Active Listening: The Total Picture Book Experience


Today’s Parent Post is from Bruce Coffey, creator of the One School, One Book  family literacy program and the Director of Programs for the national non-profit, Read to Them. Bruce has lots of great things to say about picture books.


Active Listening: The Total Picture Book Experience

by Bruce Coffey


It’s an unmitigated pleasure to read your favorite picture books with very young children.  Doesn’t matter whether they’re your own children – or someone else’s.  Doesn’t matter whether it’s a toddler experiencing his or her first exposure to printed text and illustrations – or older children who can read themselves but are always ready to sink back into the safe, cozy, comforts of the armchair for a nostalgic encore.  Reading picture books is good for everyone.  It introduces children to reading, literature, and what I like to call active listening.


At first blush, you might think that listening to picture books is a passive activity.  You read.  They sit there and receive.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.


You can transform reading picture books into an active form of listening.  You can make reading a picture book an interactive activity.  Sometimes a child wants to be comforted by a familiar story – familiar prose, familiar pictures, familiar characters, a known ending.


But you also want children to learn that every book – picture books and chapter books – contains a world of information and entertainment, a world of stimulation and discovery.  You want readers/listeners to discover they can learn something new each time they pick up a book – even an already familiar book.


Here’s how to make reading picture books interactive:
  • Ask your listener to find things in the illustrations.  To identify things by color.  To find animals and objects – both obvious and obscure.  Ask them to count countable items.  Gauge your listener and ratchet up the level of difficulty of your questions.  Make each new page a new place to discover and find new things.
  • Ask questions like, “What color is the hat?” “Can you find a red horse?” “Where is the yellow birdie?” “How many lollipops on this page?” “Can you find the dog’s bone?”
  • Every page of illustration contains details and landscape – all of which are rich fodder for study and exploration.
  • Don’t let your questions slow down the narrative or momentum of your story – unless your listener seems to court it.  Just pepper your reading with rapid fire, occasional interjections and interrogatives.
  • Let your listener ask questions, too.  They may be more in the nature of what’s going to happen or rehearsing things that have already happened or reviewing moral judgments.  But you can still train your listener to be a question asker, too.  Occasionally, when you turn a new page – see if they have something to ask you, too
  • Especially when reading verse – Dr. Seuss is the obvious example here – thrust your listener into the text by asking them to anticipate and complete an occasional stanza or rhyme.  “I do not like them in a house.  I do not like them with a….?”  Children will cotton on quickly, fill in the rhyme, and then sit up a little more in your chair.  They will begin to anticipate.  They will become active listeners.
  • You can do this, too, with verse stanzas they’ve never heard before – less familiar than Dr. Seuss.  They’ll get the idea – especially if they use illustrations for context or clues – that rhymed verse is accessible and interesting to anticipate.  It may even grow their vocabularies.
Reading aloud can be tiring.  It takes energy.  You the reader are the narrator, the announcer, the storyteller.  The author has written the script.  The illustrator has fleshed out the landscape and the set and the costumes.  But you have to act it.  You have to make it come alive.


The most obvious way to do this is to ham it up – to become the characters, to act ‘em out, to use voices – high and low, cheerful and menacing – and make the story come alive.


But you can also let the prose come alive by reading the language carefully and vibrantly, with special attention.  This takes a different kind of subtler effort and attention.  You won’t sweat – but you will turn your brain on.  Notice beautiful sentences, descriptions, language, choice phrases, words.  Bring them out.  Put them on little oral pillows so your listener can hear them.  Without asking any questions, let the prose – the author’s wordsmithing artistry – be part of what entertains both you and your child listener.  Help them become active appreciators of beautiful prose.


Bruce Coffey is the creator of the One School, One Book  family literacy program – which enables families to read high quality children’s novels at home, and celebrate them at school.  He has been the Director of Programs for the national non-profit, Read to Them, for the last 12 years.  He also teaches Middle School History at Sabot at Stony Point School in Richmond, VA.  He is the father of 3 teen-age daughters…and a 5-year-old son who helps keep him in hands-on contact with children’s literature.


Bruce has sent us four new picture books to check out. They look wonderful!


 Mr. Bud Wears the Cone by Carter Goodrich

Carter Goodrich is a former Pixar illustrator, and the author/illustrator of three hilarious, charming, memorable books about the two dogs – Mr. Bud and Zorro.  Goodrich’s illustrations are pointed and telling, actively capturing the full range of expressions that make us all empathize with dogs.  This third installment finds Mr. Bud forlorn about his hotspot, and Zorro unsympathetically teasing.  But Goodrich’s ability to allow readers/listeners to see and think and feel from the perspective of the dogs makes each these picture books memorable – a series children will want repeated – and one you’ll also want to share.


 Brimsby’s Hats by Andrew Prahin

Completely unexpected.  Endearing, detailed illustrations.  A charmed private animal world.  A story ostensibly about a hat-maker is really a story about friendship – about what it take to make new friends when you’ve lost someone close to you.  And about…tea!


 Outfoxed by Mike Twohy

A variation on a theme – the duck is captured by the fox – but in the hands of veteran illustrator Mike Twohy, the story is told quickly and hilariously.  In this case the duck brazenly tries to convince the fox he really is…a dog! Young readers will howl to hear it again – and adults will marvel at the witty deadpan ending.


 Locomotive Brian Floca

Locomotive is the winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal as the best illustrated book of the year, so it needs no praise here.  But in case it’s slipped your radar you need to know that Locomotive has everything: gorgeous, lush, detailed watercolors illustrating the majestic power of the railroad – and all their fine, David Macaulay detail; sounds and language and onomatopoeia of the railroad to draw in and entice youngest readers; details and scope and history that will fascinate adults.  A long, rich, illustrated book a little short on plot – but that one that invites further study and examination.  One definition of a classic that will be with us a long time.


Thanks, Bruce!


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