How to read with your kids to help them gain the most out of a story

How to read with your kids to help them gain the most out of a story

As a parent, I love the connection that reading to my kids provides. It's quiet time together, cuddled up in bed or on the couch enjoying a great story and beautiful pictures, hopefully fostering their love for books. 

As a teacher, I know stories are written and designed with a specific purpose. For the much younger age group (maybe toddler to age 4), the purpose may be learning repeating sounds, recognizing sight words and pairing words with pictures. As kids get a little older, the purpose may be more along the lines of character building, friendships and feelings. With these kinds of stories, without probing questions or previously considered talking points, these lessons can be lost on kids who don't have the reading tools just yet to uncover them on their own. 

So how do we, as parents, read with our kids to help them gain the most out of a story?

It's all about helping your child to read, see and understand a story on a level deeper than the words. Kids will naturally want to model after you and how you read. Just the other day I was looking at an animals book with my youngest and on each page I'd open to I'd say "Ohhhh". By the fourth page of the book, she was saying "Ohhhhh" before I even had a chance. Children will mimic and try to rise to whatever occasion you set. So if you set books up as an opportunity to think, ask questions, and discover new information, they will try to read in that way with you. 

I have had many parents during parent / teacher conference week, ask how to effectively have a conversation with their child around their reading, so I thought maybe it would be helpful to craft some discussion points that can help lead a natural discussion around reading a book. These points are tailored to my story, Gerald the Shaggy Unicorn, however the basic idea of the questions and prompts can be translated to other stories as well.

Please, please, please keep in mind, I wouldn't use every single one of these when you read. It could slow a story down a lot and ultimately your child may run the risk of losing interest. I'd recommend looking through I've provided here and take what you want for the moment. You can alway come back for the rest another time 😉.

  • When reading picture books, it's always a great idea to direct kids to examine the illustrations before reading the page. You may even choose to look only at the pictures first, and go through the whole book noticing character body language, facial expressions and asking questions such as wondering what the character might be feeling or why they're making that face. Setting kids up for reading in this way enables them to activate their understanding of the illustrations as they hear the words of the story unfold and pair them together.
    • This is a great strategy to use for early readers (ages 4 - 6 or 7).
    • This is also great for parents who maybe haven't looked at a book yet before reading it with your kids. You get a quick glimpse of the story and can determine where important moments may be that you want to focus on as you read.
  • I usually finish an illustration perusal with "Let's read and find out what happened and see if we were right!"
  • When you encounter an important moment that you want your child to pay attention to for some reason (maybe because the character is learning something, behaving a specific way or feeling a specific way that you want to focus on), finish the page and then stop and say "hmm" then rephrase what the page said in your own words.
    • For example: (using Gerald the Shaggy Unicorn) "Hmm... so it says here that Gerald would try and talk to or play with the other unicorns but they don't seem to want him around. It doesn't seem like they're saying nice things either. I think this makes Gerald feel sad - see the picture?" Give your child a moment to look and then you might say, "That's not very kind of the other unicorns, is it?" 
  • I encourage you to stop occasionally and talk about how YOU feel for the character. 
    • For example, you might say something like, "This makes me sad for Gerald. I think he just wants to have a friend." or "Look he's happy here! That makes me happy too because he has a friend to talk to and isn't lonely anymore."
    • Part of reading is recognizing that we react and feel when characters find themselves in different situations. In these moments where you share your reaction and why you feel that way, you're helping your child connect a personal feeling to another's situation. 
  • You might try to ask more specific questions such as "Do you think it's good that Gerald has a friend now?" and they will most likely (hopefully) say yes. The next question would be "Why's that?" or "How come?" 
    • This type of question is beneficial because they're being asked to explain their thinking which is also pushing them to connect events and character feelings of the story together. 
  • You might stop occasionally to ask your child what they think about a specific moment in the story. 
    • For example: "What do you think about Clay?" or "What do you think about Gerald's glow?" or "What do you think about how the other unicorns are treating Gerald because he isn't just like them?"
    • In so many ways, these can be teachable moments or just opportunities for your child to share their own thinking about what's happening in the story and with the characters. 
  • If you elect to take a teachable moment, it may look sort of like this:
    • What do you think about how the other unicorns are treating Gerald because he isn't just like them?"
      • I don't think it's very nice. It makes him feel sad. 
    • Yea, I agree. It's not very kind to leave others out just because they aren't exactly like you. They could be a really fun or nice friend to play with but you'd never know. I think it's a good idea to include everyone when you play, no matter what they look like. If the other unicorns treated Gerald like that, I bet he'd be a lot happier. Don't you think?
  • At the end of the story, depending on your child's/children's age(s), you may decide to close the story in a few different ways:
    • If your child is younger (grades preK-1 maybe) you may elect to end the story with a reaction and/or a quick recap of the story. 
      • For example: "So in the beginning of the story Gerald was really sad because he didn't really have anyone to play with. He doesn't really look like the other unicorns with his long shaggy fur but then he made friends with the butterfly and was much happier. He even got his own special magic! Then the one unicorn, Clay was mean again and made Gerald feel bad, remember? I'm really glad though that the other unicorns finally stood up for Gerald because I think they knew Clay wasn't being nice. I think we should stand up for our friends when we know someone isn't being nice to them. In the end though everyone was friends together and that makes me happy because no one was left out anymore." 
    • If your child is a little older (grades 2 - 3) you might consider closing the book and saying something like "So what was your favorite part? or "How do you think Gerald feels now in the end of the story?" or  "What part do you think was the most important?" and then you can each share your thoughts. 

This is a LOT of information. Like I mentioned earlier, I would cherry pick what you think might be best for your child or feels the most natural for you. Please also keep in mind that nothing that I wrote here has to be said or delivered specifically as I shared it either. This kind of conversation around a story should try to feel as natural as possible so that your child can both enjoy the experience with you but also begin to learn that having these kinds of conversations or stopping to think when we read is a very normal and natural thing to do. 

I would LOVE to know if you try any of these with your kids and how it goes for you. Feel free to leave a comment on how your discussions went or if you tried anything different that worked well for you - we're all here to learn!  If you have any questions, you can also leave a comment here or shoot me an email and I will happily try to help in any way I can!

Happy Reading!

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