Classroom Teaching Guide

Owly: Flying Lessons

by | Jan 21, 2018

Cartoonist Andy Runton’s Owly stories star a kind-hearted (vegetarian) owl who, along with his best friend Wormy, has sweet adventures and makes lots of new forest friends. In Flying Lessons, Owly and Wormy glimpse a mysterious new neighbor, a flying squirrel, and are eager to become friends. While Wormy is able to win shy Rocky over quickly, it turns out that flying squirrels are afraid of owls! Will Wormy’s new friend be able to accept Owly? Can Rocky help Owly overcome his childhood fear and finally fly? In Owly tales, a little bravery and a lot of friendship can fix just about anything. You can read several short Owly stories for free at author Andy Runton’s site.

In these mostly wordless comics, the characters “speak” in symbols and pictures. Runton’s simple, black and white drawings are full of expression and emotion, and every tale conveys the value of compassion, bravery, tenacity, and, most of all, kindness. The remarkable thing about Owly is that these stories appeal just as much to adults as they do to children, and even the youngest can “read” the stories.

Young children are just beginning to learn that concrete objects can be represented in different ways. For example, an owl is a bird that flies at night and hoots. It can be represented by a photograph of an owl, a stylized or ‘cartoon’ illustration of an owl, or letters forming the word ‘owl.’ Most children begin to make this transition from concrete to abstract through picture books, with a single illustration on each page. Sequential art (wordless comics) like Owly can take learning to the next level, asking kids to follow a sequence of illustrations that form a story.

Owly provides an opportunity for young children to ‘read’ the pictures in order and follow the story. They love to verbalize the story, which reinforces the concept that ink on a page can be translated into ideas and words. In addition, the characters communicate using symbols, providing another opportunity for children to make the connection between abstract images and language.

Before a child is ready to read text, sequential art can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Sequential art provides plenty of opportunity for connecting the story to children’s own experiences, predicting what will happen, and summarizing, just as you would do with any story. In addition, children can describe the action shown in the images, identify characters’ emotions from physical cues, and infer what happens between panels. The advantage to sequential art is that young readers don’t need to be able to decode text to learn and practice comprehension skills.

Once a child begins to decode text, the comic format enables them to read much more complex stories than is possible with traditional text and illustration

With comics and graphic novels, beginning readers can enjoy more emotion, action, and detail than in a typical ‘See Jane run’ story. When kids read enjoyable, complex, compelling stories they are motivated to read more, so graphic novels can be a great stepping stone to longer text works. This is also an advantage when encouraging struggling or reluctant readers or English learners – they can enjoy great stories and practice high-level reading comprehension skills even at a lower text reading level.

Here are some ideas to make the most of reading Owly together:

Make Meaning Together

Work together with your child to make meaning from the sequential pictures in Owly. Start by looking at the pages together as you describe and narrate the story, asking questions to keep your child engaged. “Look, there’s Owly and his friend Wormy. Owly is digging a hole here, and then he puts the plant in. Does the butterfly like the plant? This heart means she loves it!” Once your child is following the story, try describing the action in one panel, and having your little reader describe what happens in the next panel. In no time, they’ll be ready to take over and you can play a supporting role.

Practice Directional Reading

Comics are read left-to-right and down the page, just like text. As you read, place your finger under each panel. Once in a while, stop and ask, “Where should I read next?” Once they get the hang of it, have your little reader use their finger to follow the story. As a challenge, try reading a page out of order and see if it makes sense!

Decode the Symbolic Language

When Owly and his friends speak, their dialogue is shown in word balloons as symbols and images. A smooth, rounded bubble means someone is speaking, and a fluffy, cloud-shaped bubble means they are thinking or dreaming. As you read, ask children what they think each character is saying or thinking. Then, provide your own interpretation of the dialogue based on the symbols and the context of the action. Take the opportunity to point out and explain symbols such as punctuation (there are lots of question marks and exclamation points), arrows, and “no” symbols (circle with a diagonal line through it).

Practice Empathy

As you read, ask your child how they think the characters are feeling and what they see in the characters’ facial expressions and body language that tells them so. This is a great opportunity to introduce new vocabulary such as worried, proud, or nervous.

  • When Owly thinks Wormy is lost, how can you tell what he is feeling? How would you feel if you thought your friend was lost? What would you look like if you were worried?
  • When Owly finally learns to fly, how do you think he feels? Have you ever felt proud of yourself? Show me what proud looks like!
  • Have you ever known what someone was feeling just by looking at them? How did you know?

Act Out the Stories

  • Children love to pretend to be their favorite characters. Don’t be surprised if you find Rocky the flying squirrel soaring through your living room or Owly trying to fly off your couch! Encourage little readers to review their favorite parts of the story, looking for details that they can use in their play. For example, when Owly and Wormy sleep in the tree, waiting for Rocky to appear, Owly has a backpack, a blanket, and a bowl of food for Rocky. Even Wormy has a little blanket! And here’s a tip: a rolled up pair of socks makes a pretty good Wormy.
  • Use materials from around the house to make character puppets, or print out some Owly stick puppets—they’re included in the teaching packet on Andy Runton’s website.

Take Learning Beyond the Book

  • Go out at night and look at the stars like Wormy and Rocky the flying squirrel. Encourage your child to look for pictures in the stars. If you have a telescope, get an up-close view of the moon! And don’t forget to look for nocturnal creature friends.
  • When Owly and Wormy discover a mystery animal, they visit Mrs. Raccoon to do some research in her library. Head for your library (or home bookshelf) and help your little reader find books about a favorite animal or any subject they find intriguing.

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