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“Read It Again!”: The Story of Story Time

By Mark Mabry, Head Teacher 

Most parents whose child has brought them a book to be read at bedtime have had similar experiences: The same story is selected night after night for weeks. Attempts to “abridge” the text in order to expedite the ritual are soundly rejected by the just-about-to-nod-off child with “You left out a part!” And then one day, walking into the child’s room, the parent is amazed that she is reading a “memorized” version of the story to herself. Young children find these repeated interactions with favorite picture storybooks compelling. In addition to the inherent joy of exploring imaginary worlds with their parents, children are also becoming fluent with the nuances and conventions of written language. 

It has long been a practice at Bing Nursery School to select books for our end-of-the-day, whole-group story times that can be read to the class for a week or more. Jane Farish, a former head teacher at Bing, was inspired by a trip to her native England in 1993, when she visited some nursery schools and observed teachers selecting books for group story times in this way: 

"It was very clear that the children enjoyed the repetition and that they relished knowing the story and being able to chime in with words and phrases. They asked a lot more questions than we are accustomed to hearing, because with the repeated readings they were thinking more about the content of the story. They also used their concepts from the familiar stories in their play and creative activities."

But what are the benefits of reading these books multiple times to a class? What do children gain from these literacy experiences? How do repeated readings of quality children’s picture books help children in their emerging understanding of written language? 

The path to reading depends not only on understanding how to decode the words printed on the page, but on becoming aware that there are important differences between the way we speak to each other and the language we encounter in storybooks. Books describe events, real or imagined, that have happened at some other time and some other place, so the author must provide more contextual information to the reader. In order to do this, storybook texts are full of words and phrases that explicitly convey tone, emotion, setting, action and temporal clues not necessary during conversation. For example, it would be unusual to tell someone about a friend’s emotional outburst the way it might be described in a book: “When he arrived back home that afternoon, he opened the door to his friends and family jumping from behind furniture, crying ‘Happy Birthday!’ His eyes grew wide, he stepped back with a shudder, hands clasped over his mouth, as he emitted a stifled scream!” In face-to-face interactions, we rely on tone, volume and gestures to help relate the story. In a book, the writer must include explicit contextual markers that not only describe what is happening, but also how it is happening. 

Children’s books also contain language that often features cadence, rhyme and repetition not found in conversations. Here’s an example: “I’ve run away from an old lady, I’ve run away from an old man, I’ve run away from a horse, and I can run away from you, I can! Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” While we might not be surprised that a suddenly animated cookie would taunt us in verse in a book, we don’t often encounter conversational partners addressing us in rhyme and repeating their actions in order to extend a versified dialogue. 

The benefits of the exposure to “book language” have been documented in recent research. In a study published in Psychological Science in 2015, the complexity of language found in picture books was compared with that of typical conversations with children. It was found that these books contain a more diverse set of words and word types than in child-directed speech. The more complex sentences and rhymes found in the simplest storybooks are an important source of vocabulary for children, and are more varied and unusual than those found in conversations. 

In repeated reading of storybooks, children have the opportunity to be exposed to the richness and complexity of written words, while their understanding of how this language is employed is scaffolded by the illustrations. With exposure over time, they begin to use this language in their own emergent reading and writing. Reading is a multifaceted process that requires a fluency in the conventions of written language, not simply the ability to decode the words on the page. 

When we read picture books with a group of children, we find the children seeking out the books at other times for individual exploration or to be read to them by a teacher. We also often see children reenacting story time in the role of the teacher, pretending to read these same books to others. As children hear these books over and over, they become more proficient and confident in their independent re-readings of these books. 

A child explores a book independently.

Independent re-reading depends on the illustrations in the book to carry the meaning and text of the story, rather than the printed words. Having been read The Three Bears with illustrations of three bowls, three chairs and three beds, children can use these symbols to reconstruct the story when looking at the book on their own. With repetition, their “readings” get closer to the actual book language. At this stage, children are reading from the pictures, which serve as prompts for their memory of the text—the illustrations carry the meaning much in the same way the text carries the meaning for conventional readers. It is easy to think that a child has simply memorized the text of a familiar book, but the illustrations are actually guiding them. 

Another recent published study, in Pediatrics in 2015, employed functional MRI in examining the brain activities of 3- to 5-year-olds when being read to. The researchers found differences in brain activation according to how much the children had been read to previously. Half of the participants had been read picture storybooks on a regular basis, the other half had not. They were all read a storybook new to them, and they could not see the illustrations. Among the children with prior experience being read picture storybooks, a region of the brain’s left hemisphere, the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, was very active; this is the area responsible for multisensory integration of sound and visual stimulation. This part of the brain supports mental imaging and narrative comprehension—in other words, “seeing the story.” Those children who did not have the benefit of these repeated experiences with picture storybooks showed much less activity in this area of the brain. This cortex is also known to be very active when older children read to themselves. This provides strong evidence that repeated exposure to picture storybooks provides practice in developing those visual images as they look at picture books and listen to the words of the story. These experiences are strengthening brain connections that allow children to visualize the meaning of the text, to imagine and comprehend the meaning of the words on the page. 

But what do we see in the classroom when children engage with favorite picture books at story times and beyond? With each subsequent retelling, children become more active participants; their curiosity, questions and ideas emerge. Children dig deeper and begin to notice and ask about novel vocabulary that they might not have noticed in initial readings. They gain knowledge of the social and physical world that they might not be exposed to in their daily lives. They also relate the experiences of the characters in the book to their own. As they notice more details in both the story and the illustrations, they begin to generate more questions and ideas. They wonder about character intentions, generate alternate plot lines and pose solutions to unanswered or unresolved parts of the story. 

And finally, children who share the same literature build a community around shared ideas, themes, plots and language. The language of these books becomes intertwined in the culture of the classroom. When a child drops a marker cap and retrieves it from the floor, placing it on his head with, “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” the children at the table all chuckle appreciatively. When a child excitedly runs to inform a teacher that he needs to look in his mailbox, and the teacher responds with a smile and , “No one has ever sent me a letter before, and no one will send me a letter today,” the child recognizes the Frog and Toad reference immediately and responds in kind with, “Toad! Go check your mail!” 

Repeated reading of picture storybooks is not only a Bing tradition, but a practice that exposes children to the richness and complexity of written language as a meaningful, enjoyable and collaborative endeavor.