Building Language With Emergent Storybooks

by Bruna Malvezi (Preprimary teacher) and Aaron Van Borek (LS T & L coach)

Marie Clay, one of the major theorists of child literacy acquisition, has introduced to the world the concept of emergent literacy, which means a child’s knowledge of reading and writing skills before they learn how to read and write words. Emergent literacy is of critical importance in early education in light of research showing that children learn skills that prepare them to read years before they start school. In 1966, Marie Clay researched the earliest behaviors and concepts children used when interacting with books, even before they were capable of reading in a conventional sense. She named it as ’emergent reading.’

Marie Clay’s discoveries and observations were developed further from the 70’s and 80’s. Based on Marie Clay’s studies and findings, Elizabeth Sulzby researched the patterns in storybook reading development in early childhood. She noticed that young children’s early reading behaviors progressed across specific stages or pattens, and eleven of them can be described in great detail, also known as The Sulzby Classification Scheme – SCS (Sulzby & Rockafellow; 2001).

In addition to that, Sulzby observed that children who advanced at a fast speed in their reading abilities were frequently read to by their parents, and teachers, even before formal instruction. These children, very often, had a ‘favorite’ book they would have their parents read again and again. As a consequence, they gained a strong sense of how stories should go and were able to apply that understanding when attempting to read (which might look like as if they were actually reading the book). Elizabeth Sulzby recognized that the stage of reading that precedes formal reading is named ’emergent story reading’ (Sulzby; 1985). This stage is most successful if the child has access to what she calls ’emergent storybooks.’

Emergent storybooks are books with specific features that help children have a better understanding of the story. These books are useful for teachers to teach pre-reading skills and behaviors students will need throughout their entire life as readers. Above all, these books help to instill the love for reading! According to Sulzby, emergent storybooks can be identified for having an engaging story with a vivid plot and characters (Sulzby; 2001). They also have a storyline that children can relate to easily. They have a picture/text correspondence, as well as interesting and attractive illustrations. Emergent storybooks also have dialogue and sometimes repetitive lines or verses. Most of them have emotional content that is engaging and appropriate. These books are written in a way that is easy for a teacher and parent to read aloud well. For examples of emergent storybooks, see the list linked here.

The process of supporting emergent storybook reading within the classroom setting is built from an initial 5 day instructional cycle as well as over extended time in class, outside direct-instructional experiences. Informally, emergent storybook reading can also happen at home, most of the time with a different book, with parent’s guidance and support. In school, the 5 day reading plan consists in reading the same book for 5 consecutive days. Each day with a different goal and structure in mind. Students will listen to the book, repeat lines (echo-reading), read along (choral-reading), partner read, retell, and finally, read independently. As they listen and read the stories daily, they will also make predictions, inferences, connections and learn the vocabulary that is key to better understand the story. These reading strategies (and many others that may apply) will help students to build up the story language they need to independently ‘read’ the book. Several copies of the book will remain in their book baskets or book corner for independent reading, any time of the day, or according to the teacher’s schedule. For a sample of a weekly emergent storybook read aloud plan, click here.

At home, students are read to by their parents, naturally following read aloud patterns, such as interactive language, comprehension conversations, and vocabulary explanation. This often happens as children cuddle up in bed with their parents, for their ‘favorite’ bedtime story. After parents have read their favorite story several times, to a point children start correcting their misreadings or omissions, they will instinctively attempt to read to themselves or maybe a sibling, imitating their parents (and teachers). This will happen countless times, and that is how they develop their fluency and story language at home.

According to Marie Clay, “Reading is a message-getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991, pg. 6).  As such, we need to teach a balance of reading strategies that apply to the visual cues (the text itself), the syntax (the structure of the text), but also the meaning (what we understand about the text, or what we see in the pictures).  In order to reach this message-getting goal, and while students are building a base of strong emergent storybook reading, both at school and at home, direct instruction takes place parallel in the classroom. This focus on skills which will improve students’ accuracy, fluency and comprehension while reading. Some of these skills are:

  • vocabulary
  • concepts of print
  • letter to sound matching
  • sight word recognition
  • word attack strategies
  • attention to punctuation
  • smooth reading (scooping words)
  • self-monitoring and repairing understanding
  • self-correcting
  • word and sentence understanding
  • grammar (including verb tenses)
  • narrative skills
  • inferring
  • activating prior knowledge
  • making predictions

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