Ministry of Education, Guyana

Every Child Is a Reader (Even If They Can’t Yet Read the Words)

In early September, my first grader sat on her bed thumbing through a picture book that was way above her reading level. “I’m reading this book all by myself, mommy! I’m reading the pictures. My teacher says that’s one way to read a book.”

In the first week of school, she had learned that there are three ways to read a book: reading the pictures, reading the words, and retelling the story.

Gail Boushey is a literacy expert and co-author of The Daily 5: Fostering Literacy in the Elementary Grades, the book that coined the idea of “three ways to read a book.” This concept builds on extensive research about how young children learn to read.

I recently spoke with Boushey, and she told me that reading isn’t just about sounding out words. It’s also about understanding the story and drawing connections between the story and your life or the world around you. Strong readers find meaning in the text.

And for young kids, that includes paying close attention to the pictures and using them to make inferences — or educated guesses — about what is happening in the story.

The concept of three ways to read a book is “so simple and revolutionary because many kids come to school thinking they don’t know how to read. But we can tell them from the first day, ‘You are a reader!’” said Boushey.

That’s not just a message for school-age children, said Boushey. “We have a three-year-old granddaughter, and as she turns the pages and looks at the pictures, we say to her, ‘Look you are reading! You are reading the pictures!”

Of course, when most of us think about children and reading, we focus on reading the words. So let’s take a closer look at the two other ways kids can read.

Reading the Pictures
My three-year-old likes to flip through superhero books, describing what he sees in a loud, animated voice.

This isn’t pretend reading, Boushey said. This is part of what all good readers do. As adults, we look at images, pictures, charts, graphs, data tables, GIFs, and emojis as part of our reading – it’s part of how we gather information! That’s what picture book illustrations do for kids: They provide more information about the story.

In children’s books, said Boushey, “pictures carry the meaning of the story,” offering more detail than the words themselves. So express your delight when your toddler thumbs through a book and shares what they see. Encourage kids to “take a picture walk” through the book before you read it out loud, previewing the story by exploring the pictures. And let them browse through the public library children’s room, finding books that delight them visually!

Retelling the Story
Read aloud time helps our kids in countless ways. It builds literacy skills, strengthens the parent-child bond, and fosters positive feelings towards books. When we read aloud to our kids, we can also help them engage in another form of reading: retelling the story.

When kids retell events in their own words, they strengthen their understanding of plot, reveal what they missed, and start to understand the rhythm of stories in general. Stories all have a beginning, middle, and end. They all have characters and settings. They usually have a problem that needs solving. When kids start to see how stories have a predictable pattern, they become better at making up and telling their own stories!

Boushey suggests that when you are done reading a story — or even a single page — pause and let kids use the pictures to retell what happened. “It’s as simple as asking our kids, ‘Can you tell me what’s happening on this page? What do you see?’” For example, if you are reading “Little Red Riding Hood” together, look at a picture and ask, “Where is she right now? What is she carrying? Where is she going?”

“Reading is all about meaning,” said Boushey. “If you are just stopping with the words, you aren’t reading. It’s that understanding of what’s happening. What was the story really about? Good picture books are priceless for this.”

At our house, these “three kinds of reading” help equalize family reading time with my three- and six-year-old. My daughter may be reading the words these days, but her little brother has started his reading journey, too. And as we look at the pictures together, they both have important observations that they can share, and they often race each other to find little details hidden in the illustrations.

Boushey says she wants “all parents and teachers to know that this real reading. Reading the pictures is real. Retelling the stories is real.” And as we snuggle up with our kids to share a story together, we can tell them with confidence, “You are a reader, too.”


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