At its best, literacy starts conversations that can bring people closer together in understanding and connectedness. Literacy falls short of that promise when what passes for sharing books actually interrupts or stops such conversation.
Ideally, literacy, like conversation, is a means for offering others information, feelings and experiences. Authors carefully craft what they wish to express hoping readers thoughtfully consider their messages. This sharing, across space and time, represents a slow, asynchronous initial interchange that models and can lead to further in-person conversations about the content of written messages.
As young children progress into formal education, they are taught the technicalities of reading and writing, of course, but to yield fully literate graduates, those technical skills must not supplant but complement the abstract understanding, hopefully developed years earlier, that literacy is a formidable, human communication tool. Literacy serves most powerfully to book-end personal inquiry. And it is inquiry—investigations that extend one’s own life experiences—that is at the core of independent human learning. When children (and adults!) reflect upon their lives’ experiences, learning occurs most efficiently and completely when their inquiry is focused upon what they find most interesting.
So, if caring adults invite a child to share about his own interests when reading a book together, they are supporting his development of and refining his self-expression for future inquiry. Questions about what the child finds interesting are conversation starters. They naturally lead to further discussion and an expanding search for sources of information about the topic. On the other hand, if adults only invite a young child to give correct answers to questions about which she has no interest, then a very different understanding of the value and purpose of literacy can develop. Questions like, “How many dogs are in this picture?” and “What color is that horse?” will be judged for correctness and often lead to uninvited instruction in matters far from the learner’s own interest. These questions, therefore, literally are conversation stoppers, expressing the inquiry agenda of the adult, not that of the child who is seeking to learn about the world.
Therefore, one of the best ways adults—parents, teachers and others—can share books with pre-school age children is to pay attention to their expressed interests and to use literacy experiences as a means of inquiring about those interests. Adults can maximize conversations about books by asking questions that include the word YOU in them. YOU questions initiate conversations about the child’s learning from books. In contrast, questions with a right answer elicit recitation about the book’s content separate from a child’s interests.
Here are some examples of questions that invite child-specific responses drawn from their personal reflections:
“What did you like about this story?
“Why do you think the character just did that?
“What would you like to learn first about ostriches?
These types of questions orient children to engage with inquiring minds, have thoughtful conversations, and expand their appreciation for reading and writing.
As teachers, let us make sure we ask young learners these kinds of questions and encourage parents to do the same. In doing so, we can help eliminate conversation stoppers and start children on a life-long journey of self-discovery and learning.