September 29, 2013

A Passion for Big Books

I was almost 18 years old when I first held a Big Book. It was called "The Jigaree" and I remember telling it to the children at the young learners training course I was taking at Seven with Debora Schisler as my trainer. The students were not the only ones hypnotized by the large and colourful pictures, as you can probably now imagine. After this very first day, I have been attracted to telling, buying, and exploring the different uses of Big Books in the classroom. It's just one of those things I can't avoid doing.

I will use capital letters every time I refer to Big Books to differentiate them from any book that is just big. The Big Books I am referring to are the ones that bring learning, discussion, and joy to  young learners during shared reading  in both kindergarten classes as well as ESL and EFL classrooms around the world.

Big Books are a treat because they are big, really big, specially when we consider how tall young learners are. Big Books are large enough that all children in the classroom can clearly see the characters and read what is written. I'd even say that Big Books are almost like small cinema screens that suddenly open and take young learners for an imaginary ride. And even more interesting than going on this ride is to be able to engage in significant dialogue with the children and intertwine our and their experiences and  lives with the stories. This mixture of amazement, imagination, student validation, and relevant language make a powerful a memorable affective learning experience.

These are some of my favourite Big Books!
I specially like them because of the large ilustrations and the unexpected endings. I probably have told each one of them over a 100 times!

Storytelling is an art and being an art there is not a "right" way to  do it. I will share here some hints that I have learned in my years telling stories with Big Books and that have worked for me. Feel free to incorporate them in your storytelling.

Storytelling at St. Paul's School in São Paulo, Brazil 

1. Sit in a circle and hold it in front of the children: get students to sit on the floor in a circle in front of you as a way of making sure that they are able to see your lips and that you are able to see their eyes and their forehead. These two can show you how much children are understanding and enjoying the story. Do not lay the book on the floor, as children will start flipping the pages quickly.

2. Engage by matching their attention span:  I read once that the attention of young learners in minutes can be calculated by adding two to their age. This would mean that the attention span of a five year old is seven minutes. I'm not sure how valid that rule is, but one thing we can get from it is that their attention span exists and that we have to respect it. This can be done by choosing the right big book for that age and making sure that we are aware of their involvement.

I try to notice how involved students are and it's not uncommon for me to tell it a story in two different days. If you see that a story is not working, you can either speed it up or even ask them if they would like to continue listening to it.  You do not have to finish the story just because you have started it.

3. Hook students with personal experiences:  before you even mention you are about to tell a story, you can ask a question related to the plot to activate their minds in the topic you are about to enter.  Another possibility is to start by sharing your answer to that question you would ask. After you share, be in silence and wait,  children will suddenly start to share their stories.  As magic, they will be more interested in the story when you begin telling it. You can read more about the hook in this previous post

4. Explore authorship by naming the title, author and illustrator: I love to start by making a question including the title, such as these:

Has anybody ever said "I went walking"  to you?
When was the last time you went walking?

I always make sure to mention the the author, and the illustrator, as a way of validation their work. It also shows children a lit bit about the backstage of writing and illustrating a book. It's really powerful when we create their own Big Books.

5. Keep the suspense by folding the book in the middle: usually Big Book have one big scene that covers both pages, or there is text on one page and a picture on the other.  But sometimes there is one scene per page, which lets students already see what will happen next the moment you turn the page.
I fold the book and show them one page at a time not to reveal what is happening next. It also helps children to focus.

6. Engage in relevant dialogue by exploring small details: let students explore the scenes thoroughly. Do not say anything during the first 5 seconds after you turn a page. Just wait and let students come up with their perceptions. They might talk about details, about what they would do, or just show their surprise. As holistic language educators, we can use these powerful seeds students bring and make them grow linguistically by giving them the emergent language they need.

What would you say if your teacher turned a page and you saw this scene?

This is a scene I simply love from King Bidgood's in the Bathtub by Audrey and Don Wood.

Sosô Uribe inviting two girls to try out some porridge. 

7. Validate students' humour and initiative by interacting with the pictures: here you can play with the book and enter the story with your young learners. You can try some of the fruits above and offer some to children. You can also be naughty together by pulling the table cloth and destroying the cake.

8. Estimulate expression by talking to the story characters: another way to interact with the story is to talk to the characters, as it allows students to use their creativity and to learn the language they need to express what they really want to say. What would you say to Little Red Riding Hood? And to the Big Bad Wolf? As we are telling the story, I try to use their sentences over and over.

Using "Jump, Frog, Jump!" as a play scenario.
9. Review language by using it as scenario: here you can have  young learners bring their toys and play on top of the big book after you have told it. They review, use, adapt, and expand the original language.

10. Explore other perspectives by telling the story as a different character: if the story was told by a narrator, try it out as one of the characters. You can here explore not only what they say, but also what they think throughout the story.  

11. Relive the language by recreating the story with their own things: here students can use their imagination to recreate the scenes from the story. Characters can be lived with  their stationary material, cuisenaire rods, or even with their shoes! It's fun because they are able to use the language at the same time they are creating and being validated. Not the mention the fun involved!

12. Expand the story by creating a different ending: after they have been the told the story, you can guide them to think about other possible different outcomes that would have resulted if different decisions had been made by characters. This envisioning can foster  empathy, responsibility, determination.

At school we have probably over 150 Big Books, which have been bought over 20 years.   They are not usually easy to find and in Brazil they tend to cost a fortune, up to 100 dollars per book!

You can then imagine how excited I was when on my first day travelling in the UK I found a sale for 4 pounds each! I bought only 13 books thinking that I would find many more during my trip. Didn't see any at all!

At school we decided to have three piles arranged by alphabetical order as a way of organizing all the Big Books. I have been taking pictures of the Big Books that I have found all around the world. Some of these titles are easy to find, but others are unfortunately out of print, which makes them even more cherished treasures. You can visit this gallery of Big Books here. There are currently 110 Big Books in the gallery.

What about you? 
Do you tell Big Books to your young learners? 
Are they easy to find in your country? What are your tricks? 

Send you a big frog-hug! 


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  1. Thank you for all these invaluable tips Juan . I am one of storytelling fans and your posts do encourage me to start telling stories to my young learners :-)

    1. Hi Faten!

      Thank you for your comment. I am happy that these tips are invaluable to you and that with my sharing you are energized to tell more stories to your young learners.

      Wish you memorable moments telling stories to your young learners!



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