Reading aloud, asking questions and engaging in discussion

Cover of "The Book about Moomin, Mymble, and Little My" by Tove Jansen “Do you remember Moomintroll?” my sister asked me recently. Moomintroll, a beloved Finnish character from the works of artist and author Tove Jansson, was introduced to us in an unusual picture book sent to our family by our aunt Kitty. The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My had a differently shaped hole cut in each page that provided a tantalizing peek at what came next in the story of Mommintroll’s journey— enough to provide information for a guess but not enough to be certain. Populated with Gaffsie and a fillyjonk, the book’s fantastic illustrations made the guessing more challenging than realistic pictures would have.  And the text on each page explicitly invited the readers to guess by ending with a question, “What do YOU think happened then?”

Issuing an explicit invitation to think about what might happen means inviting a child to ask additional questions of herself—Could this happen? Could that happen? Might thus and so happen?—while she mulls over her answer. An adult asking a child a question, but not answering it, is leaving room for the child to actively think about the answer.

I often asked questions in my work as a preschool science teacher. At the beginning of the school year, some children politely sit and wait for the answer, not out of shyness but because they think that it is their job to wait for the adult to tell them the answer. How can we create an atmosphere where children will take on the responsibility of answering questions, and then asking them?

Reading books aloud in a dialogic reading style may be one way to inspire children to actively think about a question. Reading aloud continues to be an important part of building children’s oral language and vocabulary, listening comprehension, content knowledge, concepts of print, and alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness in elementary school (see “The Book Matters! Choosing Complex Narrative Texts to Support Literary Discussion” by Jessica L. Hoffman, William H. Teale, and Junko Yokota in Young Children). The authors urge us to choose books that have “rich and mature language—words and phrases that develop complex meaning and imagery,” “an artful, synergistic blending of text and illustration,” and “an engaging, complex plot”–all aspects that are strong in The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My.

Cover of book, "Fortunately" by Remy CharlipAnother book with these characteristics and also lends itself to asking children to guess, or predict, is Fortunately by Remy Charlip.  A delightful roller coaster of a book with a pattern of alternating “fortunate” and “unfortunate” pages, it is particularly well-suited to getting children started thinking about what happens next in a book, noticing patterns, and asking questions. Most of us need multiple opportunities to practice asking children to predict what will happen next in the story without adding our own comments. Be clear that you want the children to predict or guess, and that you will respect and accept all answers. Their answers do not have to agree with what you might say or with each other. At the end of the story ask the children if things turned out the way they predicted to encourage them to reflect on their guesses.

Last page in Moomin book. "We can't escape, the hole's too wee."I never predicted that Moomin and Mymble would be vacuumed up by a big Hemulen but it didn’t surprise me when the full-of-mischief and resourceful Little My helped them escape. Although not every book is designed to elicit questions and guesses with each turn of the page, every book offers a chance to predict at least once in the story. Try using the style of dialogic reading with your children the next time you read aloud to them.

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