“It will never work,” said Leela, a veteran kindergarten teacher with 25 years of experience. “They love the pictures. They all get up on their knees to see the pictures better. Some of them can barely hold on until the next picture.” The other kindergarten and first-grade teachers nodded in agreement. They were all convinced that their kindergarten and first-grade students would not sit still for a read-aloud of a chapter book.
I am a picture book lover, too. Some of my all-time favorite books are picture books. However, I learned from many years of teaching first grade that something magical takes place when a class shares the experience of journeying through a chapter book together. How could I convince this group of urban teachers to surrender some of their read-aloud time to a chapter book?
The teachers’ major objection to reading aloud chapter books was attention span. Many of their students came from homes that had provided them with little print experience. These children did not have a regular bedtime story. They did not go to the public library on Saturday to select a week’s worth of books. Some of their students did not speak English as their first language. These children really relied on the pictures to help them understand the story. A teacher can do three things to overcome the “attention problem”: select carefully, prepare in advance, and monitor pacing.
First, it is important to select a great book. I look for a book that children are just going to love, begging to hear the next chapter. It should be a book on a topic “gentle” enough for young children, and one that can be completed in two-three weeks. Try finding a book with a child protagonist. Finally, it should be a book that is action-packed. Children find it hard to sit through pages and pages of descriptions. With these criteria in mind, the teachers were offered the following books for their first chapter book read-aloud:
Cleary, B. (1992). Ramona the Pest. New York: HarperTrophy.
Catling, P. S. (1995). The Chocolate Touch. New York: Yearling.
Gannet, R.S. (2005). My Father’s Dragon. New York: Yearling.
Preparation is absolutely critical. I never simply pick up the book and begin reading. For many of the children, this will be the very first time that they will hear a chapter book. I have to do my homework, reading the entire book before I read aloud to the class. Think about how to present the story. Are there any props that you’d like to bring it? In Ramona the Pest, the teacher reads aloud Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. You might read it aloud, too. The main character in The Chocolate Touch is John Midas. You might want to have a copy of King Midas and the Golden Touch available.
Think through the possibilities for volume and energy in your reading. Which parts would be read in a quiet voice? Which parts would be read in a loud voice? Will you use different voices for different characters? The best reason for reading the entire book before reading it to the class is to determine if you like the book. If you like the book, it is going to show on your face, in your voice, and in your posture. You are more likely to use different voices for different characters. They will be the voices that you heard in your head when you read the book. There is no shortcut to reading the entire book first.
Pacing can make or break the read-aloud experience. Some books are perfectly paced. The chapters are just long enough for a five-year-old’s attention span. The chapters end at a place where you really want to know what happens next. The action is nicely balanced between suspense and relief. It’s hard to sustain the “sitting on the edge of your seat” feeling for young readers. A reader (listener) needs some time to recover before the next episode of suspense. Sometimes, you are not so lucky. You’ll need to go through the book to determine the ending of each read-aloud session. The teachers I work with note that Roald Dahl is a genius at pacing. He manages to make every chapter ending a cliffhanger and the chapters are just the right length.
Roald Dahl? He wasn’t on the original list! That’s right. The chapter book read-aloud project took off. Teachers began coming to their monthly meeting with book recommendations for the other teachers. They shared their students’ written and artistic responses. The children caught “chapter book fever,” too. One teacher reported that her children came up to her at the school book fair brandishing chapter books that she should buy and read to the class.
Teachers reported that reading chapter books was beneficial to their kindergarten and first grade students. The chapter book read aloud was a wonderful community building experience. When a child was absent, the other children would eagerly fill her in on what happened in the book yesterday. The chapter books exposed the children to high-level vocabulary. The chapter books generated rich discussions, and the children learned to visualize story events. Some children drew while listening. One first grade class spontaneously recreated the island in My Father’s Dragon with blocks. The children’s listening skills improved. The children’s ability to recall story events from day to day improved. The students became more proficient in comprehension sub-skills.
One teacher reported that her students were annoyed with the lack of chapter titles in James and the Giant Peach. The teacher suggested that they write their own titles. After listening to a chapter, the class would talk about the important things that took place in that chapter and then develop a title. The children did not realize that they were learning to determine importance, summarize, and find the main idea.
At the final meeting of the school year, the teachers generated a list of chapter books to read over the summer. Next year, they want to be ready for their read aloud program featuring chapter books.
Chapter Book Recommendations for Primary Grade Read Alouds
Best First Chapter Books
Blume, J. (1984). Freckle Juice. New York: Simon & Schuster. Andrew really wants freckles like his friend, Nicky. Classmate Sharon comes to the rescue with a recipe for “freckle juice.” After Andrew pays her for the recipe he believes that he is on his way to making his dream come true.
Gannet, R.S. (2005). My Father’s Dragon. New York: Yearling Books. Elmer runs away from home with a talking cat to rescue a baby dragon on a faraway island. If your class really likes this book, there are two more in the series: Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland.
Cleary, B. (1965). The Mouse and the Motorcycle. New York: HarperCollins. Keith befriends Ralph the mouse and teaches him how to drive his toy motorcycle. Will Ralph be able to help Keith when he is in trouble? Sequels for this book includes Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse.
Good Chapter Books for Different Character Voices
DiCamillo, K. (2006). The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. Edward Tulane is a cherished china rabbit owned by a little girl. The little girl really loves Edward. However, Edward only cares about his fine clothes and his good looks. He must take a long and perilous journey to learn how to love.
White, E.B. (1952). Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper. Wilbur the pig is saved from an untimely death as the runt of the litter, only to face it again as a full grown pig. Can his friend, Charlotte the spider, save him?
Chapter Books with Excellent Pacing
Dahl, R. (1996). James and the Giant Peach. New York: Knopf. James is rescued from his unhappy life by a bag of a magical substance. The magic makes a peach, and the insects living around the peach tree grow to gigantic proportions.
Catling, P.S. (1995). The Chocolate Touch. New York: Yearling. John Midas loves chocolate. One day he wakes up and discovers that everything he touches turns into chocolate. At first, he is thrilled! Can there be too much of a good thing?