Monday, November 29, 2010

Great Picture Books to Read at Christmas

I did a post on children's picture books for Christmas in 2008 as part of my 'Key Themes in Literature' series (here), which I updated in 2009 (here).  This post is another update of previous posts with the addition of a number of wonderful new books published in 2010. Some of the books that follow are quite faithful to the traditional Christmas story, while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, including love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that you can find. Many of these books can be used even with children aged 8-12 years. The illustration below is used by permission of Walker Books and is from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' illustrated brilliantly by Robert Ingpen (reviewed in this post).

At the heart of the Christmas story is the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson has published a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Dick Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their ideas of what Jesus looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! A spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what the will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald. This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun

The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie. 

Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas.

Monday, November 22, 2010

'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books

I wrote last week about some worrying trends with picture books and asked 'Are Picture Books Dying?' My post was motivated by my concern that the picture book is seriously under-valued by some parents and teachers and yet, I believe that it offers things that chapter books can't for young readers. You can read it if you missed it HERE.

But in this post I address a different question.  Is it possible that new technology could enhance the picture book? Regular readers of this blog would be surprised that I'm even asking the question. There have been many attempts in recent years to produce electronic versions of picture books, but so far few have done more than put picture books on a screen with a few minor enhancements, often as small as allowing text size or font to be changed (this is not to deny that this is useful).

There are of course some practical problems if electronic books are going to work with young children. Will they pass the cereal and bath tests? Will kids be able to chew them, sleep with them and could they survive if left in the back seat of the car in summer? At the moment I can't see us letting toddlers drag around our iPads, but with technology advances it just might happen sooner than we think.

I don't think for a minute that technology will kill off picture books, but it might just open up a few new possibilities for using them and for combining image and word. I wouldn't have thought this until I saw the latest example of a picture book on iPad that tries to integrate image, word and sound in new ways.  Have a look at the preview below of 'Alice in Wonderland' for iPad. 

I'm grateful to Stella Reinhard one of the speakers at the '8th International Conference on the Book', which I just attended in St Gallen Switzerland who shared the above video clip.  I also presented a paper on the 'Power of Literature' that I might blog on later.  Stella presented a paper on the traditional pop-up book and showed us some of the wonderful examples that have been produced over a period of 200 years.

The extent of the paper engineering is quite extraordinary, as the creators have tried to add movement and dramatic effect to support the text.  The examples opposite and below are both from legendary 'pop-up' book creator Robert Sabuda's well-known version of 'Alice in Wonderland'. But as much as these wonderful books are interesting and exciting for children (and adults!), are they ever more than a novelty? I think the answer is both yes and no.  They are a novelty, but this doesn't mean that their impact is trivial and unimportant.

I'm reminded of one of my grandchildren, Elsie who is now almost 4 years old and loves books. In the family Christmas letter of 2007 her mother and my daughter (Nicole) wrote something about every family member's favourite books in the year past. For Elsie she wrote, "Elsie likes pretty much anything with flaps". Elsie, in her first year of reading, like many children as they start to encounter books, was enjoying being able to physically manipulate books and feel as if she was helping to 'create' the story as it unfolded (literally!). Flap lifting or being able to pop-up an elaborate piece of Sabuda paper engineering will help young children to learn to participate in reading, make predictions and enjoy being part of the act of reading.

It remains to be seen if Apple can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties, but if they do I'm sure that they will help to get some children excited about reading and literature.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are Picture Books Dying?

A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times (20th October) sounded a warning about the decline of the picture book.  While the picture book isn't about to disappear in the near future (perhaps never), Bosman cites publication figures for picture books that give some reason for concern.  While the economic downturn (especially in the USA) has led some publishers to reduce the number of picture books that are more expensive to produce, there seem to be some other factors at work. These are tendencies that I have also observed and so her article has given me a good excuse to write a post I've been wanting to write for some time. First, here are some of the trends that have been noticed.

a) While the classic picture books (e.g. 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', 'Where the Wild Things Are') and the famous picture book authors (e.g. Dr Seuss, Mem Fox and Eric Carle) continue to be sold, it is harder for less established authors to publish.

b) Many parents move their children on from picture books very quickly, encouraging their children to read chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. In an age when many parents are sold on the idea that 'Your Baby Can Read' from 6-12 months, there is an urge to move them quickly on to novels.

c) Book shops are displaying less picture books, and many new titles don't even make it to a book store, and even award winning books disappear quickly from books stores in as little as 3 years if the author doesn't have another immediate successful follow-up book.

d) Some parents seem to move their children on too quickly in their often well-motivated quest to help their children succeed as readers. Bosman notes that sometimes the motives are confused and quotes  the manager of a major children's department in Washington who says:
“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’....I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”
Myths about Picture Books 

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary and syntax.  For example, the text of 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour, and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and reduce the demands on the reader'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can make 'stripped down' language make sense, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for little children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations. Picture books are a vital way in which children can draw on 'multiple intelligences' at the same time (see my post on this topic here), including 'Linguistic Intelligence',  'Spatial Intelligence', 'Logical-mathematical intelligence', 'Bodily-kinaesthetic Intelligence' (e.g. 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar') and even 'Musical Intelligence' if it integrates early rhyme and music (Matt Ottley integrates a complete musical!). In fact, arguably, every form of intelligence can be potentially integrated into the picture book. This is not to suggest that chapter books only emphasise 'Linguistic Intelligence' - for example, 'spatial intelligence' includes abstract, analytical abilities that go beyond simply seeing images - but their potential to do this is more limited for the young child.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.
Other reading

Julie Bosman's article in the New York Times (20th October) HERE

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emerging Comprehension' HERE
Previous post on 'Multiple Intelligences' HERE

Monday, November 8, 2010

Stifling Creativity: The School as Factory

I've written a number of times about creativity and divergent thinking and how easy it is to stifle both (for example here). I've also written before about Sir Ken Robinson's ideas on the topic, and his view that school tends to educate '...people out of their creativity'.  Children he suggests have a natural tendency towards novelty, experimentation and exploration of their world in new ways right from birth. While genes have something to do with creativity and it varies from one person to another, all humans have the potential to be creative and creativity can be fostered or discouraged. In a recent lecture he cites research from a longitudinal study of 1500 children over a 10-year period ('Breakpoint & Beyond: Mastering the Future Today').  The results of this work suggested that while at age 5 almost all children (98%) demonstrated high levels of creativity and divergent thinking, that at subsequent assessments at 5-year intervals, this dropped dramatically as children progressed through school.

In a recent lecture Sir Ken Robinson suggests that throughout the developed world governments are talking about reforming schools, but in every case they are simply seeking to go 'back to the future'. He suggests that around the world we are seeing governments continuing to support the maintenance of schools systems that:

1. Were devised in the 18th century age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment led to a questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. The needs of the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of mass public education to train workers. 

2. Deductive reasoning is valued and the school system turns children out factory-like after being tested and 'packaged' for life.

3. School education is completed in institutions that resemble factories, children are grouped in classes, grades and year groups and are shuffled through a system that approaches learning in discrete subjects and devalues the arts and creativity compared to the sciences.

4. The outcome he argues is that children are streamed into academic and non-academic groups and many find the experience boring and frustrating. In an age where children receive more stimulation than ever before through media, life experiences and communication technology, school he suggests, is simply mind-numbingly boring.

His presentation below takes just 11 minutes to view; it is a stimulating and challenging lecture. 

How can we stimulate creativity?

a) The preschool child - Parents, carers and preschool teachers need to:

  • Provide time for children to explore their world.
  • Offer opportunities for structured and unstructured play.
  • Encourage experimentation with language and story.
  • Create an environment that encourages the child to invent novel solutions in play.
  • Ensure that children are not placed under too many restraints and structures.
  • Try to enhance opportunities for children to attempt to solve problems or explore new things.
  • Offer new experiences and situations that challenge them to find out, seek solutions and solve problems.
  • Make good use of technology without allowing it to dominate children's lives.
    b) School-age children - The teacher or parent needs to:
    • Encourage learning, expression and exploration in situations that emphasise the generation of ideas, solutions and forms of expression that are divergent as well as convergent.
    • Ensure that the desire to evaluate learning and encourage excellence does not limit creativity.
    • Ensure that rewards do not simply privilege single answers or solutions, or pathways to reaching the single right answer (because of course there are correct answers to some things).
    • Integrate opportunities to learn as much as possible cutting across the traditional subject disciplines.
    • Provide time for children to explore, express and reflect on their learning.
    • Encourage self-discovery, inquiry learning and varied modes to expressing ideas.
    • Encourage exploration of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences.
      Conclusion Schools constrain and conform our children to such an extent that originality, innovation and discovery are not valued as much as they should. As these disappear, so too do enjoyment, motivation and creativity. As John Holt expresses it:

      What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. (John Holt, 1981)

      Related links and resources

      'Creativity in Young Children' - James Moran (here)

      My previous post 'The critical place of play, creativity and fantasy' (here)

      I have written a series of 4 posts on play here or check out all posts tagged 'play' here and a number of posts on creativity in learning and language (see for example my post on being inventive with language here or all posts tagged 'creativity' here).

      Monday, November 1, 2010

      Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five


      I've written a number of times about comprehension on this blog (see previous posts here) and recently published a monograph for the Primary English Teaching Association in Australia (e:Lit) in which I describe comprehension as the ability "to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what they read, view, hear and experience." This might not sound like the things you see a 2-3 year old doing when they pick up a book, and in one sense it isn't.  Young children begin to make sense of their world and all that is in it from birth, but comprehension as we know it in school emerges over time in these early years.

      As distinguished literacy researchers Ken and Yetta Goodman said many years ago (in 'Learning to read is natural', 1979):
      "The beginnings of reading often go unnoticed in the young child".
      For the young child meaning making occurs from birth, but reading comprehension as we recognise it emerges over the first 5 years of life, and in fact, for most children begins before they can decode print.

      Emergent Patterns

      Caitlin McMunn Dooley has just written a good article in The Reading Teacher (Oct 2010) in which she describes her observations of a group of children aged 2-5+ years in an early childhood classroom over a three year period.  Her observations suggested four broad phases in their emerging comprehension. These are not neat stages (hence the use of the word phase):

      Book as prop (<2 to 3) - When choosing books children pay minimal attention to the topic and content of the book and instead use books a prop and treating them like other play things. The book symbolises story time or is used to simulate reading.

      Book as invitation (2+ to 3+) - Eventually, children begin to consider the book holistically as a complete unit of meaning. They begin to recognise the topic of the book mainly through images, colour, shape etc. They start to bring books to adults and expect them to read them. They might also volunteer to 'read' the book to others.

      Book as script (3+) - Eventually, children begin to show an understanding that text carries meaning, as do the many features of the book.  Dooley found that many 3 year olds begin to treat the books more like "..scripts, memorising and calling out the texts in books..".  They point to the print and attend to text content, images and sound including voice intonation and inflection.

      Book as text (4+) - Most four year olds begin to attend more to the print, pointing to the words and recalling (generally from memory) word by word what is on the page. They are still just as interested in content, images and sound, but there is an emerging sense of integrated comprehension where the reader can see consistencies and inconsistencies between print and other elements such as image and sound.

      Comprehension emerges with other people

      What needs to be understood about emergent comprehension is that the ability to make meaning as children encounter books, films, objects and experiences develops as they try to make sense of their world. It also happens as an extension of their relationships within families and in other learning situations both informal (play with others) and structured (a preschool classroom or playgroup).

      The following description of a preschool class gives some sense of what I mean:
      Even when the teacher was not initiating reading or writing, the classroom was filled with literate behaviour. In the dress-up corner several children were including story reading in creative play. Children took turns as mother reading to her baby. Genevieve was asking her pretend mum to explain why the dog in I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm, 1985) had such a sad face (this is a book about death). Mum was doing a wonderful job explaining the relationships within the story. Another group playing shops was using a receipt book to record purchases. Receipt books were often referred to in the home corner. 'Mum' and 'Dad' were reading the newspaper and later flicking through the pages of the telephone book (Cairney & Langbien, 1989).
      In is in varied social settings that children make meaning and begin to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of how written language works. Over time, the foundations of comprehension are laid.

      What parents can do to help comprehension emerge?

      Here are 10 simple tips.
      • Read regularly (at least daily) to your children and talk about the things that you read.
      • Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone - much meaning is communicated this way.
      • Support their emerging understanding of what they read or hear by encouraging them to look at pictures and images and relate these to the words that you read. Emphasise key words or repetitive patterns in the book “But don’t forget the bacon”, “But where is the Green Sheep?”
      • Encourage them to relate ideas, language and knowledge that a book introduces to other areas of learning or life – “You’ve got a teddy too”, “His puppy is like Darren’s puppy”, “We saw an elephant like this one at the zoo”.
      • Encourage them to draw, sing, talk about, act out, make things, dress up and so on, in response to the things that you read to them or they read themselves (creating meaning in response to books).
      • Encourage them to use other tools to make meaning (playdough, toy animals, dress-ups, Thomas trains, drawing, craft etc) and relate these as appropriate to books (creating meaning leads to books).
      • Encourage them to memorise and learn things from the books they read or listen to. You can’t read “Wombat Stew” without reciting over and over again “Wombat stew, Wombat stew, Gooey, brewy, Yummy, chewy, Wombat stew!”
      • Encourage them to make connections between the things they read, view and experience – “This story is like in the television show Shaun the Sheep when he…..”.
      • Read varied books – different story types, factual books as well as fiction, poetry and prose, different forms of illustrations and so on.
      • Watch TV shows, videos and movies with your children and talk about them, explain things, try to make connections with stories they have read, encourage response with art, drawing, play dough, puppets, dressing up, acting out and so on.

      Summing Up

      Comprehension is ultimately the highest goal of reading, we read to understand things, to work things out, to make meaning.  Its foundations are laid in the first 5 years of life, not through structured activities, but through the use and experience of language and in particular, story.

      Comprehension emerges over time as children are encouraged to encounter and use written language and to integrate this with other avenues they have for making meaning.

      Other blog posts related to this topic

      'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
      'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
      'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
      'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
      'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
      'Why Kids Re-read Books' (HERE)
      'Making Books Come Alive' (HERE)
      All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)

      References cited in this Post

      Cairney, T.H. (2010). 'Developing Comprehension: Learning to make meaning'. Sydney: e:lit (formerly Primary English Teaching Association).

      Cairney, T.H. & Langbien, S. (1989). Building Communities of Readers and Writers, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 8, pp 560-567.

      McMunn Dooley, C. (2010). Young children's approaches to books: The emergence of comprehension, The Reading Teacher, 64, 2, pp 120-130

      Goodman, K.S and Goodman Y.M. (1979) Learning to read is natural. In L.B. Resnick and P.A. Weaver (Eds), Theory and Practice of Early Reading (Vol 1),  Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p 137-154.