When my children were babies, I would read aloud from whatever book I had at hand to sooth them when they were fussy. Then, I was simply glad that this practice allowed me to read novels and parent simultaneously. Now, I’ve learned that sharing complex stories with preschool children is actually endorsed by teachers.
Educator Gerard Visco says that young children are enthralled by tales like Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and the Borrowers. These chapter books are crammed full of spiritual and ethical themes. Their characters struggle to figure out the meaning of life, work to become better people, and often want to change their communities. While young children screen out mature themes that are over their heads, they do pick up on positive messages, such as ‘life is shaped by the choices we make’ and ‘working with others helps us overcome obstacles’.
As you think about sharing a chapter book with your child, consider these seven things:
1. Pick a book that’s one of your favorites. Your own enthusiasm for the story is part of what will attract your child’s interest. Plus, you already know how the story unfolds, which comes in handy when you get to #5.
2. Introduce the idea of a chapter book. Show your child that the book only has a few pictures and tell them that the words will paint pictures for them to see in their head. Practice imagining how words look by saying something like, “The boy waved his wand and a dragon appeared’ and then asking, “What does the dragon in your head look like?”
3. Share that they will need to listen carefully. Without pictures, the words carry all the weight of conveying the story. Encourage children to use their ears to catch all the words and to ask if they want you to repeat a sentence. Explain that even adults sometimes reread to make sure they’ve caught everything.
4. Keep your reading time short. With preschoolers, just a page or two is a lot to read at one time. Read a little bit and then gauge whether your child is still listening or ready to stop. It’s generally better to leave a child eager for the next reading time than to push ahead just to finish a chapter.
5. Abbreviate the text. It’s not essential to read every word. Summarize or skip parts of the story that young children might find boring, scary or too abstract. Focus on the action sequences and the relationships among the characters, as well as information pertinent to the spiritual themes you want children to explore.
6. Read ahead before sharing with your child. As you do, think about things they might find interesting that the two of you could discuss. Then ask wondering questions [I wonder why…?] at the end of the reading.
7. Link the book to other family activities. Try foods mentioned in the story for dinner or repeat catch phrases to each other. Let the story live among you and encourage your child to see the connections between the moral and ethical decisions of the characters and those in your family.