Reading to Kids: Lessons Learned
What’s a book club for children?” That’s the question I tackled when Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton MA, hired me to run two book groups as part of their Extended Day curriculum.
I ran two classes: one was geared towards kindergarteners through third graders, which incorporated story reading and writing. The other was for fourth through sixth graders, focused solely on reading.
Initially, I expected students to sit quietly and listen. Over the year, I realized that my expectations were wrong; students were capable of much more. This is what I learned:
Atmosphere is everything
My first class was overcrowded. The children were antsy, complained they couldn’t see, and weren’t comfortable. Once we corrected the logistics, they calmed down.
We experimented with two spaces: a pillow-filled corner of a classroom, and a pillow-filled corner of a hallway. Even though the school was empty, the kids could not focus in the hallway. In the classroom, they were relaxed and attentive.
For an optimal reading experience, children need space to stretch out within a contained environment.
You don’t need to write to tell a story
Many parents enrolled their young children in my class because they wanted them to write.
One kindergartner drew an intricate intergalactic comic book, filled with dozens of characters battling, traveling, and negotiating.
Another kindergartner illustrated a tale depicting a trip she took. While there were no words, she memorized her story and told and retold it to anyone willing to listen. If no one was available, she “read” it aloud to herself.
These children told stories without writing. Forcing them to include words would have changed their vision, and risked diminishing their enthusiasm.
No matter what their age is, all children love being read to
Kids are never too old to listen to stories. Third graders enjoy the same picture books that kindergarteners do, although they interpret the stories differently.
I thought the older students would prefer reading quietly to themselves, that they would think reading aloud was babyish. But they told me that they preferred to listen.
Children are moved by literature
“I hate this story! Why’d you bring it?” cried a sixth grader, throwing a pillow across the room.
“I gotta go,” said another quietly.
A beloved character in a novel had died. I tried to engage the students in conversation, but they were unresponsive. A week later, they told me the story was sad, but they loved it.
Children are often unmoved when characters die on television, in movies, and in video or computer games. But when you get to know characters through literature, you climb inside their heads — you live and breathe with them. It’s an entirely different relationship that instills compassion and sympathy.
Kids know the difference between good and bad literature
“What do you think?” I asked after completing a picture book. “That was stupid,” said one kindergartner. “I don’t even know what the story was.”
He was right! The book was poorly written with an unclear plot.
I read a long book to the same group and worried I would lose them. “That was the best book!” said one first grader.
“I loved it!” agreed another. This funny tale was well written, so the length was irrelevant.
Well-written passages led to repeated readings with my older students. “That’s so funny! Read it again,” they begged.
It’s important to screen your books. If the stories aren’t engaging, children will lose interest.
Reading is not a passive activity
When one fifth-grader began walking around in class, I worried he was bored. But after I read a funny passage, he burst out laughing. He was listening, but needed to move.
One of my kindergarteners drew while I read. If I stopped, he stopped. Another kindergartner mulled every plot line and proceeded to tell her own tales aloud.
When I began a favorite book, a second grader jumped up, begging to act out the story. “I want to be the monster!” she cried. The kids quickly followed her lead, clamoring for roles.
Kids read and tell stories in a variety of ways — some different than we expect.
If you want to instill a love of literature and storytelling in your child, work with your child to create a special place and time for reading.
Let your child participate in book selections. Many children love fiction, while others prefer non-fiction. And within each category, your child will have preferences.
Offer your child the tools to experience the stories in personal and unique ways. Have paper, crayons, pillows, blankets, and anything else you deem appropriate available during reading time.
Most importantly, let go of your expectations about how children ought to experience literature. Sit back and enjoy reading together.
Kids’ favorite books
The following books are some of the young kids’ favorites from the book club:
- Strega Nona
by Tomie De Paola
by Kevin Henkes
- Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
by Kevin Henkes
- Bread and Jam for Frances
by Russell Hoban
- Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon
by Patty Lovell
- There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen
by Sheree Fitch
- The Shrinking of Treehorn
by Florence Parry Heide
- Appelemando’s Dreams
by Patricia Polacco
- The Keeping Quilt
by Patricia Polacco
- Spinky Sulks
by William Steig
- Owl Moon
by Jane Yolen
- It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folk Tale
by Margot Zemach
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