Tag Archives: literacy

Story time? Start talking!

Ever think to yourself, “There has to be a way of reading with kids that’s more fun and engaging,” or “This book would be great, except it has too many words”?

Well, think to yourself no longer, and start talking! Dialogic reading is a great way to engage with children, and it’s all about creating a conversation using the book at hand. You don’t have to read the words, and in fact I recommend you NOT read the book word for word but rather LOOK at the pictures and TALK about what you see. Children learn more from an open-ended and interactive activity where they have control over input and direction. This could not be truer than in the emergent reader!

Since this method relies on the conversation, it switches the traditional roles we play when we think of reading with children. Typically we think of reading where the adult reads the words while the child listens; in effect the child becomes a passive listener. In dialogic reading, the adult prompts the child into conversation and, depending on the child’s response, expands on what they said. With dialogic reading, the child becomes an active participant.

Photo courtesy of Harris County Public Library.

Photo courtesy of Harris County Public Library.

Great prompting questions when you’re reading might be: “What do you see?” “What do you think is happening?” “What do you think might happen next?” Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here. You are simply talking about what the child sees and they can have pretty extravagant imaginations! You have the opportunity to build children’s vocabularies by providing them with new words, and can also expand their knowledge by offering new contexts and asking them to reflect on their own experiences.

I find this method also works very well when introducing a book for the first time. As you “walk” through the book and talk about the pictures children gain a sense of what is happening and begin to make predictions for what comes next, an important cognitive skill to develop.

When we allow a child to express themselves, whether right or wrong, accurate or incorrect, we allow them to think creatively about what they see and think about the world around them. The details and getting the answer right are not important at this time (they’ll get that later). Dialogic reading creates the freedom for a story typically presented in a formal book format to take on a new life. It allows for natural discovery and for new interpretations of what is seen.

Some great books to consider for Dialogic Reading are:

  • Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu
  • Any of the many excellent books from Books by Tara
  • And then it’s Spring by Julie Fogliano
  • The Bear and Friends series by Karma Wilson
  • Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
  • Mouse Mess by Linnea Riley
  • Not A Box by Antoinnette Portis
  • Rosies Walk by Pat Hutchins
  • The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  • Where’s Walrus? by Stephen Savage

But you can use any book, anywhere!

– Josh

Baby Talk

Last week I was in a well known department store shopping for a birthday gift when I noticed a new mother with her infant son in a stroller. It was so meaningful to see her having a conversation with her baby.  She pulled a dress off the rack and held it up for him to inspect.  “What do you think of this one Sam?  Not bad, huh?” Her baby gazed thoughtfully at it from his stroller. A nearby salesclerk gave the mother an amused glance. “Do you really think he understands?” “Probably not,” agreed the mother, smiling.

I could tell from the look on the mother’s face and her frowning that the clerk had made her feel foolish. I approached the mom and told her that I could tell he loved the dress and I thought it was wonderful that she was having conversation with her son. She told me that her son’s caregiver was always going on about the importance of talking to babies, but maybe it didn’t really matter. After all, Sam certainly couldn’t understand words at five months. She said that “other than trying to coax a smile out of him, why bother?” I told her that conversation with her child was crucial. I told her that I have been in the early childhood field for almost 30 years and I could assure her that talking with your baby was going to make a huge difference on so many levels. She thanked me for my kind gesture and I reassured her that she should buy the dress because Sam had given a long series of squeals and I was sure he loved the bright colors.

I was driving home and I kept thinking, what do babies think when adults converse with them? In fact, a word-for-word translation of a five-month-old’s thoughts on conversation might read something like this:

I wish I could tell that store clerk a thing or two. I do care if you talk to me! Learning to talk is a two-way street. You know what I mean:  one of us starts, the other answers; then the first person says something back, and so on.  I’m catching on to that pretty quick, even though I don’t use words yet. So what if my conversation consists mostly of a couple of gurgling sounds, a few fancy arm maneuvers and that toothless grin you seem to like so much? You always answer! And that’s the thing that lets me know I’ve got the hang of it. 

Besides, I like the sound of your voice. When you talk to me it lets me know I’m a real person. I am a person who is loved and respected and definitely worth talking to.

So, if you are a teacher in an early childhood program, a family child care provider, a new mom, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle or the casual shopper in a department store… speak and smile to babies! Small talk is important. Also, remember these important tips:

  • Hold and cuddle your baby while you’re talking. Look into his or her eyes.  Your baby needs to hear you talk in order to learn to talk himself.
  • Give your baby lots of time to respond when you say something.
  • Imitate the sounds you hear your baby make. Some day he or she will be able to make them back to you as a game. Eventually he or she may even start the game.
  • When you see your baby staring at something, tell her what it is and move closer to it.
  • Watch your baby’s reactions. If he or she turns their head away or seems tired or upset when you’re talking, they are letting you know they have had enough for right now.
  •  Never quit smiling. A smile is worth a thousand words!

Fairy Tales for the Very Young?

A few weeks ago there was a blog at Suburp about reading fairy tales to young children and whether it’s appropriate or not. You know the ones: “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood”-we’ve heard them all. When she writes about a fairy tale where  the “children are abandoned in the woods because the new wife of their father did not want to feed them, where an old woman wants to eat them and the girl then has to burn her to free herself and her brother… this is about as horrible as a child could imagine!” The blogger at Suburp claims that children can process these kinds of stories without being “traumatized for life” because “like generations before them, they understand the stories as they are intended: fairy tales teach us about life…. and the moral of it all is that it ends well for those who deserve it and bad for those who don’t.”

I agree with the blogger on one thing: that story is about as horrible as a child can imagine. Piaget has taught me that children ages two to seven (or so) are in the pre-operational stage, the stage where children are incapable of making truly logical connections in their thinking. Their imaginations can run wild. Young children actually aren’t able to understand fairy tales as they were intended: they literally don’t have that ability. One aspect of a child’s pre-operational thought is called concreteness, which means young children are able to understand real situations that they have actually experienced firsthand, but have difficulty with abstract ideas and things they have heard described in words only: like fairy tales.

Think about it. If you have trouble wrapping your head around what parts of a story are real and what parts of a story are not real, stories like “Hansel and Gretel” are scary. Even if the fairy tale isn’t violent – although most fairy tales have violence – there can still be some confusion about what is fantasy and what is real. “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” a fairy tale intended to teach children about greed, is a good example. The three brother goats run out of grass to eat and they need to cross a river into a new pasture. When the littlest one goes over the bridge first, a troll comes out from under the bridge and says he is going to eat him. The little goat says to wait for his brother because he is bigger, and the troll lets the little goat by. When the middle brother goat crosses the bridge, he says to wait for the eldest brother goat because he is even bigger. When the eldest goat comes along, he knocks the troll into the water with his horns and the brothers live happily ever after. The violence is relatively mild other than the troll threatening to eat the goats, but is it really appropriate to expect a child to hear that story and think to him or herself, “I shouldn’t be greedy like that troll or bad things will happen?” I don’t think so. Children will remember the troll and the dramatic ending.

Fairy tales are told all throughout the year, but as Halloween nears even more stories involving fantasy characters enter the lives of young children. When thinking about what to read to children during this time or what stories to tell, be conscientious of your intention. Stories with ghosts and witches can be scary, and may only confuse children about what is real. We want to avoid nightmares, and definitely being “traumatized for life”!

Where Do Words Come From?

Learning is a mysterious thing. How did you come to know that when you look up it is the sky that you see? Or that filling a cup too full of liquid will cause it to overflow? When children learn language, it works the same way.

I found an article in the New York Times about children’s language development recently, and it made me wonder. I asked our infant and toddler specialist about how children develop language, and she said “bathe the children in language, don’t drown them.” I like that. I immediately pictured an adult talking with a child rather than telling the child what to do. She told me about a study that compared the development of children whose parents only talked directly to them (“put your shoes away”, “eat supper”, “sit down”) to those who had conversations with them.  The children who had conversations were significantly more developed in language and communication than the children who were given directives only. 

The article supports what Christine said and the author gives simple advice to parents and caregivers to help boost children’s language development:  “Talk to your child about what they’re focused on. Read to your child often. If they’re in a bilingual home, speak to the child and read to the child in the language that you’re most comfortable with. Speak clearly and naturally and use real words. Show excitement when the child speaks.”

Hmmmmm, I think we can do that.