The Very Hungry Caterpillar? No.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears? No.
Each year, I ask my class to choose a book from the Roald Dahl collection in our classroom as a way of exposing children to stories beyond what they can read independently.
Children often look forward to story time as it marks the end of the day when they can wind down, listen to a story, drink their milk, and prepare to go home. You would imagine that the thought of going home would excite them, but often, they would rather stay in school as they are engrossed in what is unfolding in the story and so that we can ‘read just one more chapter’ together! Their groans as a reaction for being told to get their things and to go home as their parents stand glued to the window bring a different kind of satisfaction. We have the luxury of working with children who have love and respect for books, and that is an achievement in itself!
This year my class chose to read ‘Matlida’. A book that is clearly beyond their decoding and blending ability. I won’t call it reading as a whole because I have found that children can develop reading comprehension even though they cannot read for themselves. My classes have demonstrated time, and time again that though they cannot read all of the words on the page, they can retell the story, they can answer literal comprehension questions, they can deduce information from the words of the author, and they can even answer inference questions such as ‘how might Matilda be feeling when her father tears her book to shreds?’ and ‘why do you think Matilda’s parents dislike her?’.
Once the book has been chosen, the children are shown the inside of the book so they can see that there aren’t many illustrations to help them visualise the story while being read to. Then begins the debate about whether or not this book was a good choice, and whether the children should choose another book instead. As the children exchange their thoughts with one another and put forward their very strong arguments, the teacher acts as facilitator and the suggestion of the children creating their own pictures ‘in their heads’ is made. This way, the children work on developing their imaginations and creating their own images, characters, settings and surroundings, and opinions of everything between the lines with nothing to influence them than the story itself. Each one will see something different. Each one will be correct.
By now, the children’s excitement is tenfold and all they want is for you to read to them.
As I read, each character is given a voice to suit their behaviour and personality. I become animated and my whole body tells the story. My facial expressions change depending on what is happening and the children often mimic this subconsciously.
In each session we get through two, maybe three chapters of the book and still the children are reluctant to put the book down. At the start of the session there is a chapter review where children are asked to tell the story thus far and collectively, they share the smallest of details of what has happened to Matilda and how she has dealt with every issue. The children even recall the comprehension questions they were asked during the reading session and share the answers with one another, often recalling story language and imitating the voice and expressions given to the character. Only when the children can recall the events that have unfolded so far do they get to hear what happens next.
So, we have a class full of four and five year olds that are engrossed and fascinated by Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’. Regardless of the children’s abilities, their attention spans, their desire to approach the book corner or the school library, they still respond positively to hearing a story that is beyond their own reading age.
If children don’t have a love for books, what could we as practitioners do to spark that fire? Doing more of the same has never worked, and reinventing the wheel is not always necessary. What has worked for me in my Early Years classroom is choosing a text that brings mystery, that entices children’s imaginations, that encourages children to reach beyond what others may tell them is their limit.
Maybe it’s time to move the goal posts?