The Polar Express

Using The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg for primary school literacy

Primary English The Polar Express

The Polar Express. Image: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited.

Creating a really worthwhile unit of work, whilst still marking Christmas, is one of my favourite activities of the festive season. In this short article I look at a few ways to use a high quality Christmas picture book as a vehicle for good literacy teaching and learning. The book I’ve chosen is ‘The Polar Express’ by Chris Van Allsburg. I haven’t added age groups to the activities as many are generic but I hope there are sufficient to meet the specific needs of children from across the school.

  1. With any class the first thing I’d do with this text is make the most of the pictures. Providing the children with copies of the front cover without the title of the book offers opportunities for children to ask questions about the text, to make predictions about the book and for you to create anticipation about the story.

  2. Conduct a picture walk of the text. You could use the classroom visualiser (if you have one) so that the text remains a mystery to the children. If you make copies of the pictures you could go on to re-use them for oral sequencing, for story planning and the writing of captions and sentences about the text.

  3. Depending on the age of the children, either read the story or provide them with time to read the story in small groups. Focus their attention by asking them to note what they like and dislike, what puzzles them and what patterns they can see in the text. Aiden Chambers called this structure ‘Tell me’ We have a version of Tell Me in our Graphic Organisers Pack.

  4. Look at the use of verbs in the text. Children could collect verbs describing the way the boy and train move at the beginning of text; words like: pulled, tiptoed, ran, raced, thundered, climbed…They could then make word clines as a way of recognising the relative intensity of these verbs. Our post, Building Children’s Vocabularies has more about word clines

  5. Ask children to collect examples of figurative language from the text. Examples may include: it was wrapped in an apron of steam…like a car on a rollercoaster…hot chocolate as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars. After doing this children could use the examples in their own writing or try to create their own similes and metaphors to describe a journey on The Polar Express.

  6. The Polar Express is a Voyage and Return story – we’ve written about this narrative form before and have a collection of similar stories on our Pinterest boards. Try boxing up the narrative with the children and see if they can see similarities between this text and others with a similar structure.

  7. Find as many opportunities as possible to stimulate writing by using the text. The story is written in the first person-past tense but try changing the narrative voice so that younger children can rewrite the story – you’ll need to model what you’d like them to do: our Modelled Writing post may give you some ideas.

  8. Provide children with the picture of the wolves. What are the wolves thinking? What are they saying to one another? What are they going to do next? This type of activity makes a great short writing opportunity to practise specific skills such as direct speech.

  9. Write the boy’s thank you letter to Father Christmas. By modelling this you can make sure that children refer back to events from the story.

  10. Use boxing-up and knowledge of the underlying story structure to help children write their own versions of a magical voyage and return journey to the North Pole.

  11. My copy of The Polar Express has a wonderful audio CD of the story narrated by Liam Neeson, (yours may not but click here and you can find a recording courtesy of You Tube) so make time to listen to the narration. If you’re able, watch the film version of the story starring Tim Hanks. You could then ask the children which version of the story they liked most and why.

Whatever you choose to do with The Polar Express enjoy it, savour the opportunities and enjoy a great book with your class this Christmas.

Rachel Clarke – Primary English Consultant

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