Do preschoolers understand chapter books?

chapter books

That’s a tough question.

I’ve read a fair number of chapter books to L&L so far.  We started when Luke was almost 3, and now he’s almost 4.  Lilah is currently 29 months old.

What reading a chapter book is like at our house:
When we read chapter books, Luke always sits and listens; Lilah sits for awhile and then will often go play quietly in another area of the room.  I know she’s still paying attention because if she hears something interesting or knows we’re talking about a picture, she’ll say, “Let me see!” and come over to check it out every time!

We try to talk about the book a lot while we’re reading.  We don’t just read the words and call it a day…  We talk about the book before, during, and after we read.  We talk about the book when we’re not reading, too; if anything reminds us of the book during the day, we talk about the connections.

If I can find or think of any extension activities to do with the book, we do them.  By extension activities, I mean anything that will further the children’s understanding of what we’re reading or help them to create a memory about it.  Here are a few examples:

  • If there is a movie based on the book, we’ll watch it when we finish reading.  
  • In the book, Runaway Ralph, Ralph gets put into a cage with an exercise wheel and they talk about him “looping the loop,” so I took the kids to a pet store where we could watch a real mouse “loop the loop.”  
  • If I can’t provide the kids with a real-life experience of something they haven’t seen or experienced before in a book we read, I’ll often see if I can find a YouTube video to show them.
  • At a recent Lowe’s Build & Grow clinic, we built a castle.  We had previously read The Magic Tree House book, Knight at Dawn, so we came home and read it again since it was about a castle and knights.  We built a play dough moat around our castles and added some plastic knight figurines for play.  It really helped to reinforce the vocabulary like drawbridge and moat to read about it, and then actually be able to see and manipulate it.
  • If the kids like a particular book, I’ll try to find others with similar characters or by the same author.  For example, we read and watched a bunch of rodent books/movies recently — The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Stuart Little, Runaway Ralph, and Ratatouille.  The kids also really liked Stuart Little by E. B. White, so we’ll read Charlotte’s Web soon since it’s by the same author.

Here are some very recent examples of things I’ve noticed L&L say or do:

We read The Mouse and the Motorcycle and watched the Scholastic movie about 2 weeks ago.  Last night, Lilah randomly drew a circle on the Magnadoodle.  She said, “That’s a trash can.”  I didn’t think anything of it.  Then she drew something inside the trash can, and said, “Look, it’s Ralph!”  THAT got my attention!  I don’t know if she remembers that from the book or from the movie, but obviously she remembered it from someplace.

Earlier today when I was working on the Runaway Ralph blog post, Lilah saw the cover picture I posted and said, “Runaway Ralph!”

This morning during pretend play, Luke told me that they were going to Happy Acres Camp!  That’s the camp Ralph runs away to in Runaway Ralph and the setting for most of the book.

Last week while looking at all the animals in PetCo, I pointed out a hamster, and Luke said, “like Chum!” (from Runaway Ralph)

These are just a few examples.  I hear and see things like this all the time.  Even about books that we’ve read quite awhile in the past.

So, do preschoolers understand chapter books?

Well, that is still a tough question, but I am very encouraged by what I hear and see with L&L.  And I hope that the books we’re reading together now are also books they’ll want to read again on their own one day in the not-so-distant future.  And hopefully these early experiences we’re sharing now will help make that easy and enjoyable for them.

We still read lots and lots and lots of picture books and will continue to do so throughout their elementary years, but I definitely don’t think it’s too early to start some carefully selected chapter books, too. 🙂

What do you think?

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Genny Upton

A former teacher turned stay at home mom to two preschool aged children. Creator (and writer) at In Lieu of Preschool and Parent Teach Play. Currently publishing my first children's picture book!

  • Kama says:

    I recently found Runaway Ralph at the library on sale for $.25 so I decided to buy it “for the future.” My boys are 3 and 2 and I had thought about reading it to them. After reading this, I’m going to plan to do it. I also wanted to read them the Little House books and some other books I’ve found on clearance here and there. Thanks for a great post!

  • Kate Dano says:

    As a primary teacher, I can pretty much guarantee that preschoolers don’t understand chapter books completely. There are a few reasons for this:
    1. Their natural developmental stage makes it difficult to sustain the attention span needed to understand complex stories.
    2. They lack the life experience and background knowledge to relate to the characters.
    3. To understand such a book, they need repeated exposure to vocabulary and some explicit instruction on that vocabulary.

    *HOWEVER* (And I say this boldly!), as long as the book is read in shorter chunks to allow for the natural attention span AND if you are willing to devote the time to recap and discuss and revisit the book {like you do in your example! :)}, I can also pretty much guarantee that your child is gaining a great deal from reading those books! The key is to use the book as a vehicle for thinking and talking about books – not to simply read and leave.

    Reading books that children can not access on their own is a key component of building a love of literacy!

    I would recommend to any parent to do as you’re doing with chapter books IN ADDITION to reading quality (emphasis on quality!) picture books. It’s important to remember that picture books are often full of excellent vocabulary and themes. And children love vivid pictures – it helps them learn how to visualize as they read (a skill that a preschooler is just learning).

    Some ideas for other chapter books you might want to try:

    – Mercy Watson series [excellent for reading engagement, especially if you love doing voices!!)
    – Cam Jansen series [for talking about mysteries, building engagement]
    – The Prince of the Pond by Donna Jo Napoli [Read ‘The Frog Prince’ picture book first. And be sure to edit some of the book before you read it aloud, there is a frog mating scene.
    – Freckle Juice by Judy Blume
    – The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling

    Happy Reading!! 🙂


  • Anonymous says:

    I would respectfully disagree with Kate’s comment above. I think that it is heavily dependent on the individual child and their ability and exposure. We read ‘Farmer Boy’ to our daughter when she was just over 2 1/2 years. I had my doubts, but she was eager for each chapter and sat quietly and listened. We then took her to the Almonzo Wilder house and she asked many questions related to the book that demonstrated clear understanding and retention. She also was able to figure out what many of the household items were used for and called. We just finished reading ‘On The Shores of Silver Lake’ tonight. She has incorporated many of the story details into her imaginary play.
    I appreciated the list of suggested books. Our daughter is now 3 1/2 and is reading the Magic Tree House and Cam Jansen books independently. It can be challenging to find appropriate books for a very young reader. I would also recommend ‘Tum Tum and Nutmeg’ and ‘Olga daPolga’ as good read-alouds for very young children. I am staying away from ‘Charlotte’s Web’ for now because it is very sad if the child is sensitive.

    • Kate Dano says:

      You make excellent points and I agree. But I’d add that it really depends on the definition of ‘understands’. If your goal is a literal understanding of story events, names of characters and their actions, and a basic enjoyment of the story, then yes, there are preschoolers who are quite capable of that. If you’re goal is a deep understanding of character motivations, how those motivations drive the conflict of the story, and what emerges as themes, then I don’t think a preschooler is developmentally ready for that. This would require the ability to switch perspectives, which is a skill not usually reached until age 6 or 7. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some genius kiddos out there! (I’ve witnessed some myself.)

      Without a doubt, the best measure is how your own child responds. And for good measure, I’ll say again, talking about the story with your child is key, key, key!


  • Anonymous says:

    Actually, I’d like to add that perhaps I should not have said that I disagree with Kate, because the vast majority of what she said was absolutely spot-on. Instead of saying that I ‘disagreed’ with her, I should have just said that I believe that some individual children can have surprisingly good understanding of chapter books at a very young age.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have read chapter books to my 4 and 5 year olds in my special needs classroom. I chose titles that had movies made based on the book that I knew most of the kids had seen. I believe this helped them “visualize” and understand the content. Some I have read: Charlotte’s Web, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, James and the Giant Peach.

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  • Hannah VW says:

    Our 3 year old is also in the middle of hearing “Farmer Boy” as his bedtime book (1 or 2 chapters a night). My husband read the first 2 little house books to him before this. I hope my son reads them again when he is older because I don’t think he understands all the details. But he does remember a lot…I often find him “hitching up the wagon” while he is playing, or building a barn for the horses out of Duplos. Stuart Little was the first chapter book he listened too, just after he turned 3.
    I think preschoolers can definitely follow a long plot over several days if they are interested.

  • Heather says:

    I believe that it depends on your child. My daughter could sit and listen to books being read to her for 2-4 hours at a time at 1 1/2 years (she found it calming when she was having sensory sound issues). We could spend an entire 4 hour airplane ride just reading and she wouldn’t loose interest. This is certainly unusual but as a result she can demand to keep reading chapter books for hours. On multiple occasions we have sat and read 100 pages at a time of the Little House series. She can also give a brief summary of the story line (not just one book but including multiple books in order) and inserts new vocabulary into her play and everyday conversation. My suggestion… just keep reading anything and everything to your child! And the library hold system is the best invention EVER so put it to use!

  • Kirsten says:

    I would also add that children are all really different. MY son is an AVID lover of all things book, and has been since he was very small. His earliest experience with chapter books was when he was about 2 and a half and I would read on a Saturday morning while he played in the same room (me with my cup of tea). He asked me to read him what I was reading. I was reading ‘Omnivores Dilemma’ and didn’t think he would like it much if I did. But, he insisted and I did, and he listened and picked up a lot of stuff about vegetables and meat and how they are grown (I edited inappropriate parts). He has read so many chapter books with me to this point that I can’t possibly remember….we probably read at least one a week, maybe one and a half. He’s 5. My daughter is 4. I’ve loved my bonding time with my son so much that I just wanted that with my daughter, but it has thus far not been replicated. she much prefers picture books still. My son has read all the Little House books and started the series over. I thought we’d try with my daughter. We have been at it for probably 6 months and are on the second book still. Some nights she really doesn’t want to…some nights I can get her to. BUT, even with all that…at her preschool graduation they give a little speech about each kid and they say what they child has said they want to be when they grow up. Every other girl in that class said they wanted to be a ballerina or a princess. My daughter said she wanted to be a farmer and raise wheat. So….some of its sticking! 😉

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