The Dragon King: Developing Symbolic Thinking and Comprehension Skills

The literacy program at The Community School has three broad goals: strengthening oral and written communication skills, developing symbolic and logical thinking capacities, and supporting comprehension of functional, informational, and pleasurable reading.  A person’s ability to understand oral and written communication affects every aspect of their daily lives.  When we use language, to have a conversation or to read the instructions of a game for example, we rely on our shared ability to interpret sounds or symbols and create a visualization of those interpretations to comprehend what is being said or read.  For our participants, this visualization process can be challenging.   They may not be interpreting sounds or symbols accurately (related to processing difficulties), they may struggle to create images around symbols, or they may visualize the input in a very different way than most.  We have found that comprehension and visualization skills can be improved by providing many opportunities for emotionally meaningful experiences and supported interactions in our literature classes.  

Recently our Candler Literature classes have been working with The Dragon King, a traditional Chinese fairytale.  Melissa and I chose this story based on a shared group interest in fantasy and the opportunity to see a live performance of the story at The Center for Puppetry Arts in downtown Atlanta.  Our literature classes often use fairytales as source image00reading material.  Fairytales have a unique set of qualities that complement a DIR approach to learning.  They tend to be highly motivating and compelling with fantasy elements, extreme situations, and larger-than-life characters.  They are emotionally meaningful with clear depictions of emotional themes such as dependency, assertiveness, anxiety and empathy.  There is a large library of resources that are appropriate to a variety of ages and developmental levels.  Fairy tales are often rhythmic with repeated phrases and have a clear climactic arch.  They are also a part of our cultural lexicon, allowing participants the opportunity to connect with others around a shared knowledge base.

In the story of the dragon king, a grandmother searches the ocean for the dragon who can bring the rains back to her village.  On her journey, she helps a fisherman with the aid of a wish-granting fish and teaches a lonely giant squid how to make friends.  She finds and returns a missing pearl to the dragon king, who brings the rains back to her village.  The grandmother returns home a hero.  

Our literature classes have read the fairy tale multiple times, creating a picture sequence of events, discussing character emotions and motivations, and looking at images of Chinese villages and seas.  We researched the role of dragons in Chinese folklore and compared them to dragons in familiar stories and movies.  We drew pictures of dragons as they were described in our research (head of a camel, horns of a stag, paws of a tiger) and journaled about original dragon characters.  We read similar versions of the story, including The Magic Fish, originally a Russian fairytale.  We compared the two very different outcomes of the stories and how those differences changed the moral lesson.

Inspired by the upcoming puppet show, the participants asked to work on their own shadow puppet version of the story.  This project is ongoing and we’ve learned about the history of shadow puppets, different techniques for creating shadow effects, and how to build a shadow puppet theater (why can you see what is placed in front of the lamp on the screen, but not anything placed behind the lamp?).

Spending the morning at The Center for Puppetry Arts was a great experience!  The production was beautiful and engaging with surprising puppet special effects.  At the end of the performance, the artists shared how some of the more complex puppets and scenic elements had been constructed and answered audience questions.  The group was brimming with ideas for their own puppet show in our afternoon class.  One person suggested we add music to set “the mood” as the ACPA had done.  Another asked to add additional characters (like the hermit crab) that they had enjoyed in the show.  We incorporated all the new ideas, adding quite a bit more complexity to the project.

We have found that this approach, creating multiple emotionally meaningful opportunities to support comprehension, results in greater enjoyment and engagement in reading and writing.  

Sarah Champ


One Comment on “The Dragon King: Developing Symbolic Thinking and Comprehension Skills

  1. What a great description of this wonderfully rich and creative project you are doing. We can’t wait to see the performance! Sarah, you write beautifully. Your story was a pleasure to read. Our guys are so lucky to have you for this class.

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