Spark joy and learning with interactive read-alouds

Published on Tuesday, 20 July 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021

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Early childhood educators are no strangers to read-alouds. It’s one of the most widespread and recurrent instructional activities in early education services, and it’s a sure-fire activity to spark joy and a child’s imagination.

Studies consistently highlight the benefits of interactive read-alouds with success linked to the thoughtful choice of books, how they are shared and the quality of interactions.

Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching. It exists in every culture whether by written word, song, the oral tradition or visually. Stories offer joy, drawing children into magical worlds and helping them develop concentration skills, expand their vocabulary and even providing comfort.

They also offer windows or mirrors for young children to develop an understanding, respect and appreciation for themselves and other cultures.

Young children’s literacy learning, and development is better supported when they interact with adults during read-alouds. This means that the educator and the children are actively involved in thinking and talking about the read-aloud text. Talking around the text of the story facilitates a child’s literacy development.

In the early years, children need to learn basic concept about print, for example in English  and te reo Maori we read print from left to right across a line of text and from top to bottom on a page. Children start learning that writing in text represents oral language. Children also need to understand the difference between a letter and a word, and that letters represent particular sounds.

Children learn this information when adults show them how print works during read-alouds. The evidence-based technique for this is called print-referencing and it refers to the use of verbal and nonverbal cues to encourage children’s attention to and interactions with print.

Print-referencing involves holding the text to face children with the reader showing and telling children how text works during the read-aloud. For example, when an educator runs a finger under the words that are read, children learn about directionality. Studies of print referencing demonstrate that young children make substantial gains in print knowledge when their teachers use this method, compared with children who do not experience this type of interactive read-aloud.

Pictures grab children’s attention more often than the printed words and according to a 2008 study, unless adults strategically and deliberately highlight print, young children spend less than six per cent of read-aloud time looking at print.

Remember to maintain balance when engaging in read-alouds. If too much focus is on the learning aspect of the story with educators setting multiple teaching goals, children may not be able to follow the story or may lose interest. It is important to maintain the fun and joy of a read-aloud while also providing opportunities for learning and development.

Reading aloud to a large group of children is a great way to build connections and promote a love for reading, but it is also important to set aside time to read to smaller groups. Reading in small groups can enhance children’s comprehension skills by motivating them to ask and answer more questions as well as comment more on the text of the book.

Here are some ideas to help read-alouds reach their full potential.

1. Purposeful and planned

Careful planning and preparations are essential to a fun and successful interactive reading experience. Storytime will be richer if you have read the book at least once beforehand and ensured it is age appropriate for your children. Prepare open-ended question to engage children with the story and plan them to use before, during and after the story. Consider what you’d like the children to get out of the story. Consider book themes that connect children’s work in the classroom or their interests.

Be ready to provide child-friendly explanations of word meaning, this may be a picture, prop, or an action. Highlight a small set of important words for the children to learn, you can support this learning by re-reading this book at a later time and reading other books that include these words such as on the topic of farm animals which will repeat terms like tractor, barn, cow etc. 

2. Before you read the book

Ensure your seating area is large enough for everyone to sit and see comfortably. You could create a special "Storytime Magic Carpet" that gets rolled out for stories. Start by showing the book cover and read out the title, author and illustrator, this will reinforce the concept that people write and draw books. Look at the back cover as well and read the blurb. Ask questions like: what do you think the book might be about? Where do you think the story takes place? Have you ever read a book like this before?

3. Bring it to life!

Draw on your inner actor and use dramatic and fun sound effects, hand motions, facial expressions, and changes in tone to invite children to become a part of the story with you. Give characters a different voice and consider dressing up like one of the characters. Use interactive strategies such as giving children a line to repeat, a hand motion, or a sound effect that they can add at the appropriate time.

4. Help children visualise the story

Children who are attentive to the visual details of a book are learning how to use visual clues to get meaning from everything on the page. Point out details in illustrations and characterisations to help children become keen observers and discuss what they notice.

5. Invite children to use their senses

Help children imagine not only the sights in a story but the sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and emotions, as well. Periodically, stop and ask children to pretend to use their senses to explore a part of the story: "Can you pretend to pet the puppy? How does the puppy feel? What do you think the characters hear? What do they smell?"

6. Develop ways to respond to questions

Allow children to make connections and share comments as you read. Some questions are important and need to be answered right away so the child will understand the rest of the story. Be prepared to clarify unknown words by children. You could invite the children to make comments or predictions about what will happen next, the characters and the illustrations. Be aware that stopping too often could break up the flow of the story.

7. Take time to talk

Children love to talk about a book you've just read. Use creative questions to encourage in-depth thinking and discussion. Questions could include: What was your favourite part? Why? How did the story make you feel? What was the most interesting thing you learned from the book?

8. Embed learning

Second read-alouds should occur a day or two after first reads. The purpose is to enrich children's comprehension of the story and provide further opportunities for children to engage in analytic talk. During second book introductions, remind children they have read the book before and ask them what they remember. Highlight the same key words to support retention of vocabulary.

Note too that educators can support dual-language learners before and during read-alouds in a variety of ways. Teachers can incorporate books and other reading materials in the children’s first language and read that version of the book before reading the English-language version aloud.

Another way to support reading and literacy development in dual-language learners is to have them look through wordless books and talk about the pictures in their first language as well as in English. Asking questions about the book also encourages dual-language learners to engage and interact by allowing them to respond nonverbally through pointing to something in the book.

References and further reading

The Bulletin: Focusing on Read-Alouds

Scholastic: Teaching techniques, reading aloud artfully!

Teaching strategies: 6 ways to make read-alouds time effective and meaningful

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