If you’re an elementary teacher, you know that the most daunting and wonderful part of the job is opening the world of books and reading to students. What a responsibility! And what a delight to introduce children to favorite characters, great literature, and big questions around the world and our place in it.
The task can be overwhelming, but there are some simple, research-based strategies that work.
1. First, kids must listen to great stories every day.
When children listen to great stories, they’re exposed to new vocabulary, grammar, and modes of fluency. But even more importantly, they begin to see how words construct meaning in the world around us. Whether students arrive in your classroom unable to read the alphabet or already reading chapter books, reading aloud offers the opportunity to capture students’ imaginations and to introduce them to quality fiction and nonfiction.
In the primary grades, reading aloud provides equity and access to rich texts, but it also helps nurture social-emotional skills, as students learn to listen to your words, connect stories to their own emotional lives, and discuss books with friends.
2. Second, we must invite students to wonder.
Wonder is at the heart of a deep and meaningful relationship with reading. This is true for a kindergartener or someone working on a PhD in English literature. When we wonder about what we read, we ask questions—questions about the text, about ourselves, and about the wider world.
So how do we encourage wonder at the primary level? We can start by modeling our own questions. What is the story about? How did the story make you feel? What did the story make you think of? What is the character thinking?
Additionally, we can try simple activities that encourage perspective-taking and questioning. For example, the Shared Inquiry method encourages students in grades K–1 to act out small parts of the story. When students pretend they are wearing too-tight shoes just like the main character does in “Those Shoes,” by Maribeth Boelts, they begin to understand and ask questions about how that character is feeling.
Another fun Shared Inquiry activity is choral reading using different tones of voice. When students read aloud the same sentence using a scared, happy, and surprised tone of voice, they begin to understand the tone that best matches the mood of the story.
We also love the idea of starting a “Wonder Wall” or bulletin board where students can post the questions they have about books or stories all year long.
3. Finally, we must encourage kids to share.
Sharing is fundamental to the reading experience, to which any adult reader can attest. What’s the first thing you want to do when you finish a great book? Talk with someone about it! Seize onto that instinct, and show kids that what they think and that what their classmates think has real value.
You can do that by taking time for students to share their questions and their opinions, too. For many children, seeing you write their question or opinion down on the board is an a-ha moment—“what I say in this classroom matters.” Again, model your own questions, and provide text frames to help children with their thinking. For example, “I liked the part where ______________, because _____________.”
Sometimes getting kids to share is all about creating the right atmosphere. We love this classroom “campfire” from Literacy Loving Gals. Imagine circling around it to talk great books with your students!
When students are invited to share what they think, they begin to see how reading and sharing—and eventually, writing—are connected. And that’s our goal as early reading teachers, isn’t it?