the phrase, "witch conscious" in the chapter, The Grand High Witch.  OH! and of course, when Nat mentions football, he means what we in the states call, soccer.

Geography of the North Sea

In the first few chapters of the book, there is some traveling that occurs and place-names mentioned.  What a wonderful opportunity to introduce some really basic geography.  I suggest obtaining a political map of the North Sea that includes England and Norway.  Then have your kids identify the following:

New Castle

I also suggest having a "North Sea Cuisine Day."  The children can figure out which countries border the north sea and determine an appropriate food to represent each country after doing a little research.  If you have a classroom full, you can break them into pairings and each child can present a little about the country studied and the food they chose.  Let your students sample a little from each country that is bordered by the North Sea (though I don't personally recommend ludifisk).

Check out this ferry map and ask the kids which route Nat's family must have taken.  Have them track the whole trip to Norway and back.  Tracking their journey gets kids using maps and practicing important map skills.

The Geography of Currency

I also thought it would be fun to take a look at Minting and Printing Currency.  Since the Grand High Witch Simply makes her own cash, she is counterfeiting in a variety of currencies.  Kids could easily learn about this and how governments make it difficult to counterfeit in order to prevent it.  Along they way, they can learn about exchange rates (math) and the symbols used on the currency at which they take a look (like president's and royalty's faces).

A Safety Lesson from Roald Dahl

A stranger is anyone that your family doesn’t know well. It’s common for children to think that “bad strangers” look scary, like the villains in cartoons. This is not only not true, but it’s dangerous for children to think this way. Pretty strangers can be just as dangerous as the not-so-pretty ones. When you talk to your children about strangers, explain that no one can tell if strangers are nice or not nice just by looking at them and that they should be careful around all strangers.
But don't make it seem like all strangers are bad. If children need help--whether they’re lost, being threatened by a bully, or being followed by a stranger--the safest thing for them to do in many cases is to ask a stranger for help. You can make this easier for them by showing them which strangers are okay to trust.
National Crime Prevention Council

According to John Walsh and others, "Stranger Danger" education does nothing to help the kids we wish to keep safe and it has come to be considered a passe way of teaching kids about safety in regard to dangerous persons.  The paragraphs from the National Crime Prevention Council above, outline what a stranger is, unfortunately, no matter what you say, many kids do not understand it.  The word "stranger" illicits a picture of someone who is "strange" and "dangerous."  Instead, try replacing the word "Stranger" with "Tricky People" and it addresses all of the points made in the quote itself.  A stranger is anyone you don't know well.  Anyone (including people you do know well) can be "tricky people."  It also doesn't give kids the impression that all strangers are bad.

The basic idea behind teaching kids about "Tricky People" is that most people out there would want to be helpful if a child needed it, but some might hurt a child instead.  There is no way of ever knowing for certain, who is who. There are ways of minimizing the chances of getting tricked and those are the things you teach your child.  One really important thing for children to understand, is that "tricky people" will seem quite safe.  They will look nice, speak pleasantly, might offer nice treats. . . just like anyone else.

Witches are a perfect example of "Tricky People."  They are beautiful, seem quite normal, and "may even be the teacher reading" Witches (quote from book) - you never can really know for sure.  Rotten old Slugworth from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is another good example of a "Tricky Person" though it is a little easier to tell he is a bit under-handed.  Many suggested activities for Witches online, include the idea of having your students make "Missing Persons" posters about the five children described in Grandmama's story.  This is a great activity for comprehension purposes, but why not have kids make "Wanted" posters describing witches and how to spot them instead?  Then, look over this article by the National Crime Prevention Council and incorporate a safety lesson about "tricky people."  As a part of that lesson, have your kids make posters about how to avoid "tricky people" too.


Of course you can have your student(s) calculate how many kids are getting squelched per year, decade, century, etc. if one child per week is getting squelched.  You'll want to calculate this based on one witch first, and then, move on to estimating how many witches might live in a given country.  If only 2% of the female population in England are witches. . . Assuming 5% of the Norwegian Population . . . 

Other Learning Guides and Free Resources

Of course there are also "official" learning guides available for purchase.  However, whether teaching from the classroom or the home, education gets spendy enough so I've stuck to the free stuff here.

Teaching Ideas has a great guide that even include an audio version and a useful video clip to introduce the book to your kids.  It divides ideas into classroom ways to relate the book to each school subject including "Maths" and "I.C.T."  I will be using quite a few of these ideas.

Official Site for Roald Dahl:  Get all his biographical information, a list of works and play games.

Schmoop is a nice resources for brief  chapter, character and theme summaries.  You'll also find a "Tough-O-Meter" that discusses how easy the book is to read and follow and more.  You can even use pre-made quizzes (though they are not very in-depth) here.

Bright Hub Education goes over some creative writing ideas inspired by the book including, "Write your Own Recipe," "What Would Your Mother Say," and "Become a Newspaper Reporters"

This Link will take you to a page with a few links including a podcast about the characters and a short activity booklet with questions you may choose to ask about witches.

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