I noticed a basket in an isolated corner of the primary wing in a school. I wondered what was inside of it. When I got close enough to get a good look, I couldn't believe my eyes. The basket was filled with abandoned big books in various stages of disrepair. As I knelt down to get a better look at the basket's contents, I tried to recall the last time I had seen a teacher engage a class in the shared reading of a big book. Had it been weeks? Had it possibly even been months?
I really couldn't remember the last time I had seen a class participating in a shared reading lesson! Could it be that the teachers had completely abandoned shared reading with big books? If so, maybe it was because we had worked so hard on supporting guided reading and writing workshop. Or maybe they really were doing shared reading, but I just had not happened to be around to see it in quite awhile. The only way to find out for sure was to ask.
Questions and Classroom Visits
The first teacher I asked was Kelly. She is an experienced and knowledgeable kindergarten teacher. I said, "When can I come to watch one of your shared reading lessons?" She said, "How about in ten minutes?" "Phew!" I thought. "So they are doing shared reading. Somehow I've just managed to miss those lessons." I went into her classroom ten minutes later and watched her lead her students in writing a wonderful language experience story. The children created a story about carving a jack-o-lantern. When the writing of the story was completed, the children did a shared reading of their co-constructed story. It was a positive experience for the children, but it was not the shared reading of a big book that I had been looking for.
Next I tried Allison, a perky and energetic novice teacher. She said that her class did shared reading first thing every single morning. I was there in her classroom bright and early the very next morning. Allison and her first graders did a shared reading of the "morning message." Allison authors a morning message each day before the children arrive. The message consists of an announcement, a celebration, or a proposal to solve a problem that had emerged. Again, although the lesson was productive, I still hadn't seen any shared reading of a big book.
I was beginning to get desperate. I went to Leah. I knew that this would be a long shot. Leah teaches second grade. While shared reading is completely appropriate for second grade, it seemed to be the domain of kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. I rarely saw second-grade classes reading big books. I was delighted when Leah reported that indeed her class does shared reading. However, when I went in to see the lesson, Leah's second graders were silently following along in their own copies of a chapter book that she was reading aloud to them. Once in awhile, Leah would pause and the children would read aloud a portion of the text. The lesson provided an age-appropriate level of student involvement, but was I ever going to see the use of any big books?
The Time Crunch
Finally, I asked Sylvia if I could come to watch one of her shared reading lessons. She reported that she had five guided reading groups this year. She had had to give up shared reading in order to fit in at least two, and preferably three, guided reading groups a day. She added that this year, six of her students were classified as "intensive" on their initial DIBELS assessment. She had to administer individual assessments to them every two weeks, in addition to the running records that she tries to give to at least one student every day. I solemnly nodded and walked away. "And don't forget about the weekly writing samples that I have to submit to the principal every week," she called after me as I walked down the hall. "When am I supposed to fit in shared reading, too?"
Sylvia gave me the answer that I had been dreading. To confirm my suspicions, I looked at the check-out records from the literacy closet. I found just what I was afraid of: nobody had checked out a big book all year. Shared reading had been squeezed out of the literacy block by guided reading and testing. While some teachers were engaging children in shared reading activities of one kind or another, none of them were choosing to use big books. I mourned the absence of big books in primary classrooms.
In the not-too-distant past, shared reading with big books was a staple activity in almost every primary classroom. It was the centerpiece of literacy instruction in many classrooms. Nothing builds community like a class of children sitting on the rug and enthusiastically reading about the zany adventures of Mrs Wishy-Washy or the Meanies. Everyone participated. Those children who walked into kindergarten already able to read Frog and Toad books enjoyed it as much as the children who were still struggling to learn the names of the letters. The "readers" were never bored. The children who were still learning letter names never complained that the book was too hard. In those multilevel lessons, the teacher was able to meet the needs of all readers.
I think that language experience stories and morning messages are certainly worthwhile ways to engage children in reading accessible texts. However, I never heard a class of children cry, "Let's read it again!" when they finished reading the morning message. The same level of joy is just not present in the other shared reading activities as it is in shared reading of big books.
I wonder if teachers understand that by forgoing big books, they are passing up a great way to build fluency. Sure, you can do a shared reading of the morning message. But the message is different every day. There is no opportunity for repeated readings — no chance to build fluency. Teachers often have found it effective to have their classes read the same big book every day for an entire week. Each day, the children read it with a little more confidence. The books are so engaging that no child ever groans, "Are we reading this book again?" As a matter of fact, there are often groans when the teacher puts a favorite book away to make room for a new book.
Do teachers understand that big books are wonderful resources for teaching comprehension strategies? There are big books such as The Enormous Watermelon (Parkes, 2001) and Who's in the Shed? (Parkes, 2001) that have built in prediction devices. Wouldn't it be great to do a think aloud while the children can actually see the text and illustrations that you are thinking about?
Big books are perfect for teaching word recognition skills in context. Good big books used patterned language. Children receive multiple exposures to high frequency words — books are so much better than flashcards. Teachers can use highlighter tape and wikki sticks to highlight words from word families and give children extra practice with them in word study centers.
What happens now? How can we get the message out that children are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to enhance their literacy acquisition? Maybe one of the literacy coaches would be interested in facilitating a book club for primary teachers with the book, Read It Again!: Revisiting Shared Reading (Parkes, 2001). As an extra incentive, perhaps we can offer teachers who participate in the book club new big books. Perhaps the coaches can highlight the big books in the literacy closet. Or maybe they can put a new big book on display each week. Or maybe the coach can book talk a different big book each week at grade-level meetings. Maybe some literacy coaches can find some teachers who would like to participate in a shared reading cycle. We'll see what happens.