Teaching Idea

The "Visible Verb Approach" for Oral Retellings and Written Story Re-­Creations Through a Focus on Action Words

Jan Pilgreen


From experience directing a literacy center on a university campus, the author describes a strategy her tutors are using successfully to help elementary students retell stories thoroughly and accurately by picking out action verbs that enable them to visualize sequences and details. A well developed case study involving a third grade student is included, along with suggestions for adapting the methods for classroom use—both whole-class and small-group involvement.

In our Literacy Center at the University of La Verne, we are fortunate to be able to tutor children from our local community who are struggling with reading and writing.  Teachers recommend children to us for extra support on a one-to-one basis across a time span of 10 weeks.  The children's tutors are candidates who are doing graduate level work in reading, earning a reading certificate or reading specialist certification through the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC).

In training candidates to teach literacy strategies to children at varying grade levels, one of the greatest challenges is finding explicit processes for guiding them to retell narrative texts. The advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has increased emphasis on this skill in the first through third grades, so we have been working diligently to identify new approaches that our candidates can teach their tutees to use for this purpose.

The Visible Verb Approach

Typically children in the primary grades have been asked to do "retellings," which, in our experience, rely heavily on teacher modeling as the sole process for demonstrating how to carry them out. Through trial and error we developed an explicit hands-on technique that would help increase students' ability to recount the main events in a narrative text. The reading standards for literature (RL) require children in first grade to retell stories, including key details; in second and third grades they must recount stories in even more detail, eventually identifying themes and ideas central to the process as well.

One way of identifying events in a story is to connect them with action.  As a former English teacher, I know that many students have problems recognizing verbs, especially when they include to be forms (is, are, was, were, be, being, became) and "helping" components as part of larger verb phrases (is going, were listening, have been carrying). Children are typically much more adept at finding action verbs that they can picture in their minds.  We hypothesized that having a strategy for visualizing the action in a story might help children to recall the events more effectively.Thus we created the "Visible Verb Approach" (Figure 1), a process that teachers can use to support students in retelling stories by finding action verbs in a text.

Figure 1. Visible Verb Approach

Most teachers do not have the luxury of working one on one with children, so this particular set of steps is geared toward whole-class instruction, though the same process can be used with small groups and in individual contexts as well. 

  1. Choose a relatively short story to read to your class.  Once you have read a couple of sentences, ask your students who the story seems to be about.
  2. While reading the story orally, encourage the children to try to picture the event (or events) in the story by thinking about the action that occurs, asking questions along the way to help them make sense of the selection.
  3. Returning to the beginning of the story, read each sentence aloud, asking the students to find all the action verbs that they can.  Remind them that these are words that demonstrate some kind of movement, such as hop, draw, snore, run, and sneeze.
  4. As students identify each action, write the verbs on the board to create a list that matches the order of the story events. Older students enjoy putting colorful highlighting tape on the action verbs if they have their own copies of the story; they can then write down the verbs on a separate sticky note or paper.
  5. Urge students to share ideas about what they are picturing in their minds, making the words into "visible verbs." For example, if a boy in the story is jumping, think about what he looks like as he quickly bounces up and down.  If the rain is pouring, consider how the water is coming down heavily like milk from a pitcher. 
  6. Once students have listed all the action verbs that they can find, it is time to read the story again.  You can read it to the class, students can volunteer taking turns to read it aloud, or the group can read the story silently.
  7. When the class is ready to do the retelling, cover up the story if it is on the board or ask children to turn their copies over to hide the text.
  8. Using only the list of action verbs that the children found, ask them to retell the story by picturing the event that went with each action. They should use as many of the verbs from the list as they can.
  9. Once students have done the retelling using their list of "visible verbs," look back at the story to see how many events they were able to remember.  They will most likely be surprised at how well they did!

Victor's Oral Retelling

Figure 2 contains an example of the story "Jesse Owens" from Read Naturally, Inc.*, that Victor, a third grader, read with his tutor in the Literacy Center. We often use the selections from this program for various reading and writing activities, in addition to the main purpose of these materials—increasing fluency.  Because they are short with interesting content, they are ideal for single lesson activities. The underlined verbs are those that Victor selected to represent the action in the story.  Victor and his tutor took turns reading one sentence at a time, identifying the verbs, covering them with highlighting tape, and then listing them separately on a piece of paper.  

Figure 3 is Victor's oral retelling of the narrative, based solely on the verbs he identified, which prompted his memory of the story events.  As a third grader, Victor was able to find most of the action verbs in the text.  Younger children may find it challenging to identify such a high percentage of verbs, and this is acceptable, especially in the early stages of strategy instruction.

Figure 2. Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens was born in a farming town.  His family picked cotton and plowed the fields.  They did not own much.  His house looked like wood thrown together.  Cold wind would blow right through it.  But there was something special about Jesse.  Someday the whole world would know his name.  How did Jesse grow from a poor boy into a star?

It started when a coach at school saw Jesse run.  The coach asked Jesse to join the track team.  Jesse had a lot of willpower.  He showed up for practice every day.  He followed his coach's directions.  Soon he could zoom down the track.

Hard work paid off for Jesse.  In 1936, he ran in the Olympics in Germany.  The crowd watched Jesse win four events in one Olympics.  Four times, the American flag slowly rose after he was crowned winner.  Jesse made history.

Victor's Action Verb List

born  started  zoom 
picked  saw  paid 
 plowed run  ran 
 own asked watched 
looked   join win 
blow had  rose 
know  showed  crowned 
grow followed made

Figure 3. Victor's Oral Retelling

Jesse Owens was born in little town that did farming. Him and his mom and dad picked cotton.  They plowed the land.  They hardly owned nothing.  The house they lived in looked pretty bad.  The family felt the wind because it would blow on them.  Nobody thought that people would know Jesse in the future and that his name would be famous.  They didn't know he would grow up to be so famous.

Everything started with the coach.  Jesse's coach saw him when he ran and asked him to join on the team of runners.   Jesse had the good strength and power, and he showed up to the practice and followed the rules of the coach all the time.  Pretty soon he could zoom really fast, more than the other runners.

Jesse did the work that paid off.  He ran in the Olympics in Germany, and people watched him to win for four times.  They put up the American flag on the stage, and he was crowned the winning guy.  He made it into history and is really famous.

Victor was able to use all of the verbs from the original text except "rose," which he had asked his teacher to define for him during the first reading and then could not recall later.  He also omitted any reference to there being "something special about Jesse," probably because there are no action verbs in the sentence that provided the context for the idea. However, most of the information he provided is factually accurate, and where he elaborated a bit (e.g., more than the other runners) and changed wording (substituting strength and power for willpower), he showed that he was making solid inferences, not taking the information beyond what was implied.  His tutor was impressed with the job that Victor did on the retelling and asked him if he would be comfortable writing the story events in his journal. With enthusiasm, he agreed!

Victor's Written Story Re-creation

After reading the story once more with his tutor—and using the same verbs as prompts—Victor wrote out the information on his own, showing that he could also re-create the story in writing (as shown in Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Victor's Written Story Re-creation

In this version, Victor utilized some different vocabulary from the words in his oral retelling (small, instead of little, an added word from the original text), and he omitted the word power from his oral rendition, which was a substitution for willpower in the original text. He also inferred that it was the "holes" in the wood of the house through which the wind blew.  However, the general textual information from the original story and most of the details remained the same.

From his writing, we see that Victor was becoming more comfortable making the story his own, clearly demonstrating that he could recount the primary events in the narrative.  Victor's success with this strategy was similar to what our tutors in the Literacy Center have experienced with other students, even those in the upper grades. Although there are spelling, usage, and grammatical errors, the text is paraphrased well, indicating that with some editing and revision, Victor would be able to create a product that represents a "publishable" narrative containing most of the same events as the original story. Not only did the visible verb approach allow Victor to meet the reading standard for recounting a story (RL.3.2), it also supported him in "writing narratives through the development of events" from the third grade writing standard (W.3.3).

The key to identifying events for retelling is in visualizing the action in the original text while staying within its parameters, not embellishing by adding new story events. One of the candidates in our center noted that she particularly valued the strategy because it helped children target the information that they should include in a retelling without going off onto "creative" tangents.   She punned, "The visible verb approach helps kids target the important information for retelling without letting them get too verb-ose!"

Instructional Contexts

Whole class settings.  As a whole-class activity, the visible verb approach can easily be scaffolded, starting early in the year as a shared reading/writing event in which all classmates participate. During early practices, student volunteers can collaboratively identify the action verbs and then retell the story aloud with their classmates.  Prompting from peers can be an advantage at this stage.

It is best to begin with a short selection that will limit the number of verbs that children will be asked to find, adding longer selections (with more verbs) later.  An alternative approach is to ask the students which of the verbs they will use in their retelling, rather than asking them to try to incorporate all of them.  The teacher can help them along the way to evaluate which verbs carry the action best and are therefore most important to the story line.

When it is time to transfer the retelling into writing, the children can dictate the story events to the teacher, who writes them down using a modified language experience approach.  The children then copy the story onto their own papers.  This is an excellent opportunity for the teacher to remind students to use transition words that connect the events, such as then, next, finally, etc. 

Later practices with the visible verb approach can call for smaller group contexts, in which students can hone their skills within each step of the process and become more comfortable with creating written products on their own without relying on what they have dictated to the teacher.            

Small group or one-to-one settings. In smaller contexts, in which students are in groups of three to five or the teacher is able to work with students one to one, the teacher can select narratives that will specifically appeal to the target learners and work in guided reading/writing groups or in readers' and writers' workshop formats. The advantage to such settings is that children have more opportunities to contribute and to receive individualized personal feedback.  More attention can be paid to defining and selecting the action verbs, as well as to incorporating logical transition words into the written versions, ensuring that children can more effectively engage in meaning-making experiences.

The visible verb approach is an interactive and stimulating strategy to teach. Though substantial teacher support is available at the beginning of instruction, it is important to remember that the goal is to teach students a process that they can transfer to multiple narrative texts in more difficult contexts over time and to guide them towards eventual independence with retellings and written story re-creations. 

Jan Pilgreen is Literacy Center Director and Program Chair of Graduate Reading at the University of La Verne.  She trains reading specialist candidates and works with children and parents from the local La Verne community.

*The Jesse Owens selection has been reprinted with generous permission from Read Naturally, Inc., Encore Masters Edition, Phonics Level 2.3, p. 35, Copyright 2012.