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.
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