Observing Elizabeth and Maria busily playing "teacher" during independent reading time, Mrs. Snow, a kindergarten teacher, overhears this from Elizabeth: "I'll be the teacher, and you sit on the rug over here and listen to the story."

Elizabeth gets out a favorite picture book, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, and begins to "read" the story. "Once upon a time," she begins. Before turning the page, she shows the picture to Maria, moving the book slowly from one side to the other as if she were reading to a whole group of children. She then stops and asks, "What's your favorite part of the story?" looking around at her imaginary class. She calls on Maria. "This part," Maria says as she points at the picture.

Watching this scenario unfold, it's evident how storybooks are becoming a part of these children's lives. They view books as pleasurable, rewarding, and worthy of imitation. They want to learn how to read. And beyond the sheer enjoyment it offers, they are learning that reading is about grasping the rich and various ways in which language distills and conveys meaning.

The early years are a time of joy and a period of great learning for young children. They are beginning to interact with print and experience the delights of being read to. Today, a super-abundance of wonderful books awaits them, due to the virtual explosion in publishing for the very young. But whether children benefit from this vast array of books depends entirely upon the adults in their lives. Why, how, and what you read to young children has enormous significance in terms of the role books will play in school achievement and in enriching children's lives.

BUILDING SKILLS

Aside from just plain fun, children who are read to can acquire a wide range of knowledge about the world and about written language. Being read to shows children that writing comes in a variety of forms, such as stories, poems, and rhymes. They learn that those little black squiggles on the page stand for words, and that print makes language permanent: books can be read and re-read, at different times, at different places-and the words remain the same!

Being read to exposes children to new words and new ideas. They learn that words can create imaginary worlds of experience. As children listen to stories being told or read aloud, and as they discuss them with others, they acquire an understanding of narrative structure, an intuitive sense of what a story is. Just like Elizabeth, they learn that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that there is a problem or conflict that is described and then resolved.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Reading books to children is a way of using written language to create shared experiences in thinking about ideas, and a way of making connections between children's personal worlds and those of their classmates. It effectively creates a community of learners, with a set of common vocabulary words and common experiences. And research suggests that when teachers read to children daily for 20 minutes and involve them in conversations and dramatizations about books, they enhance learning in multiple ways. Children are better able to comprehend, make inferences about causal relationships, and use more complex language in their own storytelling.

SUPPORTING CREATIVE THINKING

Books can be a rich source of plots, characters, and elaborate language, along with ideas and fantasies which children use to create their own stories and nurture their play. You'll often see them introduce reading into their fantasy play. They may pretend to read to a favorite doll or stuffed animal, or pretend to be the teacher like Elizabeth and Maria did when they read their favorite book, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten. Or you might see someone like little Edward and his friends playing in the sand just like in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. In their early explorations of reading, children try to make sense of it, to learn about reading as a process of communication, and to understand how it can help them interpret the world around them.

Children need to be exposed to a wide array of books, including those that help them explore their own feelings and relationships.

SELECTING BOOKS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN

Everything from folktales and fables to storybooks with rhyme and repetition should be included reading fare. Choose books that appeal to you, and that match the children's interests and their level of development.

Good books for children have interesting language. Since children are "language sponges," they tend to soak up the words around them. You'll want to select books that expose children to new words and new uses of familiar words. For example, in the story "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," children hear words such as "meadow," "trample," and hooves," which they're not likely to encounter in everyday conversation.

Rhythmic words intrigue children. They love to move their bodies and will sway, dance, and often clap to the beat when you read books like Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom, or rhyming stories such as Over in the Meadow. These books encourage participation as children chime in with the repetitive phrases.

Similarly, predictable books, with their highly structured patterns such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? engage children in anticipating and predicting what comes next. These books contain highly patterned language, repetitive phrases, and predictable plots, and are a terrific way to encourage children to participate in reading along with you-especially those children who might have short attention spans.

Try to select books that present experiences for children that are relevant to their lives. Children draw parallels from books to the events and characters in their daily life. Books about Arthur going to the dentist or getting new eyeglasses, or Lyle Lyle Crocodile's first sleepover, help children form a real connection with story characters and their own activities, and often become their best-loved stories.

Don't forget to include information books. Preschoolers love nonfiction books about animals-especially dinosaurs! Outer space, trucks, and other machines simply captivate them. Children are fascinated by learning about their world and can learn a lot about how it works in this way. These books often spark special conversations and projects in science, such as learning about plant life or the universe, and are ideal when teaching important concepts. And as research has clearly shown, background knowledge and experiences with these types of texts are critical to children's success in reading. Remember that the types of books you select for reading will help children learn different things. Therefore, children need to be exposed to a wide array of language topics, types of books (genres), and perspectives. They need to read books that reflect our multicultural world, books where they can see themselves and others, and books that help them explore their emotions and relationships. This will help foster a lifelong love of reading.

After sharing books with children, let them take a turn at becoming authors themselves.

READING TO CHILDREN

There's no best way to read to children, but several useful strategies are recommended to help children understand what you're reading while you're reading.

Model. Demonstrate through your actions. Every time you turn the page you can model how it's done. It doesn't hurt to be explicit about what you're doing: "Now I'm going to turn the page."

Think aloud. Talk about what you're thinking. This helps children to explore their own thinking. "Wow! I notice that these words sound the same. Cat and hat sound the same at the end."

Tell. Provide information. "Cows usually live on farms. They don't live in the jungle or in the forest."

Explain. Clarify something that might be confusing to children. "The caterpillar had a stomachache because he ate a lot of food. Sometimes our tummies hurt when we eat or drink too much."

Question. Ask questions to guide children's thinking in order to help them better understand: "How do you think the boy might feel when he realizes that his snowball has melted?" Questioning is a useful way to help develop critical thinking skills, which are necessary for problem solving and conflict resolution.

READ IT AGAIN!

You've probably heard the story that children need to try a new food many times before they get used to the new flavor. The same principle applies to books. The more times you read a book, the more children get to know the book. One time is not enough. Each time you read a book, children will attend to new information, especially if you draw their attention to certain characteristics of the book. During one reading, the child may just focus on the pictures. During another reading, the child may start to listen to the story. During another reading, she may notice the rhyming pattern. On still another occasion, she may grasp the meanings of new vocabulary words. But repeated readings don't necessarily have to occur in one sitting, or even within a week. You may read a book a few times in January and then pull it out again in March. The children will be older and they'll know more about books, and they'll love returning to an old favorite!

BUILDING A PUBLISHING CENTER

After reading so many wonderful books to children, let them take a turn at becoming authors. Children will learn that the words they say correspond to written words. This will also help them become active participants in reading and writing, rather than watching or listening while adults perform these activities. Just think how proud they'll be to become authors and to learn how to savor precious memories of special events-field trips, a new class pet, a snowy day-in print!

Here are some easy tips for making your own books:

Make sure that class books are bound well and covered in contact paper. Homemade books are well-loved and can fall apart quickly, so you'll want to make the books strong enough for children to use often.

Write words as children say them. Read the words back to children, pointing to each word as you read it aloud. This helps children understand that the actual words they say are being put on a page. You can write or type a neat copy afterward.

Include children's artwork as well as photographs to illustrate your book.

Allow every child to be a part of bookmaking. Plan books so that each child can include a dictated or written idea and an illustration.

Place homemade books in your library area with the rest of the books. Make them easily accessible to children when they are choosing books.

Make and read them often. This helps children to see that the books they create are very important.

Small group readings foster children's language development and critical thinking skills.

EXTENDING THE LEARNING

Art activities and dramatizations can complement and enhance the effects of sharing books. By introducing new themes and materials into your classroom, and by engaging in dramatic-play activities, you can multiply the amazing potential of play to foster children's comprehension of stories, their language capacities, and vocabulary development.

In her book, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, noted early childhood teacher, Vivian Paley, recommended that children dictate their retellings of a favorite story and then re-enact them after reading. As an easy way to start, try re-enacting "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." Or make stick puppets of Mr. Gumpy, his motor car, and all the characters who accompany him in Mr. Gumpy's Motor Car. Let children use the puppets to dramatize the story, placing the characters in the car one by one, getting everyone out to push the car out of the mud after it rains, and finally have a great swim together. They'll want to return to these activities again and again!

A bit of adult engagement and modeling of play behaviors is also key here. It helps less skilled children progress to the kind of rich socio-dramatic play in which the most sustained, complex language interaction occurs. For example, you might set up a dramatic-play area in the classroom as a veterinarian's office, where Clifford the Big Red Dog and his many friends go when they feel sick. Include literacy props, such as magazines for the waiting room, brochures, mail, and memo pads so that children can write phone messages and the "doctor" can write a prescription. A veterinarian's office tends to be a bit less scary to young children than a doctor's or a dentist's office.

You can set up dramatic-play areas with related books in a number of ways, depending upon the theme you are stressing in your curriculum. For a healthy foods unit, your play area might become a restaurant, bakery, or supermarket with cookbooks. A dinosaur museum with children's favorite books will naturally complement the study of dinosaurs. A fire or police station or post office can be used for a unit on community helpers. Think about incorporating books in all of these settings. With this kind of preparation, and occasional praise and suggestions, the extent to which literacy and books become a part of sociodramatic play is remarkable.

INVOLVING PARENTS

The more you involve parents in getting children ready to read, the better! Here are some helpful suggestions on how to involve them in your classroom's literacy activities:

Invite parents to join your classroom and read with children in small groups. You'll find that small group readings foster children's language development and critical thinking by allowing children to interact more frequently than in large group storybook readings.

Ask each parent to bring in one of their children's favorite books from home for group storybook reading. It's a wonderful way to share a personal connection between what children cherish at home and what they are learning in school. It's also a great way to celebrate diversity and address the many special interests of children in the classroom.

Set up a lending library with age-appropriate books. Try not to worry that books may get a little battered through regular lending. That's always a good sign that children and families are reading them.

Create a sign-up list in a visible area so that parents will see that books are being regularly checked out. It will send an important message that reading aloud outside of class time is important.

Create a "Designated Reader" program. Knowing how children thrive from being read to on a daily basis, ask parents or other family members to sign a "contract" to read to their child. If their schedule is too packed, ask them to designate another person to read to their child for that day. The important thing is not to let a day go by without reading.

Take pictures of children and their activities in your literacy-related play centers, reading and listening to stories. Create captions that detail children's activities. You'll find that it makes a wonderful bulletin board display that will delight parents and convey important information on the activities in your classroom. No parent is likely to pass it by without looking for her child's face!

Encourage parents to visit the local library, and help their children register for their own special library cards. Libraries are truly a "gift that keeps on giving," providing children with the richness of good literature and information books throughout their lives.

Children thrive on reading material that is rich and diverse, as well as your support in making the experience of reading personally meaningful to them. These experiences remind us how much children can learn when they see the rewards of reading and are motivated to become readers themselves.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Sharing Books - Age by Age (PDF)