What are some effective strategies for shared book reading?

Thought needs to be given to how many books will be read and how, to the quantity and the quality of the selected books and the way they are read. Do the children need exposure to 4 or 5 books on the theme or would 2, carefully read, be more effective for engaging a young audience? Is there anything about the actual language and images in the book that would make this an ideal choice for an engaging storytime? For example, books structured around questions (e.g. Would You Rather… by John Burningham; Whose Bottom? by Jeannette Rowe) promote interaction because questions, by their very nature, expect a response from the reader/listener. This helps to make the reading experience more interactive.

After selections have been made, it is important to practise reading each book out loud from cover to cover. During the practice, think about how you will use intonation and sounds to convey meaning, voice inflection for different characters, point to key images on the page, and use illustrations to best prepare children for the next page and the unfolding sequence of events.

While you are reading aloud, also think about how you will keep the attention of the group and encourage their participation. You really need to know the contents of each book very well (its language/words as well as images and overall structure) if you are going to ask effective questions of the children.

Finally, plan for contingencies: think about how you can shorten a book if the group is noisy and a story has not engaged them. You may also wish to consider having a selection of theme related books on display during storytime, so that caregivers who would like to can borrow them to read at home with the child.

How can we introduce a book?

First, show it to the children. Tell them the title, the names of the author and illustrator in a way that is appropriate to the target age group. You may introduce 4-5-year-olds to words such as ‘author’, ‘illustrator’ and ‘title’, while for younger children a simpler introduction to these concepts of print may be more suitable (e.g. ‘This book is called Monkey Puzzle. The words are written by Julia Donaldson, and the pictures are by Axel Scheffler.’). To foster print motivation, too, help children understand that somebody writes the words and somebody draws the pictures, and in this way people create the picture books children love to listen to and look at. You can also ask them to look closely at the book’s front cover (and sometimes even back cover) and try to guess what the book will be about. This will encourage them to draw on their background knowledge to engage in prediction, an important reading comprehension strategy.

Before you begin reading, it is very helpful for comprehension to clearly explain any unfamiliar words or ideas e.g. camouflage. Think about how will you convey their meaning e.g. can you act them out? Explaining unfamiliar words in this way should help prepare each child to understand the story that is about to unfold. During and after the reading, keep drawing attention to the unfamiliar words/phrases and repeat them because repetition is crucial for learning vocabulary.

When preparing a session, thought also needs to be given to what the children can do while you read the text. In other words, how can they interact with the story? For example, are there animal noises they can make, can they clap when they hear a particular word, shout out answers to your questions or press a button (it can be an imaginary button on the palm of their hands)?  Such choices for interaction keep children engaged and help them develop their listening skills.

How can we talk about the book afterwards?

After the reading, review what you have read with children and expand on new words, concepts or ideas. With pre-school children, from time to time, explain the differences between similar words: e.g. In Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, the author uses the words ‘whimper, weep and wail’. Ask what is similar about these words and what is different? You could demonstrate the differences in meaning and then ask the children to act out each word.

You may like to read a book like, What Will Fat Cat Sit On? by Jan Thomas. During the reading, the children can make the animal sounds or repeat the refrain ‘What will fat cat sit on?’ After the reading is complete, you could retell the story with the group using animal puppets (a cat, a cow, a chicken, a pig, a dog) and a chair.

To promote comprehension, especially in storytimes for 3-5-year-olds, try to ask at least one open-ended question that encourages children to infer information that is not explicitly stated in the book, for example, to draw conclusions about a character’s emotions or motives. As this may be too difficult with large and/or mixed-age groups, you may ask this question right at the end (and in this way provide caregivers with a model for the kinds of higherorder questions they can ask children when reading together at home) and present it as one for children to think and talk about with their caregivers later. Using Yes or No (polar) questions instead may move the group along more easily. You can also use specify questions (who, what, when, where) to check comprehension of the key elements of the story that has been read.

For younger children

With younger children, read predictable books and books with repeated word patterns. If the book is about an animal such as a lion or tiger, you can also ask them to provide the animal sounds before, during and after the reading. An excellent book for young children is the factual text Whose Feet? by Jeanette Rowe. It is a lift-the-flap book that encourages interaction because it is structured as a series of questions (that demand answers). In addition, the use of flaps encourages children’s prediction skills. These are tested when the storytime presenter lifts the flap stimulating both curiosity and engagement. At the same time, lift-the-flap books may attract the attention of children who want to come and touch or even take the books away from the presenter, so you need to consider how you will use them to discourage such behaviour.