So, what’d you think of the book?
Did you like the book?
What did you like about it?
It was good.
For a lot of parents, that’s pretty much standard fare when it comes to talking about books with young readers. All you want is insight into their little brains — what’s catching their interest, what’s sparking their imagination, how they feel, what they think. And what you get, at best, is monosyllabic meaninglessness.
It can be super frustrating — even more so when you consider just how profound talking about the books we read can be.
Our youngest aren’t just learning about characters or stories, but about language and social communication itself. “‘It’s being talked with, not being talked at,’ that teaches children language” [emphasis mine]. That’s a quote from a New York Times article about whether eBooks count as screen time or reading — an issue I’ll leave for another day. In an EdWeek blog, Justin Reich, co-founder of EdTech Teacher, cited that story and added, “Part of the value of reading is in the conversations that emerge naturally, questions about words, pictures, and the connections to a child’s everyday life.”
What happens, then, if that natural conversation grows stilted?
You just need a few tricks up your sleeve. Here are some easy conversation starters for every age and stage of reader.
TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS
Talking about books with little kids usually goes pretty well — they’re easily engaged, especially if you do all the voices. Still, it’s important to establish the habit.
1. Point and ask. Toddlers are unabashed know-it-alls. Stop mid-story and ask them to name objects and colors. If they’re old enough, they can count. “How many flowers?” It may seem distracting — and yes, it will drag out storytime — but it’s vital for language development.
2. Make a prediction. At this age, you can simply ask, “What happens next?” They’ve undoubtedly heard the story enough times to know, and repetition won’t bother a 3-year-old. This is the basis of story arc.
3. Pause — and let them fill the silence. With Goodnight Moon, for example, just say, “three little bears / sitting in…” and your little one will undoubtedly say “Chairs!” This works especially well with rhyming books.
4. Make real-life connections. This trick is in the back pocket of every teacher worth his or her salt — and there’s no reason you can’t use it, too. If you’re reading Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny for the umpteenth time, you can say, “Trixie has blonde hair. What color is your hair?” “Trixie’s lovey is called Knuffle Bunny. What is your lovey called?” If the dragons love tacos, what kind of food do little 4-year-old girls love? Who else loves tacos?
5. Keep the story going. I learned this one from PBS Parents. Bring book characters into playtime. Really, it’s as simple as, “You be George; I’ll be the Man in the Yellow Hat.” And then see what happens. This kind of creative play helps children work over all the elements of storytelling — and you’ll get a nice glimpse at how their minds work, what details they think are important, and when they might go rogue.
Once kiddos begin reading on their own or getting into chapters books, things finally get interesting — and, for some, rather quiet. For a lot of kids, reading is private. This is when to start honing your power to draw your child out.
6. Discuss difficult words. If your child is reading to you, it’s easy to stop and talk about words that are above their pay grade. Bring in the dictionary. Talk about words you are confused about, too — it makes it okay for her to not know.
7. Make the questions personal. At this stage, it’s time to move beyond basic plot-based questions like, “What do you think happens next?” You can invite them to engage a little more personally with the book, to see themselves in a situation. “What would you have done differently?” Explore how their motivations may be different from what’s on the page.
8. Compare and contrast. Early readers love book series, and series easily lend themselves to comparison. How was this book different from the last one you read?
9. Avoid the book report questions. There are many well-meaning lists of questions to ask young readers, with totally reasonable inquiries like, “What was the most exciting part?” “What was the saddest part” and “Were you surprised by anything? Why?” But your kiddo gets a lot of this at school. If what you want is a true dialogue with your child, where you understand their point of view and help them see yours, the questions should go deeper and be more intimate.
10. Make connections to the real world. As the books they read become more complex, you can discuss more complex ideas — even tough concepts like death or prejudice. This is when the conversations get really interesting, and fun.
11. Just riff. Especially if you’re reading aloud or reading together, conversation is easy. The unplanned, stream-of-consciousness discussions are the most authentic and most likely to be engaging.
MIDDLE SCHOOLERS AND BEYOND
Kids this age are reading independently and choosing their own books, so you may have to do some legwork.
12. Read what they read. Even if you aren’t reading aloud or side by side, you can stay on top of what they’re thinking about by putting your nose in the same book — whether it’s comics, fantasy, or YA. You can’t offer insight or critique if you haven’t cracked the spine.
13. Stay authentic. The best conversations are knit together by the interests and points of view you share with your child — and where you differ. Share opinions, but as my daughter says, “Don’t yuck my yum.” In other words…
14. Don’t judge. Your child is developing his own worldview, trying on personas and values that didn’t necessarily spring up underneath your roof. That’s important — and good. Don’t squelch an opportunity to engage by dismissing your child’s take on a book or character as wrong or bad. You’re missing out on an opportunity to see how she or he ticks.
15. You be you — a reader. Bring your passion for books to the table, and let them learn by watching what you do. Read voraciously. Talk about the people, places, and things in your books. Be engaged — and you’ll engage them.
Help make reading time an enjoyable experience for all involved. See 6 Tips to Make Reading Fun, Not Frustrating.