a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition).
Now available as both a paperback and e-book.
See also Handbook
The stages of read-aloud—continued
Could you read chapter books at the preschool level?
Ask that question of Jennie Fitzkee and you’ll get “Oh, yes!” as a quick response.
Jennie’s been teaching preschool for thirty years, all but one at the nonprofit Groton Community School, in Groton, Massachusetts (population 10,000). An upscale bedroom community of Boston with a median family income of $136,000, Groton has one of the region’s lowest poverty rates (1 percent). Parents in such places tend to be highly educated, competitive, busy, and pretty sure of themselves. And although Groton parents may be living just down the road from two legendary New England prep schools (Groton School and Lawrence Academy), they really don’t know it all, at least when it comes to raising children.
For most of them, it’s their first experience with the process—and that’s where experienced early childhood teachers like Jennie Fitzkee are so valuable. As the school’s director, Linda Kosinski, points out: “It’s all about parent education, parent education, parent education”—helping parents help their children.
Jennie teaches parents in two ways: through their children and through her newsletters sent home, which offer childhood insights garnered through her classroom activities, heavily focused on books— multiple picture books each day and thirty minutes of a chapter book daily. Thirty minutes of a novel with fifteen children ages three to four? I had to see it for myself, so I spent the day in the “aqua room” observing Jennie and her teaching team with the children. By the way, she’s been reading novels to preschoolers for more than fifteen years.
Make believe stories begin with "Once upon a time" while true stories begin with "It happened like this."
That morning, after the children heard Goldilocks and the Three Bears, they dictated their own version of the story, something that included voting on the best way for the bears to wake up Goldilocks (dancing) and what to do if she wouldn’t wake up (call 911). Then it was time to act out the story, arranging their sit- upon mats as substitute bear beds (two mats for baby bear, four for mama bear, and five for papa bear), then over to a table where there were three different- size bowls with teddy bears and a single golden- haired doll, and finally on to the kitchen area to mix flour and water as porridge. No one tried to eat any of it, maybe because they were having such a good time “squooshing and mooshing” it through their fingers.
Later Jennie read The Magic Porridge Pot by Paul Galdone to three children nestling around her, pausing to underline the words “Stop, little pot, stop!” and then enticing them to join in that response throughout the story. When she later read The Story of Little Babaji (Bannerman and Marcellino) she paused occasionally to ask little questions that never interrupted the flow of the story (at the picture of Mamaji working at her sewing machine, “What is that?”; the meaning of “trousers,” “bazaar,” and “feeling grand”).
Lunchtime in class still centered on story, but of a different kind: true stories from Jennie’s personal life, of which there is an extensive repertoire, including adventures like the Gorilla story, the Peanut Man story, the Birthday story, and the Bat and the Tennis Racket story. The class votes for which story they want on a given day (with votes carefully counted aloud), and each true story begins with the words “It happened like this.”
The children told me that make-believe stories begin with “Once upon a time.” After lunch, the room’s curtains are drawn and the lights dimmed for rest or nap time, each child curling up on his or her floor mat, blanket in hand.
At one p.m. Jennie Fitzkee begins the most ambitious part of the day: reading aloud for thirty minutes from a chapter book (novel). On the day I visited, Jennie sat in her rocking chair and read from The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, written in 1920 and weighing in at 156 pages.
Since it was a Monday, she recounted the plot from Friday’s chapter, soliciting the names of characters from the children. “And what was the name of the parrot who taught Doctor Dolittle how to speak with the animals?” “Polynesia!” was the Jeopardy-quick response from a pair of four- year- olds at her feet. As she reads and encounters unusual terms, she either clarifies the term or asks the class: “What is ‘less and less’?” “‘The man walked away saying rude things.’ What does that mean?”
Occasionally she’ll stop and exclaim, “Oh—here’s an important part.” When Dolittle needed an anchor for his boat trip to Africa, a class discussion ensued about anchors, their purpose, and what they look like. “My class is a mixed-age group, so often the younger ones do fall asleep. The older ones are then engaged in the books. But, as the year goes on, those children who slept through many parts of the books in the fall are really listening in the spring,” she explains.
During the half hour’s reading, questions and answers were exchanged in a spirit of conversation, without a hint of testing or right/ wrong answers.
The exchanges were language and experience rich, each book gently opening doors and windows to the world outside. Jennie Fitzkee doesn’t read abridged editions and never skips a word. Incidentally, there wasn’t a work sheet in sight.
A two-minute drive from Jennie’s classroom, over at Lawrence Academy ($50,000 tuition), Laura Moore has dimmed the lights in her senior English classroom, and also is reading aloud to her students, having discovered some years ago that it is the single best way to implant the love of literature in those teens who have either lost it or never had it.15