Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way. This entry deals with the concept of visualizing language.
Being able to transform a series of words into visual images is a critical skill a person must master if they are to become strong, lifelong readers.
We live in a society where a majority of the entertainment available for pre readers does not involve any active visualization on the part of the participant. Video games which used to be crude affairs, can be as lifelike or perhaps even more lifelike than real life! Things move in ultra slow motion or have 'epic' detailed scenes that send the watcher over the moon. What these scenes do not do is force the participant to come up with their own images. With the advent of television, hand held devices, computers, notebooks and the rest of our visual entertainment, most people do not have the opportunity to develop or practice the art of visualization.
The skill of being able to look at a string of words or even hear a string of words and convert them into images is something that most children will do only if they have to. Example: If you have ever tried to read a picture book to a group of kids and you neglect to show them the picture before you turn the page, you know that a small rebellion will break out in the room. "You didn't show us the picture!" The students are listening to you speak, but many aren't bothering to visualize. They are waiting for you to show them what they are supposed to see. If you ask a group of children to draw you pictures of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, you are likely to get a large number of Disney-esque looking pictures or images from some book or movie they've seen.
Why is this so important? Well, there is something that happens at the end of third grade that causes headaches for students who have learned how to sound out words and say simple sentences but never learned to visualize; they get to fourth grade and discover they cannot read. Andrew Biemiller calls this the fourth grade slump. The reason why this occurs is because between third and fourth grade students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. They are expected to go from the simple mechanics of reading to the much more complex skill of comprehension and some of them do not have all of the pieces in place to tackle this new process.
For many people, comprehension is a skill that seems to weave itself seamlessly into the process of reading. For others, this plank of reading is mystifying and must be taken apart piece by piece until the student can figure out what doesn't quite work. Sometimes a student learns to fake it and nobody is aware of their reading problems until they are in fifth or sixth grade or higher. That's when things really get difficult.
You know you have a student who doesn't visualize well when they have trouble decoding simple sentences. Just because a student can read a sentence doesn't mean they have any idea what they just read. By the same token, just because a student doesn't like to read doesn't mean they can't visualize. Sometimes a student says they don't like to read, but they are happy to read sports magazines. If they are big sports fans, it may be much easier for them to visualize something going on during a football game or concerning their favorite athlete than the blossoming of the cherry trees at the capitol.
What does storytelling have to do with any of this? Storytelling is an amazing way to get students to begin to do their own visualizing about a wide variety of topics. The storyteller does not provide very many visual clues. Their tales are all about language and images. Building images with words is the very exercise that a brain needs as it begins to puzzle out how to build images when it is confronted by text. Removing the mechanics of working out sounds allows the brain to focus on the dynamics of the language and the images being presented. Students who read well or enjoy reading, talk about seeing a movie in their minds when they read. That is what reading is supposed to do. This is why the movie is never as good as the book for most readers. This is why, for many people, they still see different images even after watching a movie. The Hermione in my Harry Potter books does not look like Emma Watson. It is nothing personal, I just see someone else.
Pre Reading stories tend to be simple tales that have very simple, visual language that is repetitive and easy to learn. The characters are larger than life and often very exaggerated. They fall into he realm of the folk and fairytale size creatures and they have extreme personalities. The characters are fun, over the top in some cases, and very, very silly lots of the time. I love it when first graders smack their foreheads in disbelief at the folly of the characters in the story.
I am often told that the teachers and adults have as much fun looking around the audience at the kids as they do watching the storyteller. I understand, I enjoy looking at the kids in the audience as well! Watching them see the events unfolding in front of them is always a great deal of fun.
I leave this entry with a small event that happened some years ago. I presented a show at a school in Evanston, Il. It is called The Squeaky Door. It is a silly story in which a boy is afraid of the sound a squeaky door makes and he screams. His grandmother offers to put animals in his bed so he won't be frightened. First she brings in a cat, then the dog, then a goat, then a horse and, depending on how the audience is reacting, a cow. In the end, the bed breaks, grandmother puts the animals back where they belong, and then she goes next door to get the carpenter to come and fix the bed. I performed this story for a K - 5 audience and we all had a hilarious time. When the show was over, I had a workshop with the teachers where I was talking about visualization. One of them stopped me and told me she thought it was hilarious the way I ran all over the stage gathering all of the animals. I stared at her. I don't move around the stage when I perform. I stand in one place with a mic standing in front of me. I told her I hadn't moved. She didn't believe me. In fact, none of the teachers believed me. I pointed out that the mic was on a stand and that I would have had to drag it around the stage if I'd moved. They stared at me, unwilling to believe that what they were certain they saw didn't actually happen.
Storytelling can transport a listener and give them images and ideas. They are an effective tool to enhancing visualization, a key element in developing good listening and comprehension skills.