When Bill Martin, Jr., author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom was asked, "What do children need in order to learn to read?" he replied, "A battery of books that they can zoom through with joyous familiarity." How true! Children who read early and seem to "just pick up" reading prior to formal instruction usually begin by memorizing books that they have listened to many, many times. In contrast, children who arrive at school without the benefit of those repeated readings operate at a serious disadvantage. These children need to log more quality time sharing and discussing books in order for reading to emerge. Yet time is a scarce commodity within the overburdened curriculum and with all of the pressures that contemporary teachers face. Under these circumstances, children's literature can be neglected. When it is, teachers lose a tremendous resource for supporting emergent literacy skills and for increasing children's motivation to learn to read. What follows are some practical suggestions that enable teachers to make room for picture books.
Expand your definition of literature. Think beyond storybooks. Children's literature also includes Big Book versions of songs that can be enjoyed during music time, poetry that can be recited to start the school day, and wordless books that invite children to invent a story in spoken or written words. Think beyond a lengthy read-aloud session to consider using transition times, such as the times when children are waiting in line, cleaning up, or preparing for the end of the day. A snappy rhyme such as Tiger on a Tree (Ravishankar, 2003), a familiar song such as Do Your Ears Hang Low? (Church, 2002), or a story such as Cookie's Week (Ward, 1994) with just one line per page, can be shared in just a couple of minutes. Remember also that reading books with children often is a perfect task for cross-age tutors or parent volunteers who have been coached to share and discuss (rather than quiz and correct) emergent readers. Young children need to spend lots of group time (both large and small group) listening to literature before they begin to read, so pack in as much as you can.
Ask good questions. Although it is customary to ask who, what, when, and where questions that have "right there in the book" answers, open-ended questions - those that have more than one answer - build interest because they help make connections between book and child. If your story-sharing sessions are ho-hum, try increasing the proportion of how and why questions; make the books "all about them." Give children the chance to identify their favorite illustration, character, or excerpt, and ask them to explain their choices. For example, try asking, "Is there anyone in the story who is like you (or someone you know)? How? Why?" After hearing "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate (Graham, 2001), in which a family goes to a shelter to adopt a puppy, one kindergartner noticed that, just like his parents, Dad wears a muscle shirt and one earring, while Mom sports a tattoo. This was something he had not seen in a book previously. He also remarked, "They're sorta like my Mom and Dad ‘cause they would feel sorry for the old dog that nobody wanted."
Make the most of the illustrations. Have you ever read a book many times, only to have a child point out something that completely escaped your notice? Today's young children have been immersed in an image-dominated culture and often have highly developed visual skills. Paying attention to illustrations is an important way of working to children's strengths. The illustrations in picture books help children decode words, so guide them in searching the illustrations as cues for reading the text. For emergent readers, taking a "picture walk" (looking through all of the illustrations in the book before attempting to read it) can build confidence and fluency. When working with a larger group, show children the cover of the book and invite them to make predictions about the book's content. Children will be more interested in a book if they have made an investment in trying to understand it.
Get children actively involved. Choose a predictable book with repetition and rhyme that gets children to chime in, such as Bear Wants More (Wilson, 2003). Or, you might read The Little Red Hen (McQueen, 1992) aloud while children take turns playing the various animal roles. Have them make simple masks for the various animals, and then line them up according to the story sequence. As the story is read, each child can step forward and hold up a piece of poster board with the words that the character speaks. Dramatizing the story increases comprehension and makes it memorable.
Plan extension activities. Research has shown that children recall stories better if they retell them afterwards. Provide props that enable children to retell stories in small groups, such as small toys, flannel board cutouts, puppets that are easy to manipulate, or simple costumes. A good title for retelling at the flannel board is Froggy Gets Dressed (London, 1995) in which a frog prepares to play in the snow by putting on all types of warm clothing, complete with sound effects. Replace worksheets with storytelling activities that can be completed at centers individually, in pairs, or in small groups. For example, a book with a simple rhyming pattern, such as Today Is Monday (Carle, 1997), can inspire children to create an original version.
Although teachers may not have the luxury of a leisurely, daily group story time, it is possible to infuse picture books into everyday routines, transition times, and curricular themes. It is also possible to integrate children's literature into individual, partner, small, and large group activities. The time is there if you appreciate the importance of children's literature and make the commitment to weave picture books in throughout the school day.