If there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching virtually last year, it’s that you need to find projects to keep both yourself and the children excited and engaged.
In recent years, I’ve found joy reading one of my favorite books with my students: the unabridged Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I can already hear your questions, and I assure you they’re the same questions I had last year when I first started this adventure. How do you read a chapter book with only a handful of pictures to a group of preschool-aged students? Especially one that is full of bizarre, nonsensically abstract characters and concepts?
Well, it turns out it’s not that hard, and it resulted in one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my teaching career.
You can actually thank my father for this experience. When I was about 7 or 8, he used to read books like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings as bedtime stories, and despite the fact that I couldn’t see the pictures, his passion for the stories carried through into my imagination. Years later when I taught a preschool classroom, I wondered if I could bring that same passion to reading advanced texts to my own students—even as young as 3 years old.
The results were magical. My students were enthralled with a story about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and has a series of strange misadventures involving talking animals, non sequiturs, and card people. And I’d love to encourage all preschool teachers to challenge themselves to read a chapter book with their students every year. But as with all projects, it requires a lot of foresight and planning.
6 Keys to Introducing Advanced Texts to Preschoolers
1. Start by choosing a book that you love. Part of why my students loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is because it’s one of my favorite books. I purposefully picked a book that’s special to me because of its eccentric characters and gleefully absurd sense of humor.
2. Frame your reading first. Before reading, I showed them the book. I showed them how long it was. I showed them that it had only a few pictures (though I purposefully picked an edition that had incredible illustrations). I told them that this was a big-kid book and that they’d have to listen very carefully to know what was happening. I showed them the front cover and asked them what they observed or thought the book would be about. And most important, I told them what a great book it was and how excited I was to read with them.
3. Know your audience. Part of what was so successful about my venture was that I kept every reading short and sweet. If we read two pages, I considered it a long read. Alice is a long book, and I knew it would take months to finish, but that was OK. Sometimes less is more: Focus on short bits of story that the kids can take something away from instead of trying to cram in entire chapters before nap time.
4. Know your text. One of the reasons Alice worked so well was because it’s essentially a series of short stories. There isn’t much in the way of an overarching plot, and what happens in one chapter rarely has long-lasting consequences, as Alice usually interacts with a series of characters, then keeps on traveling for a new adventure. This meant that if a particular chapter was confusing to the students, it wouldn’t matter for the story as a whole. There are certain portions of the text that required a level of abstract thinking my students weren’t quite ready for, such as when Alice grows so big she imagines she’ll have to write letters to her feet, then proceeds to describe how she would address said letter. It was too many steps for my students, and so I summarized and skipped most of that paragraph, especially since it’s not pertinent to the story as a whole.
5. Have a goal for each reading. As I preread every chapter before my read-aloud, I would try to take out one piece of information I wanted the students to remember. It could be one line: “Curiouser and curiouser.” It could be a story point: Six chapters later, my youngest student would randomly call out, “Alice fall down the hole,” something that clearly resonated with him. It could be characterization: The Hatter was rude, the White Rabbit was running late. It could even be a concept: There’s a great joke about the Mock Turtle in that he’s actually a cow dressed as a turtle in the original illustration—a literal mock turtle—and we had a long discussion about the word mock so that students could understand the joke.
6. Celebrate! It wasn’t long before Alice took over our classroom—students were drawing pictures of queens and writing stories about tea parties. For the end of our story, we planned a tea party as a celebration—one that unfortunately never manifested because of our school shutting down. However, it’s important that when you undertake a venture like this, you give your kids the proper time to celebrate. Reading a chapter book is a big deal, and the kids should have the opportunity to tie it all together.
The end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland closes with Alice describing all of her adventures to her older sister. Her sister listens intently, admiring Alice’s journey and imagining a future in which Alice’s story might be told to her own children. Reading this final passage to my students, I remembered why I started this project in the first place: to pass on the stories I love. If I learned anything from reading chapter books to my students, it was that no matter how young, children can handle a lot more than you might expect from them, especially with the proper guidance.