The Magic of Book Talk


The magic of book talk
Photo of a mural in the children’s section of the Richland Library, Columbia, SC, inspired by the 1963 children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, licensed under Creative Commons. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Conversation is at the heart of learning for preschoolers and books are a wonderful trigger for conversation. Here are some of my best ideas for using books as a starting point, but there’s no need to remember or use any of the specific techniques outlined here. Just remember to use books to stimulate discussions with your child, and go wherever the conversation leads!1

Before reading a book for the first time, you can show your child the book and ask them what they think it might be about.

Pause to have a discussion or ask questions about the story

While you’re reading, you might pause occasionally to talk about what’s happening, including the setting, events, and characters in the story. What might the characters be feeling?

You may want to point out events or dialog that seem particularly important to the flow of a story. “Hmmm, the wolf is hungry. That could be important,” you might say. Also, look for opportunities to connect the story to your child’s life. You might ask them, “What happens to you when you get hungry?”

Encourage your child to ask questions about the story

Occasionally, your child might ask you a question prompted by the book and you don’t know the answer. Say so: “That’s a great question — and I don’t know the answer either. Let’s find out!” Sometimes you’ll decide to find the answer later, and other times your child is so interested that it makes sense to pause and investigate together right away. Perhaps you could look it up online, ask a family member, or even call a friend. However you handle it, you’re teaching your child that books can prompt questions and that it’s interesting and rewarding to find answers to them.

After reading, you might discuss what you each liked best or least about the story. You could discuss what the characters learned and how they changed. Can you connect the characters’ experience to your child’s life?

For example, after reading Where the Wild Things Are, you might ask your child: Have you had any wild rumpuses lately? What happened? If appropriate, you might ask, “What is the author trying to say to us?”

The conversation doesn’t have to directly relate to the story!

The idea is to have conversation about the book and related topics. Sometimes the conversation may stray far from the theme of the book.That’s fine! You’re probably having an interesting conversation and your child is learning from it. If you’re in the middle of the book and want to gently bring your child back to the story, you might try something like this: “Shall we return to Max’s world now?”

As you chat about different aspects of the story, you might see if you can get your child to retell parts of it. That’s great for developing reading comprehension.

How frequently should you interrupt your reading for conversation? Follow your instincts. Whatever seems fun and rewarding for both you and your child. Don’t push it. If hearing the story is what engages your child most, just tell it — with enthusiasm and joy.

Do this one thing

Talk about the books you read together!

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The Magic of Book Talk
  1. The research behind this piece is laid out by Barbara Hanna Wasik and Joseph Sparling, Nested Strategies to Promote Language and Literacy Skills, Handbook of Family Literacy, second edition, pp. 79-80.