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5 Ways to Read a Picture Book

Updated on July 7, 2016

Know Your Picture Book Audience

Reading to children, or "littlest," is one of the most rewarding ways to spend time with them. Not only do we interact with their individual personalities, but we are given the opportunity to shape their brains and their outlooks on life. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, friend or teacher, you have the one of the biggest responsibilities... and one of the most fun!

Knowing how your audience is experiencing the world, right now, is an important factor in knowing how to read to them effectively. I have read "Where the Red Fern Grows" to my children in utero, which allowed me to share one of my favorite stories, but also the sound and rhythm of my voice. I have read to my children at bedtime with lots of cuddles. I have read to energetic toddlers between bouts of jumping and running and giggling, sharing funny stories that captured their imagination or nursery rhymes that amplified the beat of their physical activity.

When we engage young children, we share more than the skills of reading. And how you read to them affects their development. Children learn through all five senses- the smallest of us will taste the book before they listen to it! But how can you READ to them in a way that helps them connect the words on the page with all of their senses and their personal methods of learning? Below, I suggest that there is more than one way to read a book and all of them are just right...

1. Read the Story with Flavor

Yes, I said flavor. Read the story aloud as if you are reading Shakespeare in Carnegie Hall. Use your presentation voice: breathe in deliberately and exhale the lines of the book with poetic or comical vocalizations- whichever befits the story the best. If you are reading to an audience of one, who is propped on your lap, then soften your voice a little, as if you are sharing the most important secret they will ever hear.

If your audience is a roomful of busy toddlers, read with more animation. Choose an accent that accentuates the story. I cannot read "Skippyjon Jones" without using my best "Cheech" and "Chong" imitation! Or bring out your best "John Wayne" for a great cowboy story. Give each character their own voice- a unique accent, cadence, and speed.

Listening to audiobooks is a wonderful way to learn how to use the power of your voice to amplify the message in the story. Then your read-aloud-sessions will bring as much joy to your listeners as they do for you.

Picture Book Audience

Who is your read-aloud audience?

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2. Paraphrase the Story

Reading aloud is excellent for children of all ages. But with each passing year and every developmental milestone brings new attitudes and new levels of patience. Sometimes, children want the experience of the story, but lack the patience to sit quietly and listen. Paraphrasing allows you to move through the pages quickly while still sharing the story's message.

Begin by looking at the pictures and tell what you see. Comment on the main action of each page. Add one or two details that you notice and point out how they contribute to the story. Visual learners will appreciate the strong connection between the artwork and the words. As you move through the pages, the story will emerge in a fluid, relaxed fashion. The story becomes less of a presentation and more of a conversation.

You can also surprise your audience with a little humor when reading in this manner. If the picture book is an old favorite, try paraphrasing the story OPPOSITE of what it really says and watch your little one go crazy! This is a fun way to interact with their forming personalities and engages their memory and imagination. They may be adamant on correcting you. Or they may enjoy changing up the story themselves. Either way, they'll appreciate seeing the story from a new perspective.

3. Study the Pictures in Picture Books

One of the greatest attributes of picture books is the artwork. Think of your three favorite picture books of your childhood and you distinctly remember the quirky, colorful drawings of Dr. Seuss books or the simple and comical sketches of Sylvester Silverstein's poetry. There are examples of fabric collages and clay-assembled paintings throughout the picture book genre. The artwork is delightful, high quality, and memorable. It is the equal partner to the story of words; artwork tells the other half of the message.

Take time to walk through the pages like a tour though the local art museum. While paraphrasing the story, you use focus on the story, using the pictures only as a prompt. This time, however, you can look closely at the art for the sake of the art. Talk about the colors used. Discuss if the artist used pen and ink or watercolor- and how can we tell? Are there textures visibly made by scraps of yarn or by brushstrokes? Use this time to teach your audience to see.

Pictures can give the reader visual clues to the story. Point out how the body language of characters show different emotions. Children are learning to read others through their physical presentation and this is another avenue in which to explore this concept.

Look for the teachable moments in each picture. Ask preschoolers to find objects of the same color. Call out the name of items in the picture and see if babies can point to them. See if your elementary age child can predict what will happen next by clues on the present page.

And sometimes, you can just look at the art together and silently appreciate what you see.

4. Act It Out

Let's face it. Some of our children lack the attention span to sit through a story. They may be too young, disinterested, antsy, or simply prefer to move their bodies.

Choose one to three keywords that repeat throughout the story and assign an action to them. The objective of the listener, should they choose to accept it, is to listen attentively to the story and when they hear the key word, perform that action. For example, a book about animals may require them to hop if they hear the word "frog" or to roar if they hear the word "lion." Kinesthetic learners will appreciate the freedom to move and yell and will eagerly listen for the reward of that freedom.

Toddlers and preschoolers especially like to act out simple pieces of the plot. As you read a story, allow the "littles" to mimic the actions of the characters as they move through the story. They will hide under a table as the main character hides in a rabbit hole, or they can pretend to fly a spaceship when the character flies to the moon. Picture books with strong, action-based plots are very effective for this reading style.

More mature audiences can present the story as a theater production while you narrate for them. They will begin to show emotions of the characters as their more sophisticated ears understand the cause and effect of plot elements. Always make time for the creation of impromptu costumes for this level of story sharing. Encourage the listeners to say specific lines of the characters. Seeing their enthusiasm and creativity is enjoyable for you and for your listeners.

5. It's Their Turn to Read

Learning to read is a journey and this is a critical step on the path to independent reading. But it may not fall exactly before a child's ability to read on their own. You can use this method at each level of growth. The big idea is that they are sharing the book with you. And this looks different for a preschooler than it does for a fourth grader.

The youngest audience may want to share what they know about the story before they can read or even understand the concept of letters. They may point to pictures and tell you what they see. They may flip the pages for you as you read, intending to participate in the activity of reading in they only way they can. Let them guide you in the reading. Be patient with them as they experiment with their role in the reading session.

Children who speak well may choose to tell you the story- interrupting your reading to tell you what they know, what they see, what they understand about the book. Use this time to point out words on the page and sound-it-out to them. They are clearly eager to read, so capitalize on the teachable moment.

As your audience develops their reading skills, allow them to read the words they recognize while you read the rest. This shared reading encourages them to read without overwhelming them with the responsibility of reading the entire book. Look for picture books that use smaller words and the pictures give clues to the words used in the story.

Eventually your reading audience will become your reader. This is just as important a part of sharing literature as reading to them. Listen respectfully, as though you are listening to Shakespeare read aloud in Carnegie Hall. Show them how much you enjoy the story with well-placed comments and laugh when its funny! If needed, help them work through words they are struggling to read or ask if they understand challenging vocabulary. Specifically engage with their read-aloud session; they are sharing the most wonderful secret with you, after all.

Reading Is An Experience

You can see that reading a picture book can be so much more than reading. Books can be experienced through hearing, seeing, and moving. It is a personal interaction between reader and listener; a teachable moment for basic skills like counting and learning colors; it is art appreciation; and it is fun.

Find your audience and read your favorite picture book with them. They'll love every moment of it and will appreciate you changing your strategy once in a while. But most of all, they will enjoy the time you choose to spend with them.

How Do YOU Read to Your Littles? Let me know below...

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