• by José L. Rodríguez • IDRA Newsletter • February 2003

Jose L. RodriguezWhen an infant shows excitement over pictures in a storybook, when a two-year old scribbles with a crayon, and when a four-year old points out letters on a street sign – they are signaling their growing literacy development. But a devastatingly large number of people in the United States cannot read as they need to for success in life.

A few weeks ago, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) was working with a group of middle school students who are part of the IDRA
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. The session was based on children’s literature. The goal was to teach the tutors how to read to their pre-kindergarten and kindergarten tutees.
Before the lesson, the middle school students were asked to raise their hands if they liked to read. Out of 20 students only five raised their hands. Those five students said they like to read everything from poetry to non-fiction.

The majority of those who did not raise their hands said that reading is boring. They felt forced to read their books in order to complete assignments. These students stated that they liked to read when they were younger, but all that changed for them as they got older and the reading became more complicated.

This article, will describe how to use literature and storytelling to activate prior knowledge and stimulate curiosity and ultimately help students begin to think critically. The reading strategies outlined are drawn from IDRA’s Project FLAIR (Focusing on Language and Academic Instructional Renewal).

Making Reading Meaningful

When students’ prior knowledge is activated and their curiosity is stimulated, they begin to make positive associations to reading. When students can make connections between what is being read and real life situations, they begin to think critically. It is only when students take ownership of what is being read that they develop a love for reading. Reading is then meaningful to them.

In many instances students are presented with a book or a story without any pre-reading activities. Students do not know what it is that they are looking or listening for, and they soon become bored and disengaged in a lesson.

This disengagement leads to discipline problems. Through the negative responses from the teacher, students are turned off to reading. They associate reading with boredom and the negative experience. A love for literacy can develop only through positive experiences (Burns, Griffin and Snow, 1999).

Pre-Reading Strategies

IDRA’s Project FLAIR is a professional development program created to transform the way we teach all learners, including those who are linguistically diverse. FLAIR adapts itself to the reading materials already in the school while encouraging teachers to explore the rich diversity of children’s literature available to them. It is a philosophy of valuing students and teachers and an approach to encouraging them to think for themselves as they teach and learn.

The instructional approaches modeled in IDRA’s training and technical assistance activities for FLAIR stress all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), not just reading. They help schools create integrated language arts programs that use a comprehensive literacy approach and that build on the strengths of diverse learners.

The use of the FLAIR strategies gives students ownership of the literature they are reading. Many of the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students IDRA has worked with demonstrate a love for reading after the lesson has been taught. The students often request more lessons and seldom forget the previous ones.

When using a FLAIR lesson in the early childhood classroom, students are constantly moving from one task to another never allowing for disengagement from the lesson. Students are encouraged to discuss and express their opinions, allowing for oral language development.

Research reveals that the children most at risk for reading difficulties in the primary grades are those who began school with less verbal skills, less phonological awareness, less letter knowledge, and less familiarity with basic purposes and mechanisms of reading (Burns, Griffin and Snow, 1999).

During the lessons, before a story is introduced, the teacher, poses pre-reading questions to the students. Students are then paired with a partner and asked what they think about the questions. They are given an opportunity to share their responses and engage in dialogue.

From all of the dialogue, students are grouped in teams of four and are asked to draw a group picture (prediction) of what they think the story is going to be about. The students share their pictures with the rest of the class, and the pictures are posted on the wall.

As the teacher introduces the book, he or she shows the students the book cover and points out the title, the author, and the illustrator. After the children have heard the title and seen the picture on the cover they are asked to compare the illustration on the book with their illustrations. The key questions must lead the students to a prediction. Most of the time, the students are very close to predicting what the book will be about based on the questions and their group drawings.

This pre-reading activity makes the children feel successful and leaves them with the desire to continue listening to the story. The pre-reading activities stimulate their curiosity. The children want to find out for themselves if their group predictions are right, which most of the time are.

Reading the Story

The first reading should be done without stopping so that the students can appreciate the story uninterrupted. Once the students have listened to the story for the first time, they are ready to process the story. The children are then asked to discuss with their partner what they noticed about the characters in the story. This allows students to share their observations of the story. The students share with the group as the teacher writes their responses on a large piece of paper.

The students then are asked if there is anything they wonder about. The children may wonder for example why a particular character acted in a certain manner or why certain events happen in the manner that they do. The children then make connections to real life. They may relate to a particular character in the story. The story may also remind the children of other literature they have heard.

The children are then asked to think about why the author wrote such a story. What is the lesson being taught through this story? How would the ending of the story change if certain aspects were to be changed?

Follow-Up Application

After a long discussion, the students still want more of the literature, and it is at this time where the story can be extended to other areas of study. In early childhood, the story can easily extend into the arts. Introducing a song that might be related to the literature can help reinforce the concepts being taught. The children might want to draw a poster about the book and display it in the hallway or in the library. When children can draw a picture of what they have listened to, they are demonstrating comprehension skills.

It is interesting to watch and listen to the children retell the story in their own words. The students learn the process of summarization through recounting the story while leafing through the book. Even though the children are not really reading, they are pretending to read. They are imitating what they have seen modeled by the teacher. Children who pretend to read at this early age are more likely to become successful readers later (Burns, Griffin and Snow, 1999).

Stimulating Interest in Reading

The middle school IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program students who stated that they felt forced to read their books in order to complete assignments are perhaps not being motivated to read. They do not see the purpose for reading and therefore do not know what it is they are looking for. Their curiosity is not being stimulated and thus, they find it meaningless to read. In order to better prepare our children for school and instill in them a love for reading and learning, appropriate and culturally diverse literature must be presented early on.

Recently, a babysitter was asked to watch a three-year-old girl for a few hours. The sitter arrived at the home expecting to sit and watch television and play games, but instead was treated to two hours of reading and playing house.

The three-year-old decided she would go to her room and did not want to be followed. The sitter told her she could go to her room but she had to leave the door open. After hearing a thump, the sitter went to investigate. The little girl said she was reading and had dropped some of her books. The sitter then asked her if she would read aloud.

The little girl was so excited she jumped off her small rocking chair, came to the living room and asked the sitter to sit in the couch. The little girl sat close so that the sitter could see the pictures as she read. She first showed the book cover and read the title of the book. She carefully turned each page after she recited the words, which she has heard over and over. As she read each page, her small index finger pointed to the words. After she finished reading the book, the sitter asked the little girl where she had learned to read so well, and she said, “My daddy reads to me.”

This young reader was demonstrating how someone special in her life has modeled reading. At three years old she is demonstrating that children who pretend to read at this early age are more likely to become successful readers later (Burns, Griffin, Snow, 1999). Again it is the positive experiences that children have that determine whether or not they will become successful readers.


Bauer, H. “Do We Lose Ourselves When We Lose Our Language? Why Care About Language Recapture,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2000).

Burns, S.M., and P. Griffin, C.E. Snow. Staring Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999).

García, J.C. “Transforming Teachers with FLAIR,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2001).

López del Bosque, L., and H. Bauer, J.C. García. “Project FLAIR: Working Together for a Better Learning Environment,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 1999).

Note: The IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is an internationally-recognized cross-age tutoring program in schools across the United States and Brazil. Since its inception in San Antonio in 1984 until 2002, the program kept more than 11,500 students in school, young people who were previously at risk of dropping out. In this program, secondary students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school are placed as tutors of elementary students, enabling the older students to make a difference in the younger students’ lives. Funded in part by The Coca-Cola Foundation, the program has made a visible difference in the lives of more than 136,000 children, families and educators. For more information, contact Linda Cantu at IDRA (210-444-1710) or visit the IDRA web site (www.idra.org). Information about IDRA’s Project FLAIR is also available online or by contacting Rogelio López del Bosque at IDRA.

José L. Rodríguez, is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]