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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of my all-time favorites reads for the springtime. Not only does it get your kids in the mood for spring and summertime, with its constant talk about growing and things coming to life, but it is a wonderful book to teach advanced vocabulary and imagery, while still being engaging. It’s a wonderful read-aloud/novel study book for kids with special needs, like autism or ADHD, in the fourth or fifth grade.
If I have a student who possesses a thoughtful mind and does not have a processing disorder, then chances are, I’ve read them the Secret Garden, probably in the spring.
I read the Secret Garden twice as a child. Once with my mom as a nighttime chapter book, and again at the end of third grade. As an adult, I can’t even count how many times I’ve read it. Probably at least three.
Each time it blows me away, and it is an absolutely perfect book for kids with disabilities to read.
I know what you’re thinking. Sarah, that book is so complicated and old and has so much advanced vocabulary. Our kids need something simpler.
To that I say, maybe, but that is not always the case. Sometimes they need a challenge.
In this blog post, we’re going to go over how to tell if your kiddos need a challenge, why I think the Secret Garden is perfect, and how to teach it.
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Is the Secret Garden Appropriate for your Students?
I don’t mean does it contain adult themes or anything like that. (Though heads up there is some racism, especially in the beginning. If you do decide to teach it, make sure to address that with your students).
No, what I mean is when people say something is great for kids with special needs, or kids with autism, or kids with ADHD, I think, “ALL OF THEM? How?”
The students we serve in this field are wide and varied in their ability level. Obviously, this book is not for all our students, but that does not mean it isn’t right for some of them.
The Secret Garden, while great to read in the spring, does contain advanced vocabulary, complex language, and is super long.
I honestly don’t recommend it for students with processing problems. The complex language and vocabulary will only frustrate them, possibly ruining some self-confidence.
However, if your student only has expressive language challenges, this might be a great book for them!
To learn more about telling the difference between processing versus expressive language problems, check out this blog post.
Additionally, your students will need to be able to recall what happened in previous chapters. Obviously, you review before reading each chapter, to help job a student’s memory. But if they forget every single detail between reads then this book, and probably any chapter book, isn’t for them till they build up their memory skill set.
Typically the students I read this book with, have expressive language problems and use alternate methods of communication to complete classwork, or are in school full time but not functioning at grade level.
I’ve found it really helps them improve their writing.
Why the Secret Garden?
I know, it’s still a super long hard book to understand, but hear me out.
The imagery that Frances Hodgson Burnett uses is unbelievable. You can flip to any random page, and find some incredibly descriptive language.
A magical world of a Secret Garden, a safe place for children to grow and play, comes to life before their eyes. Seeing someone do such wonderful world-building, analyzing passages, drawing pictures of what we think it looks like, all helps children understand imagery.
I like to do parallel writing assignments along with it, so everyone can practice using similar descriptive language in their writing. It really boosts students’ abilities to show not tell.
But Can They Relate to It?
There’s the character Colin. I’m always surprised at how many of my students relate to him over Mary, the main character.
SPOILER ALERT: Both Colin and Mary go through some pretty spectacular changes in the book, but Colin’s is perhaps more dramatic. He grew up very spoiled, assuming he couldn’t walk because adults told him so and never leaving his home. He was very sheltered.
Going out into the garden with Mary and their friend Dickon he learns to walk and grows very strong as a person.
Typically the kids with autism, who use communication devices, relate to his story, and love him dearly, despite his prickly personality.
Maybe because they relate to his story of being sheltered and not getting to experience the world. Or because they too had to work hard to learn a basic skill, talking in their case, in a nontypical way.
Either way, it helps them connect to the story and can be an incredibly motivating component for them. So I say, roll with it.
But the biggest thing that helps me sell them on the Secret Garden, is probably how much I love it. My students sense my enthusiasm, and since it is one of my favorite books it’s less about a lesson. It’s more about me sharing something I love with them, which helps us be more connected.
I recommend this strategy, even if you use it with a book other than the Secret Garden.
You sold me, but how do I teach this?
The first thing you have to do is go slow. Sometimes when I’m reading this book to my kids we don’t even make it through a whole chapter in one sitting.
Consider how long your student can sit for, and make reasonable stopping points for them. This book is already challenging academically, you don’t want to make it challenging physically.
Also, pick a good motivating time of year to read the book. This is why I titled this post “Secret Garden in the Spring.”
This is a book about growing plants and things coming to life. Who wants to read about that in the fall or winter when everything is cold and dead. Reading it in the Spring makes it more related to your students and will help improve their performance.
Make sure to break down important vocabulary words as you’re reading, but don’t expect them to learn all of them.
I usually only pick two or three vocab words per chapter to focus on but define everything they may not know as we read.
Preparing visuals is also a must. I know I saw that Frances Hodgson Burnett writes amazing descriptions, and she does.
However, she does not tell kids what a Moor looks like. Probably because she couldn’t imagine them not knowing. So have pictures of a moor for your kids to look at, and show them a map comparing the distance from India to England. Give the things not described context.
Check in with them often about what they understand, like, or enjoy, as well as what they find confusing. Adapt based on that information.
Lastly, have a related prize at the end. Normally when we finish reading the book and do some kind of final product, I like to let them what the movie.
Not the new one. I hate the new one. I prefer the one from the 80s with Maggie Smith. Click here to purchase on amazon (heads up, I get a small commission if you do so).
Novel Studies for Purchase
I have also created several novel studies over the years, that I’m very proud of. They can help your students understand character motivations, work on forming their own opinions, improve their ability to remember details, and collect important vocabulary.
My Novel Studies come in three scaffolded varieties. The Free-response version is just worksheets with no scaffolds and is great for kids who are able to write/type answers independently without supports.
Click here to purchase the Free Response Version.
The sentence starter version is my medium scaffold version is wonderful for kids who need sentence starters to get going. With them already built-in, it reduces your work time.
Click here to purchase the Sentence Starter Version.
The choices version, I made specifically for my kids who are way below grade level or who are just starting out on their communication devices. All questions and long responses come with choices for students to simply circle.
Click here to purchase the Choices Version.
You can also get my vocabulary crossword bundle with my pre-selected vocab words to give kids extra practice time, with their new words.
Click here to purchase the Crosswords.
Or if you like all of them and want to mix and match based on your student’s ability level, you can purchase the bundle at a great discount.
Click here to purchase the Bundle.
I hope I’ve opened your eyes to great new ways to build on your student’s literacy and writing abilities.
Regardless of if you decide to read the Secret Garden this spring or not, please take away from this that kids with multiple or severe disabilities are capable of enjoying more advanced texts if given the proper support.
The most important advice I can give is to pick something you love and want to share with them because you think they’ll love it too. It really is a wonderful bonding experience you can each share, and will only make your students feel more connected to you.
Follow me on Instagram and send me a message about how teaching the Secret Garden went or what book you love that you can’t wait to share with your students!