Designing a Storytelling Workshop for Emergent Readers – Part 1

This article shall not focus on the importance of storytelling for children. The purpose of this piece lies in the assumption that you as a parent, teacher or pedagogue believe in the importance and want to know how to get started. For designing a storytelling workshop for children who are emergent readers require some criteria to keep in mind:

First, objective of the workshop
It is important to state the objective of the workshop for oneself before getting into the process of designing the same.  Since this workshop is for emergent readers the objective here is not to just expose the child to written and oral stories but one, stories particularly in text format and two, which will gradually move the child from being an emergent reader to an independent reader.  There is therefore a strong element of developing an interest in the child to read stories i.e. for the parent or teacher to facilitate in a manner that it motivates the child to turn the leaf of the story book at hand and ultimately to voluntarily pick up books to read when an opportunity arises.

Second, knowing your audience’s background
Keeping in mind the background of the audience one needs to understand the context of the child.  What is it the child experiences in his/her daily life? What is the language they not only converse in but ‘think’ in? What are the words/phrases in his/her everyday vocabulary? Is the child exposed to any form of text, if so what media? Is the child exposed to print in the form of storybooks? Based on the answers one can identify what could be the possible stories in terms of content and illustrations one can choose from. This data will also give an understanding of the kind of story styles one should look at. Even at the level of emergent readers there tend to be some styles which require that the child has had some prior exposure to stories either oral or written.  There can be stories which might not have a linear flow and require memory and imagination to connect the pieces at different levels. If a child has not had the experience of interacting with stories earlier then a linear style would be a good start.

Third, knowing your audience’s reading level
While it has been stated that the audience is in the emergent reader category still one would need to question how that informs us. An emergent reader has started to identify some letters and can sometimes even read two to three letter words especially if those are high frequency words. Yet, pictures play a huge role in unraveling the story for the child. Sometimes it will be the pictures that will help the child not only to infer the story but also infer the possible words on the page. While children at a young age tend to absorb vocabulary like a dry sponge still that does not mean that the story book chosen should be full of complex words. In fact that could have a negative impact of de-motivating the child. In my experience there can be three points one can keep in mind here. One, it would be nice if the new words that keep appearing have a larger pattern or are part of a larger theme. For example if we were to take the larger theme to be body parts then as the story progresses (which might or might not be connected to body parts) keep adding different body parts (words/vocabulary). Second, the sentences constructed should be simple sentences. The term ‘simple sentence’ can also get complex so for the convenience of this article I would like to define by what I mean by a ‘simple sentence’. A simple sentence in this context is one which focuses only on one phenomenon whether it is a feeling, event or action. Even if one needs to communicate an action leading to a particular feeling the character experiences either the feeling or event can be shown through pictures and the other in text or the sentence should be broken into two sentences.  Third, it is good to have text which follows some pattern that can lead to predictability for the child, a particular sentence structure that appears through the book with only verb or object or subject changing. For example if on the first spread the sentence is, ‘the caterpillar ate three red strawberries’ then on the next spread the sentence would be, ‘the caterpillar ate four green grapes’. By the time a child who probably cannot read might turn to the next spread and looking at the picture might predict the text written on the page. This leads to motivation to turn the leaf and also to then go back to the words in print and try to connect the visual (illustration) with the visual (word).  S/he can then further try to deconstruct the word to letters reconstruct it again to ultimately be able to read that word in other spaces with or without the illustration. What also becomes interesting here is that if the child has never seen for example strawberries in his/her life or never tasted them the image shown in the storybook or the taste experience mentioned in the storybook tends to become their connection to the word.  It therefore becomes important to expose the child to as much text as possible so that even if not seen, touched, tasted or heard there is ample content the child is exposed to make his/her own concept of that object, event or feeling. All these points can be taken into consideration to explore the story to choose but then again these are not necessary conditions to have but rather can be seen as a good place to start from.

Based on the aforesaid if you’re lucky you might have a few books identified from which you can choose from to get started. One thing to keep in mind is that the content of the story has not been touched upon and neither shall that be the case.  That is for the facilitator to decide and also points to the fact that it gives an opportunity to pick up from umpteen stories available out there.  The idea is to provide a wide gamut of experiences, ideas, feelings, events and more through stories to the child.  Therefore do not stop looking for stories, do not miss an opportunity to visit book fairs, go through libraries or just spend time on the internet scouting. It is an ongoing process.

Before getting into an example of an actual workshop designed for emergent readers I would like to touch upon one important aspect.  In the points mentioned above there are some key words/phrases to keep in mind, such as, ‘motivation’, ‘interest’, ‘experiences and language of the child’ and ‘reading level of the child’. These words/phrases are concerned with the objective of the workshop in which the first two words focus on the ‘what’ of facilitating children to become independent readers and the following two phrases focus on the ‘how’ of achieving it. You might have heard of this statement, ‘stories act as mirrors as well as windows’ which is to say that stories can reflect one’s experiences in turn helping one to make meaning of the text by connecting it with those directly experienced phenomena (mirror). Stories can also help connect to a world of phenomena that has not been directly experienced but one can still make meaning using one’s own prior experiences and then abstracting from there. A very simple example would be that if a child has experienced seeing and tasting an orange then the child will directly connect to the line, ‘the caterpillar ate an orange that tasted sweet’ and if the child has never seen or tasted a custard apple and comes across a line, ‘the caterpillar ate a custard apple which tasted bland’ the child already has the concept of fruits and tastes so will indirectly be able to make meaning of something that is not in his/her immediate environment. In both cases what is evident is that some basic concepts/experiences need to be in place to make meaning either at the immediate level or to abstract from. Catering to an emergent reader it thus becomes important for the child to engage with text which in most parts (if not all) acts as the mirror. As the child starts getting comfortable with the idea of engaging with stories one can slowly move from partial to completely indirect text making the stories act as windows into the outside world.

Another aspect that will help the child especially who does not have much exposure to text and storybooks in his/her immediate environment is as a facilitator try to heighten all senses of the child while reading a story aloud. If there are mountains then talk about the breeze, the fresh air the character might be experiencing, if there are flowers talk about the softness of the petals and the wonderful scent.  Basically the child should be able to start feeling what the characters in the story are feeling so much so that the children feel they are in the story living it. This heightening of senses not only leads them to develop stronger concepts but also develops an interest in stories for the child. The stories should not be external to the child which a facilitator can and should always work towards.

The next part of this two part article will give one example of a real time workshop conducted for emergent readers which leveraged on the criteria mentioned in this piece for choosing the storybook and the execution process to help achieve the objective of the workshop.