Jill Bennett on an invaluable classroom asset
As teachers of young children, we know there are many ways in which big books can enhance our work in helping them develop as readers. They are marvellous aids for modelling various aspects of the reading process and for drawing attention to conventions of printed language in a context where that is appropriate and meaningful, and – most importantly – the teacher can focus on both the literacy and the literary aspects of the story.
When sharing a big book with a class or group you can run a finger along the words demonstrating how it is read from left to right and from top to bottom. This can help to make the link between the spoken word and its written form. We can also draw attention to specific features of punctuation, to speech bubbles, individual words, letters and so on … after the initial reading, of course. For we must remember not to lose sight of what Madeleine Lindley so rightly says in her leaflet listing the books she stocks: ‘Shared reading aims to make stories … a source of delight.’
Another important point is that big books do make it possible for more children to fully engage, and interact, with the story. For instance, by being able to see the pictures clearly, second language learners can construct their own meanings without necessarily understanding all the words, and can thus participate in a shared reading experience. The latter is particularly important for their self-esteem as it is for less confident readers, since the group aspect provides security and support for them when working on reading the text together.
Clearly the big books we use must be such that they can bear reading many times. When children have become familiar with a particular story it’s then possible to focus on its structure, its forms of language – i.e. the particular way it is told. Thereby you can share and discuss a text as an example of a particular genre, something four- and five-year-olds are quite capable of doing as will be seen later.
All these points draw attention to the communal aspects of reading and story, reading as a sharing together linking it with the oral tradition which is vital if the aim of creating a community of readers and writers is to be fulfilled.
So what about the children’s point of view; how do they see big books? The title for this article was a comment made by one of my five-year-olds after she and a friend had spent some 15 minutes lying flat on the carpet, completely absorbed in reading and discussing the story, Where’s My Teddy?. ‘What is it about big books you like so much?’ I asked. ‘Well, they help you get right into the story,’ was the response. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to further the discussion at that time as the children had to go for lunch, but I followed it up in a circle time discussion after we’d shared another big book. Here are just a few of the children’s responses to the question, ‘What makes big books special?’
‘They’re so big like you can really be part of the story.’ (Simon)
‘It’s easy to read the thinking bubbles.’ (Emily)
‘It makes me feel like I’m one of the characters in the book.’ (Amy)
‘I can lie on the door and share it with my friends.’ (Serena)
‘So everyone can share it better.’ (Lauren)
‘We can all see it better.’
‘What can you see better?’
‘Well, um, the faces really well.’
‘Yes, can you give us an example?’
‘Um, in the cave that girl is really scared holding on to the dad and so is the dog.’ (Ruth)
Ruth is referring to the book we’d just read, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
‘Yeah, and I’m in the cave too and the bear’s coming ahhhhhhhh!’ (Rajvinder)
The last two comments also highlight the fact that in a big edition, a book’s strengths seem to be enhanced by its presentation in that particular form.
Yet comparatively few favourite books are published in this enlarged form which clearly has so much to offer to everyone. It’s marvellous, therefore, to have the new Walker Big Books which are all real winners. In addition to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (which, incidentally, I’ve had to replace as it’s been read to pieces) there are six other excellent titles, Where’s My Teddy?, This is the Bear, The Pig in the Pond, Farmer Duck, and I Love Animals (also now available as a wallchart, offering one more way of making the text accessible) and another title which has self-destructed due to its being in constant use, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?
The latter inspired a number of children (who’d been in school for less than a term) to write letters to Little Bear. Here are some examples:
dear Little Bear
Udot need A grOnup TO Hlp in the nit. Its FUL ov strz. EMiLy.
Dear Li Bear
you dent neeb a gRon up or a Lamp in thedark frm RACHEL
Dea lilttle Bear
sleep niecley Love you lots xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Serena
Dear little Bear
I hop u do not need Any body to look after u love Amy XXXXXXX
Dear Little Bear
yuo dnt be scardofthe drk. therez no need. Drkis fun.Lov from Ruth
These they read to Little Bear (a soft toy) after making a display of the book and various artefacts. Clearly I can’t say for certain that it was the big book in itself and not the marvellous story which made the children respond as they did, but it was the large version (rather than the ordinary one, also available to them) which they incorporated into their play then and subsequently.
Another series which has much to offer is ‘Big Multicultural Tales’. At present this comprises four titles: Little Masha and Misha the Bear, a Russian folktale; The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, a quest tale set in ancient China; and a Pueblo Indian pourquoi tale, Coyote and the Butterflies, together with another pourquoi tale (from Kenya this time), The Crocodile and the Ostrich.
These last two in particular, which are so clearly from the oral tradition, have been superb for promoting interactive story reading and for focused discussion on their particular genre, i.e. pourquoi tales.
Shortly afterwards a group of five children came together to make up their own tale about the giraffe getting its long neck. Two things are interesting about this: firstly that such a large number of young children were able to work together collaboratively – again there seems to be a link with the shared, communal nature of big book reading – and secondly that the children had taken on and were using the particular language of the genre modelled in the books we’d read together. Their story began:
‘One day in the dark steamy jungle when giraffes still had short necks and tortoises didn’t have hard shells …’
I understand from Scholastic Publications, who are responsible for bringing ‘Big Multicultural Tales’ to us from their American parent company, that they’re part of a series not sold in bookshops but available by mail order. Similarly in the UK teachers will have to order these books through Scholastic; let’s hope they’ll soon be able to offer many more such high quality big books (which also have a world map on the back cover and a glossary explaining some of the unusual words from the story) in the future.
With one or two notable exceptions it does seem to be the American publishers (at least where trade book titles are concerned) who have recognised and are fulfilling the need and demand for quality big books. Whenever I visit the States I make a point of looking for them and have been able to find some excellent titles in specialist bookshops there. These include Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Don’t Forget the Bacon, a superbly presented Indian folk tale The Little Brown Jay, and the only one of the Mondo’s Folk Tales series I could track down, The Cow that Went Oink – a splendid, funny tale about co-operation and sharing, along with Sue Williams’ I Went Walking, a book which in its ordinary version has long been popular with various classes I’ve known. I recently discovered the last two titles can now be purchased in this country through Madeleine Lindley Ltd, a specialist bookseller who makes it her business to help teachers bring the best in children’s books to their pupils. Indeed, Madeleine’s list of big books includes 18 titles from the USA which are available exclusively through her organisation, among which I’m delighted to find Rosie’s Walk, Peter’s Chair, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? and A Dark Dark Tale, all of which are indispensable in an infant classroom.
Another find I was recently thrilled to make was on the Willesden Bookshop’s stand at the Barnet Multicultural Resources Exhibition. There I immediately seized Gerald McDermott’s trickster tale from West Africa, Zomo the Rabbit, which had already become a firm favourite in its smaller form (also bought in the USA) with my class. The big book version is again an American import from Harcourt Brace, so here too is another bookseller doing his best to widen the range of quality big books available in the UK.
The other way many big books can be purchased by teachers is through the publishers of reading schemes and programmes. Kingscourt Publishing’s ‘Literacy Links’ have some outstanding titles on their list including Why Flies Buzz, Why Frog and Snake Can’t Be Friends and the brilliant multicultural poetry book, Catch Me the Moon, Daddy. Recently my children and I have looked at some big books from ‘Cambridge Reading’, part of a newly published scheme. One of these is a nursery rhyme collection, The Cambridge Big Book of Nursery Rhymes, which was very well received – despite its rather boring title. It has an excellently clear contents page listing the 15 rhymes included, and the children were able to make good use of it to find some of their favourites. Others in the series are two back-to-back books – two stories between a single cover by different authors and illustrators. One pairing, Walking in the Jungle and A Very Hot Day (each eight pages long), has become very popular. Though neither these nor other titles are of the same literary quality as the books previously mentioned, which were written purely for their own sake and then magnified, they do stand up to numerous readings and offer all the other advantages of big books as a shared experience.
Jill Bennett is currently teaching at an infant school in Hounslow, Middlesex. She’s also the author of Learning to Read with Picture Books and has compiled some 25 poetry anthologies.
Where’s My Teddy?, Jez Alborough, 0 7445 3620 0
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen, ill. Helen Oxenbury, 0 7445 4781 4
This is the Bear, Sarah Hayes, 0 7445 3621 9
The Pig in the Pond, Martin Waddell, ill. Jill Barton, 0 7445 4391 6
Farmer Duck, Martin Waddell, ill. Helen Oxenbury, 0 7445 4779 2
I Love Animals, Flora McDonnell, 0 7445 4392 4
Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?, Martin Waddell, ill. Barbara Firth, 0 7445 3691 X, Walker Books, £10.99 each
Little Masha and Misha the Bear
The Most Beautiful Thing in the World
Coyote and the Butterflies
The Crocodile and the Ostrich
Big Folk Tales from Around the World, distributed by Scholastic, mail order only, £9.99 each
The Cow that Went Oink, Bernard Most
I Went Walking, Sue Williams
Rosie’s Walk, Pat Hutchins
Peter’s Chair, Ezra Jack Keats
Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Bill Martin Jr
A Dark Dark Tale, Ruth Brown
£14.99 each, available from Madeleine Lindley Ltd (see advertisement on this page)
Zomo the Rabbit, Gerald McDermott, £15.99, available from the Willesden Bookshop (tel: 0181 451 7000)
Why Flies Buzz, 08015
Why Frog and Snake Can’t Be Friends, 07015
Catch Me the Moon, Daddy, 08025
Kingscourt, to order use quoted catalogue numbers either direct from the publisher or via a bookseller
The Cambridge Big Book of Nursery Rhymes, £14.50
Walking in the Jungle/A Very Hot Day, £9.95
both part of Cambridge Reading, for more information phone 01223 325014