Early literacy: The essentials
Part 2: Sharing books and asking questions
Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series
on emergent literacy: supporting children as they learn to read
and write. Part one addresses language and conversation skills.
It is available online at www.childcarequarterly.com/fall05_story1.html.
Part 3 will examine phonological awareness and alphabet activities;
the final piece will review tools for supporting emergent reading
and writing, and assessment.
You’ve been to the library and chosen a book. The children
are gathered and comfortable, and you begin to read, “Little
brothers can be a lot of trouble….” You’re
thrilled when you glance up from the text. The children are focused,
attentive, and eager. And Jeremy and Jessica, twins with a challenging
younger brother, are engrossed.
You know it’s important to read aloud—often and
with enthusiasm. But what’s the difference between reading
a book and using quality children’s literature to promote
literacy? The impact of book sharing—and the key to early
literacy development—depends on how you prepare before,
during, and after you read.
Lilian Katz (1988) identified four learning fundamentals for
children: knowledge, skills, dispositions, and feelings. Each
connects directly to a child’s experiences with literature,
and a single book—like referenced above—can
strengthen all four.
Knowledge is acquired through the senses, personal experiences,
and skillful direction from a caring adult. Example: knowledge
of a banana.
Skills are gained through practice—first under someone’s
direction and then independently. Example: peeling a banana.
Dispositions are “habits of the mind” that can
become lifelong traits like curiosity, neatness, and perseverance.
Example: a banana whose peel is placed in a garbage can.
Feelings are an emotional response to an experience. Example:
the enjoyment of eating a banana.
Consider how these fundamentals apply to reading. Background knowledge, the
skill of decoding and understanding words, wanting to read, and feeling proud
of the ability to read—these fundamentals are the hallmarks of literacy
success. “Emphasizing knowledge and skills to the exclusion of dispositions
and feelings results in an illiterate population” (Jalongo 2004). Similarly,
emphasizing dispositions and feelings over knowledge and skill can hamper reading
The quality of the books you share will affect how well you bridge
a book’s entertainment and educational qualities. Because
more children’s picture books are published today than
ever before, it can be harder to choose the best.
Be sure to include a variety of types, or , of books—fiction and
nonfiction. Each offers unique ways to examine and learn all kinds of things.
For your classroom library, include books from each of the categories listed
below. The examples are traditional favorites from each genre. Don’t
forget about books in translation for children whose home language is one other
by Helen Oxenbury
by Eloise Greenfield
by Sandra Boynton
Wordless picture books
by Mercer Mayer
by Alexandra Day
by Nancy Taufuri
Fiction picture books
by Cynthia Rylant
by Beatrix Potter
by Vera Williams
by Robert McCloskey
by Jane Yolen
by Anita and Arnold Lobel
by M. Iwai
by Judy Sierra
by Muriel and Tom Feelings
by Molly Bang
by Pat Hutchins
by Judy Sierra
Biographies and autobiographies
by Barbara Cooney
by Jeanette Winter
by Diane Stanley
by John Jakes
Concept or information books
by Hope Irvin Marston
by Anne and Harlow Rockwell
by Keith DuQuette
The Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole
by Susi Gregg Fowler
by Richard Scarry
by N.W. Parker and Joan R. Wright
Rebus and recipe books
by Mollie Katzen
by Elizabeth Falconer
Response and prediction books
by Michael Rosen
by Eric Hill
by Nancy Shaw
by Audrey Wood
Beginning reader picture books
by James Marshall
by Arnold Lobel
by Jean Van Leeuwen
Traditional fantasy, fairy tales, and folk tales
by Mary Osborne
by Leo Lionni
by John Steptoe
by Jan Brett
by Bill Martin and John Archambault
by Mary Ann Hoberman
by Jack Prelutsky
Whatever the genre, you can strengthen each of the four learning
fundamentals and prepare children to be successful independent
readers by following these guidelines:
Prepare for reading. Make sure you’re familiar with the
book and can introduce it in a way that creates interest. Preparation
will allow you to read the text while establishing eye contact
with your listeners.
Practice new vocabulary—especially words in an unfamiliar language. Remember
your voice is an important tool. Practice character voices, if appropriate,
but avoid becoming overly dramatic. Let the book—not you—create
the drama. Make sure the children can hear pleasure in your voice as you share
information, a great story, or a rhyme.
Position yourself so all children can see the book and your face. They will
be eager to see the pictures and watch your expressions. Typically, the teacher
sits in a chair while children sit on the floor. Practice holding the book
in different ways until you can steady the book and turn pages smoothly.
When the children (and you) are comfortable, show the book’s cover.
If the book is new to the children, take the time for a conversation about
the cover art. Share the title of the book as well as the author’s and
illustrator’s names. Ask: “What does the cover tell us about what’s
Read the pictures as you go through the book. Pictures in themselves tell
a story, providing a sequence of images to absorb and follow. Pictures allow
children to bridge from familiar to unfamiliar objects.
Give children a purpose for listening, to help them connect what they already
know to the new information in the book. One way to do this is to invite children
to predict what will happen next in the book. Another way is to ask: “Do
you think this book is fiction or nonfiction?” Follow up with “How
can you tell?”
Make sure their background knowledge is solid enough to follow this new story.
For example, a child in Texas may respond immediately to the Spanish and English
of , but a child in Kentucky might need supportive
information about iguanas and piñatas.
Define key vocabulary and provide props—samples, pictures, or recordings—if
necessary. This supportive information expands children’s knowledge.
According to the National Research Council, “Children who have a wide
body of background knowledge and life experiences are more likely to succeed
in reading” (1999).
As you read the text, stop at strategic points to ask questions, make observations,
and invite conversation. Encourage observations that reflect how children feel
as they listen. Does the text make them eager to learn more about skyscrapers,
wrap an orange around their shoulders, or eat a juicy apple?
Draw children’s attention to the text. Use your finger to track text
from left to right. If you are sharing a big book, use a pointer.
Invite children to fill in the blanks and tell the story with you. This technique
works particularly well with a predictable story like or . Focus attention on
refrain text by applying removable highlighting tape.
After reading, take the time to let children savor the ending. Then invite
them to state their conclusions, describe new learning, test new vocabulary,
or relate the story to their personal experiences.
Continue the conversation
If children are still interested, continue conversations about
a book’s theme. Use the PEER sequence (described on page
6) to move children toward an expanded vocabulary and increasingly
Invite the children to follow the pictures in the book and retell the story
in their own words. Offer art supplies and encourage reflection and new representations.
Let children act out the story, retell it with flannel-board characters, or
recreate it with blocks.
Find ways to connect the book to the environment. For example, after reading
, share three stuffed bears, three chairs, and
three bowls. Encourage children to investigate the props and the mathematical
theme in the story.
Invite children to tell, dictate, and then write their own endings to a book.
Or encourage children to create a follow-up adventure for characters from a
favorite book. What happens to baby bear on his first day at school, for example?
Take simple field trips or plan classroom activities that reinforce a book’s
themes. For example, after reading , visit a construction
site. Or after sharing , plan a cooking activity. Use these experiences
to invite questions, make observations, and expand vocabulary.
Experienced teachers know they can strengthen literacy skills
by occasionally asking questions about the story’s action.
The best questions are open-ended and asked at appropriate
Open-ended questions don’t have simple yes or no answers. Instead, they
broaden cognitive, language, and social skills by encouraging children to consider
the story line, descriptive vocabulary, and relationships as they respond.
Open-ended questions invite children to share their insights and reflections.
For example, in Anna Dewdney’s book , you might
ask questions such as these: “Why do you think baby llama had red pajamas?” “What
do you do when you have to be ?” “Tell us why you think
baby llama had a stuffed friend to sleep with?”
Questions like these help children relate a book to their own experiences—home
life, fears, adventures, and friendships. While few U.S. children have seen
a llama, most know and can describe the ways in which the baby llama character
is like themselves. Every child will want to describe bedtime rituals in their
own homes—and probably share a funny story about having to wait for a
parent. They know the frustration of feeling ignored and the fear of being
alone. They also know the satisfaction of using new, powerful words like , and .
In addition to making questions open-ended, consider when to ask them. Ideally,
you will stop no more than two or three times in a story. Any more than that
is overly disruptive and can become tedious.
Typically, you will read a favorite book several times. If so, vary the stopping
point and the questions you ask.
Asking questions enables you to evaluate and expand children’s understanding
of a book. (Burns 1999) describes an easy-to-remember method
known as PEER. Here’s how the method works:
A Parent or other adult asks a question while sharing a book with a child.
The adult then Evaluates the child’s response and Expands on what the
child has said. The adult Repeats the questions, continuing to assess and extend
the child’s understanding.
Consider the PEER sequence in reading .
Adult: What is baby llama doing?
Child: Calling for his mama.
Adult: Yes, the mama is washing dishes and baby llama hums a tune while he
waits for her.
Adult: What is baby llama doing? Do you remember what baby llama does when
he’s in his bed?
Child: Baby llama calls his mama and hums a tune while he waits.
Adult: Right. Do you remember what baby llama does next?
The conversation gives you some insight into what a child knows and remembers.
It also stretches the child’s memory, vocabulary, social awareness, and
Reading for enjoyment
In a time when many schools emphasize drills and testing, it’s
easy to overlook the fourth of Katz’s fundamentals—feelings.
Let us never forget that good children’s literature is
to be enjoyed. Children who enjoy their early literacy experiences
will be more likely to succeed in building their reading skills
For this reason, avoid asking questions with right/wrong answers. Keep interruptions
to a minimum so the story moves along. You might occasionally call attention
to the letter M, but don’t turn the story into a repetitive examination
of letters and sounds.
Enjoyment, however, doesn’t come at the expense of learning. A good book
can be expanded into activities that give children information about themselves
and the world. A good book gives you a window into children’s knowledge,
experiences, skills, feelings, and needs.
Aarmeda, Verna. 1992. . New
Burns, M.S., P. Griffin, and C.E. Snow (Eds.). 1999. .
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at
Brett, Jan. 1996. . New York: Putnam.
Dewdney, Anna. 2005. . New York: Viking.
Gibbons, Gail. 1996. . New York: Holiday
Jolongo, Mary R. 2004. , 2nd
ed. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education
of Young Children.
Katz, Lilian G. and Sylvia Chard. 2000. . 2nd ed. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.
McPhail, David. 2004. . San Diego: Harcourt.
Owocki, Gretchen. 2001. . Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Shahan, Sherry. 2004. . Little
Rock, Ark.: August House Little Folks.
Wells, Rosemary. 1997. . New York: Dial Books for