Chapter books and pre-readers


Writing brings me clarity. I am an external processor, which means that words I don't always believe in or trust simply spill out of me. Conversations can be stressful at times because I hardly know what I'm saying before I say it. Writing permits me to dump, but also to filter and contemplate what I've laid out. I am also a visual learner, so being able to actually see my thoughts adds another important element of understanding. And so I'm writing about something I hardly understand myself. So much of parenting is that way, isn't it? You get a glimpse of something coming: a new stage, a new skill your child is developing, and then you have to contemplate what steps you might need to take in order to encourage that growth and nurture the expanding mind of your child.

For as curious as my 6 year old is, he is hesitant to begin reading. He has ability but simply lacks the desire, or as a very active child, perhaps patience, to sound out words. I expect we'll hit a shift sometime this year (I have a game-plan!) but until then, I am hoping to continue instilling a love of stories in him by reading aloud. Both of my sons still enjoy picture books, but my priority is now on introducing chapter books.

Did you know that a child's listening level is higher than his reading level? I waited longer than I should have to start introducing chapter books to my oldest because I didn't understand this fact. We've been consistently reading chapter books since early April, and the habit has been wildly transformative. Broadly speaking, we started chapter books because I wanted my sons to have better stories to shape their imaginations and inform their play. We started with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe simply because we owned a copy and because it's a classic, adventure-filled story that I thought would be sufficiently compelling for our first real go at reading aloud. Around the same time, Sebastian (6) watched the Disney movie adaptation of Hercules, and became completely enamored with the characters. We had a copy of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, which my own homeschooling mom had passed on to me. I wasn't sure if the stories would be too gruesome, but I took a risk, and later also got the "thumbs up" from my husband, who was a Classical Studies major in college and naturally wholly approved of his children becoming enamored with Greek Myths. We actually finished yesterday and had humorous mixed reactions from the boys. Sebastian said, "That's okay, we can read it again sometime!" and Bruno said, "Oh good, now we don't have to read it anymore!" Ha!

When we began reading aloud, I wasn't entirely sure how Bruno, at nearly 4, would respond, but decided to draw him in and just see what happened. To my great delight he did nearly as well listening to these stories, despite the fact that he's not always excited about our choices, as shown in his reaction above to being done with Greek Myths. But just this morning, he brought a doll to me and said that her name was baby Susan (a small but distinct example of the way the Narnia characters are becoming a part of their play). If you are just beginning chapter books with your kids and they don't seem interested, pay attention to the rhythms of the day. Timing is entirely key to getting my boys to sit and listen for a little while. If they're too restless or hungry, it's useless to even begin (although sometimes we combine a little snack time with reading time, which changes everything). Small children move in and out of their need for time close to their parents each day. Take advantage of the signals they give you that indicate they are ready to sit and snuggle close.

Another tactic I've used is to pick out a stack of picture books along with one or two chapter books or short stories we're working on. I mix a few light, easy, or entertaining reads with some things I think they'll be resistant to, and show the stack to the boys. I explain that these are the things we're going to read. Sometimes we don't get through the entire stack, but I use a light and fun book as an incentive for one or two chapters of a more difficult book. Sometimes I do the opposite by using a silly picture book first as a warm-up before we move to something heavier.

We have also found that working through lightly illustrated short stories and fairytales are a great bridge between picture books and chapter books. There are some magnificent collections that are a little less daunting to children new to engaging in a longer story necessary for weeks of work. This has been key for helping Bruno listen for longer periods of time. One of his favorites is A Treasury of Children's Literature, which is full of fairytales, tall tales, and fables, as well as excerpts from longer books like Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows. Some friends loaned us their copy of James Herriot's Treasury for Children, which we just finished this week. This collection is absolutely delightful and fit Bruno's animal loving nature perfectly. Stories like these are typically longer and have more difficult vocabulary than picture books, and therefore are a great practice ground for the endurance required to make it through chapter books.

Since we've been reading more, the boys occasionally meet me with resistance, particularly if it's not a flashy picture book I'm offering. This is another reason I like treasuries. I can pick the book, but they get to choose the story, thus allowing them some freedom but within limits that I'm comfortable with. One day last week I remember specifically that the boys did not want to read, so I pulled out A Treasury of Children's Literature. Seb first selected Rapunzel, and Bruno picked John Henry. We spent a solid 20 to 30 minutes reading and both boys enjoyed the stories immensely.

I also meet any resistance by being proactive about denying screen time until we've enjoyed a solid chunk of reading time. Some days the boys will ask for a movie, but when I say they can watch something after we read a few chapters of a book, they walk away and start playing with blocks or pull out a coloring book. This will sometimes go on the entire day! On occasion it means we won't read anything until bedtime, but I'm okay with that so long as the other things they are doing are nurturing other areas of their sponge-like brains. Other days they complain at bedtime that we didn't read enough books, so we will often plan for the following day to be screen-free so as to make time to read. They are beginning to understand that we can't do everything in a single day, so we have to make choices about how we spend our time. I also use read-aloud time to curb conflict and bad attitudes. It's a way that they can get mama time and reset. They might resist strongly, but I simply explain to them that they aren't playing well together and we all need a break. Giving them choices in what they read helps tremendously. Sometimes they'll get into the story we're reading and want to read 10 chapters in one sitting. Other times they can only manage one. I take what I can get, and try to make it enjoyable for them.

Are you a read-aloud family? What books are your kids' favorites or yours? What books are excited to introduce to your children?

Sources and further reading: How to Raise Boys who Read, Reading Chapter Books to preschoolers, and Best First Novels to Read-Aloud with Your KidsThis podcast is an incredible resource for those aspiring to read-aloud more with their kids.


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