A new study on reading and preschoolers

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a provocative piece tonight on the results of a study on preschoolers and the way we read to them. The study focused more on reading aloud in daycare or preschools, but of course we do it a lot at the public library too. In fact, sometime I will have to get around to investigating what came first: library storytime or daycare? Here is a link to the story if you’d like to hear it for yourself.

The gist is that they looked at the way preschool teachers and daycare providers read to three-year-olds, and tried to figure out if, as supposed, it helps them learn to read. And they discovered that the children didn’t pay much attention to the actual words on the page, so it didn’t help them learn to read very much. But, when they gave the teachers a set of questions to use in reading a book out loud that directed the children’s attention to the words on the page, that made a difference. It was questions like, “Where is the word ‘bus’?” or “What is the first word?” The narrator commented that asking a question that took up very little time could have a big impact. Cool.

But still…is that the only point of reading to children? That they themselves learn to read?

Of course I understand that when you are creating a study, you have to focus. But I think it’s also really important that we as children’s librarians, or authors, or publishers, or parents, or teachers, or caregivers not lose sight of what is even more important when you are reading to preschoolers. If you read a group of three-year-olds a truly wonderful picture book, they get story. They get characters, otherwise known as people with their quirks and emotions. They get not just the idea that letters make up words and words convey meaning, but that WORDS CONVEY MEANING! So what you read makes a difference, and not interrupting it every few sentences with a mechanical detail like “Can you find a letter ‘b’?” and allowing the children to experience what it is like to be that character in that place at that time is really really important too. We aren’t just trying to develop reading–we are trying to develop empathy and understanding. We’re trying to help preschoolers make sense of a crazy, confusing world. We’re trying to help them grow up into people who have had their point of view widened outside of their own small set of circumstances.

Oddly enough, the example they use in the story is Mo Willems’ brilliant Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Willems has the rare talent of making words and pictures sing together with psychological acuity and hilarity. The thing that seems a little ironic about this is that when you read his books, he so often conveys the meaning of the word on the page with the way it is drawn. When Pigeon is agonizing in The Duckling Gets a Cookie?, the word “No,” isn’t a simple “No,” but a huge two-page “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” It would be practically impossible for children to miss the connection there between letters and sound and meaning.

So I think the researchers have their hearts and their intellects in the right place. They have chosen a great book to work with, and their conclusions make a lot of sense. I just think that children deserve the chance to hear great stories told without interruption. I worry when a library focuses so strongly on building pre-literacy skills that they start shaping their programs around letters of the alphabet if it means they aren’t paying attention to story. A great story told in the hands of a master will communicate that words have meaning, and that the meaning is worth the effort of learning to read. That’s what we need to focus on. So please, read the story first on its own, and then go through it a second time with questions. Ask some other questions too: “Why is Pigeon so mad?” “Do you think the tiny mouse can help pull up the turnip?” “How did Max feel when he got home and his dinner was still hot?” “What would you do, if you were Sylvester and you found a magic pebble?”

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4 Responses to A new study on reading and preschoolers

  1. Missy says:

    As someone who’s studied & taught preschoolers, I wholeheartedly agree with YOU!,,

  2. Kate the Short says:

    I agree– there are different reasons to read. And that’s true for middle school as well as for the itty bitties. When we read an excerpt aloud, we’re trying to grab their attention and suck them in to the story. When we read in class, we are setting the mood and giving them a visual picture, as well as (hopefully) modeling how they should read aloud. Doing it well indeed makes the story come alive, and makes reading a thing that is fun and worthwhile. And yes, the questions definitely matter! If you ask questions about the text itself, the children will focus on the text and learn from the text. If you ask questions about the action of the story (the plot, the characters, etc.), the children will focus on those particular pieces. There’s a LOT to be said for setting a purpose in reading, too. When we first started to try to get our daughter to read, we used The Little Engine That Could and just asked her to find and read the words “the” and “and”… and since it was a narrow focus, she focused on it and did it!

  3. Jen Robinson says:

    I think that you make a lot of sense. My daughter just turned 2 and my primary goal is for her to LOVE books. I point out words when they mean something in the context of the story, but that’s usually all. Mo Willems is brilliant in such matters. There’s a place in Knuffle Bunny where Trixie, frustrated, says “Waaaaaah” in long-drawn out letters. We always run our fingers over that. But I don’t want reading to be about lessons yet – she has her whole life for that. Thanks for a good post!

  4. Jeanne Robinson says:

    As a teacher of young children for over 30 years, I have heard professional expert opinions that suggested a myriad of approaches to reading books to young children. These include asking focus questions before the reading, breaking up the reading with specific questions related to print concepts (where do you begin reading, where do you go next, where is the ending punctuation, etc.), identifying likely unknown vocabulary in various ways (some of which flows with the reading and other options create a mini lesson with the reading), using various ways to support comprehension of the book, ( rhetorical questions, think-aloud questions during specific parts of the text), finding letters and words to support basic reading skills and other methods to promote literacy development.

    Susan, I could not agree with you more that a book should be read for its original value – the story, the language flow, the characters, the problems characters face and how they resolve them and more! I love Mo Willems, especially his latest book that has his characters recognize themselves as authors of a book – but best celebrated because someone is reading their words. They feel so much power because someone is reading what they wrote – very funny – and at a loss when they realize the book is going to end. Then they get the idea that if the book can be read again it won’t stop. What a great way for children to see themselves as readers and authors! As you pointed out, he uses visual methods of using printed words to portray the emotions and importance of words.

    Children’s books provide many opportunities to teach the vast array of literacy skills – but first I think we need to give children the experience of loving stories, language, emotional connections and helping them make sense of their world. The next step is to use their favorite stories to provide lessons related to specific skills.

    Your reflections strengthen my teaching.

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