Reading for Real: Storybooks in the classroom

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)


There are two ways to view reading in the younger learner classroom: learning to read and reading to learn.


Reading to learn involves target language and structures, which form part of the curriculum: for example the dialogue page of a textbook or unscrambling words or sentences. These activities are developing the learners awareness of language form, word order and, where supported by visual materials, context and usage. Reading to learn requires exposure to the target language before the reading activity can take place and so these activities are supported by input, drilling and often listening activities.

Learning to read involves recognition of letter and word shapes (looking at whole words and whole sentences), phonics (relating sounds to individual letters and blends and clusters of letters), and morphemes (e.g. adding ‘ing’ or ‘ed’ to a verb to change the meaning – listen – listening – listened).

Very often learning to read and reading to learn are combined. Learners are taught to recognise word shapes when being taught colours or they are taught that ‘ing’ indicates a continuous action during a lesson on activities.

However, there is very little reading for pleasure in the classroom and yet this provides rich exposure to word forms and language in an involving and meaningful context supported by pictures and actions, all of which help develop learning to read.

Consider your own reading experiences as children, probably through the Ladybird series of books or even through ‘classic’ texts such as ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. Often the language content was not pre-taught rather we picked up the meaning of words through pictures and story development. We were probably read to first with minimal explanation of all the language. Later we would satisfy curiosity by looking at the books ourselves and attempt reading the texts alone. ‘Retelling’ the story would typically follow this. Through exposure to more texts we would develop our lexical awareness and start using some of the language we had read. Above all there was no doubt a great sense of achievement when we had read something.

Why are storybooks a good thing?
• Storybooks stimulate interest and motivate learners. Children progress from initial interest in the colourful pictures, to relating the visual information to the text.
• Language is presented in context and children retain the meanings of new words even though they may not use the language themselves.
• The language in storybooks is natural, authentic language rather than just the presentation of words selected by the teacher and drilled. This language doesn’t need pre-teaching as all the necessary information is presented on the page.
• If being read to, the learners develop an awareness of intonation and pronunciation.
• Reading is a social experience – the learners listen and react as a group, follow-up activities are done together and stories show life from other points of view.
• Reading storybooks develops an interest in literature, which will eventually lead the children to make decisions on what to read.
• Using familiar or traditional stories will develop a greater cultural awareness in the learner. The more familiar the story (e.g. Momotoru – the peach boy in Japan) the greater the interest in and success at reading is likely to be.
• Storybooks create great possibilities for personalisation and extension activities. For example ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ –
 How do the learners feel about goldilocks? Was she a good or bad girl? Why?
 Which bear do they like the most and why?
 Act out scenes from the text.
 Read part of the story – the learners tell you what happens next.
 Draw the characters or locations from the story.
 Learners put (pre-prepared) pictures or words in the correct order and re-tell the story.
 If telling the story for a second or third time the teacher can miss words out for learners to ‘fill in’ by guessing the answers.
 Learners can progress from ‘being read to’ to ‘reading out’ for the class.
 Stories can be adapted (learners can decide on a different ending or setting) and retold (from a different point of view).

If stories are to be effectively exploited in the classroom, there is a need for teachers to plan work with clear language learning and learning goals in mind.

What does the teacher do? What do the learners do?
• The teacher should speak ‘spontaneously’ and naturally
• Use natural intonation
• Use your body and face to make gestures
• Don’t worry if you make mistakes – the learners will not notice!
• Repeat and rephrase in a natural way
• Show pictures and talk about them
• Talk to learners about aspects of the story
• Learners listen and can repeat certain phrases (e.g. “Where are you going?”)
• Learners can see the text, look at the words and follow the story
• Learners can comment on the story as it develops

How do I do it in the classroom?
• Establish a routine. Though the activity may seem strange at first the learners will soon get used to it
• Storytelling need only be short, regular activities. Telling the story should be followed by something physical (movement / mime) or social (drawing pictures together) and related to the text. Altogether storytelling can be done in 10 minutes
• Consider the best time for a storytelling activity. As the task is ‘learning to read’ it should come after the usual presentation and practice of any typical ‘target’ language. Possibly after a physical activity to change the pace a little. Remember that storytelling need only be around 10 minutes of the lesson

Writing about the story or characters, drawing pictures to support the story and even writing their own story are fun and useful homework activities. Storytelling can be done with any young learners from 2-4 years (listening passively) to 4-6 years (listening and drawing) to 6-9 years (reacting to the story; offering ‘opinions’; writing about characters) to 9-12 years (re-telling; writing; re-ordering a story etc.)

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