Active learning: “multi-tasking” when you read to children

I’ve been reading lately about ways to enhance learning for college students at The Foundation Coalition:  <>.  This has relevance for all learners. The research shows that students learn more when they’re engaged in multiple learning activities.  And how much we tend to remember is linked to levels of involvement. The lowest levels of learning occur with reading only and low engagement ─ the highest with what we say and do.  The research rates the effectiveness of learning from lowest levels to highest:

  • what we read (we tend to remember 10% of what we READ)
  • what we hear (we tend to remember  20% of what we HEAR)
  • looking at pictures (we tend to remember 30% of what we SEE)
  • watching a movie (we tend to remember 50% of what we HEAR AND SEE)
  • looking at an exhibit (we tend to remember 50% of what we HEAR AND SEE)
  • watching a demonstration (we tend to remember 50% of what we HEAR AND SEE)
  • seeing it done on location (we tend to remember 50% of what we HEAR AND SEE)
  • participating in a discussion (we tend to remember 70% of what we SAY)
  • giving a  talk (we tend to remember 70% of what we SAY)
  • doing a dramatic presentation (we tend to remember 90% of what we SAY AND DO)
  • simulating real experience (we tend to remember 90% of what we SAY AND DO)
  • doing the real thing (we tend to remember 90% of what we SAY AND DO)

This ladder of learning underscores the importance of incorporating active learning into learning activities for all our students, whether college-level or toddlers. Active learning is an important instructional approach teachers use, in which students engage the material they study through talking and listening, writing, reading, and reflecting. These are the four basic activities through which all students learn, and specific active learning strategies use one or more of these elements (Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Minnesota, <>).

  • Talking and listeningWhen the learner talks about a topic, they organize and reinforce what they’ve learned. In meaningful listening, the learner relates what they hear to what they already know.
  • Writing: Like talking and active listening, writing provides a means for learners to process new information in their own words.
  • Reading:  Through reading, learners receive and process information.
  • Reflecting:  Learners reflect to connect what they’ve learned with what they already know, or to use the knowledge they’ve gained. Pausing to think, use new knowledge to teach others or to answer questions increases learning retention.

What seems like the simple act of reading to your children – reading a story with lots of great pictures, taking some time to ask them questions and ask them what they think about the story can all enhance their learning.  I think this is active learning at its best.

Storytelling and sightseeing have a lot in common …

The time will come when you’re stuck with your child without a book, a magazine, toys or anything electronic with games on it for diversions. I know that seems unlikely. Maybe you’re in a car travelling for hours.  Maybe you have multiple children, let’s say three. And they’re lined up in the back seat hitting each other, name-calling, or looking for other ways to irritate each other out of boredom.

This is the time for storytelling. Growing up in our family, this is the time for mom’s announcement that it’s time for the “liar’s club.”

Dad is driving. Mom is in the navigator seat, optimistic that she can capture the attention of the three of us.  The ground rules are, make up a story, telling the biggest lies you can come up with. This is story telling at its best since there are no rules. We’re usually driving between Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio – a few hours to play the liar’s club.

It’s my turn. I’m telling stories about bears, dragons or other large animals ─ the bigger the better because  invariably these large animals are going to have to defecate all over the forest or castle or other location of choice on their way to and from important missions. The more defecating throughout the story, of course, the better for the amusement of me and my siblings.

Today I cannot remember the stories of my siblings ─ only the rapture of my stories. And mom advising us that this is getting out of hand ─ “wrap it up.”

Years later mom and I are driving from Eugene to Winston, Oregon, to take Noah at six years old to Wildlife Safari. It’s a drive-through animal park situated within a picturesque valley surrounded by verdant hills. I’m driving the car slowly through the park so we can look out the window to spot animals among what looks like open plains ─ but really are carefully separated, fenced sections of the park that host a range of wild cats, antelopes, giraffe, rhinos, monkeys, birds, and elephants. After we’ve driven through the park, we decide to head to the bathroom, restaurant, and gift shop. And then see some animal shows. It’s a hot afternoon, in the 90s.

There’s a sign ahead for elephant rides. Noah runs for the landing strip – a raised stairway to climb on board one of the very tall elephants offering rides around a small dusty ring.  There’s a padded chair/seat on top of the elephant. A park guide dressed in safari brown shirt and shorts leads the elephants around the ring for the five-minute ride.  Noah climbs on board and they start the lumbering walk around the ring.  I’m taking pictures and see through the viewfinder that Noah is craning his face around, looking like he’s going to fall out of the chair off this very tall elephant. We can’t hear his voice but know he’s protesting something about the ride. We don’t know if he’s fearful being up so high, so we’re shouting out, “you’re fine, stay in the chair!  He continues to crane his head around, leaning crazily to the side of the chair.

Thankfully the ride is over. Noah is upset when he jumps off the elephant to the stairway landing.  “What’s the matter?” we say.  “Were you afraid to be up so high?”  He has already quickly positioned himself at the edge of the platform to watch one of the elephants carrying another child on its back.  “Look,” he exclaims. One of the elephants is peeing a magnificent, lengthy stream of liquid, creating a huge puddle in the ground. Dirt is impressively flying and flies are fluttering in the firehose of fluids. Another elephant is bombing the ground with impressive turds nearby. This is chiefly Noah’s interest in the elephant rides, it turns out, and he’s upset he missed so much of the action during his own ride.

I took this to heart, this parental lesson.  Learn what your children are most interested in. Then plan your storytelling (especially reading sessions) and sightseeing accordingly.

Kathy Temean’s interview with Jon Stommel, Z House Stories illustrator

Check out Kathy Temean’s excellent interview with Jon Stommel, illustrator for the Z House Stories. The art work examples are great and this interview helps you appreciate what goes into producing both murals and book illustrations.  “Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information About Writing and Illustrating for Children”

Six foundational skills to prepare good readers

A great resource guide* produced at the Carmel Clay Public Library defines early literacy as “what children know about reading and writing before they can actually read and write.”  The guide describes six foundational skills children have to become good at to become good readers.  For children that don’t master these skills, the stakes are high: “Children who lack these critical skills often struggle in school and have difficulty becoming good readers.”

Here are the six:

  1. PRINT MOTIVATION:  The amount of interest a child has in reading and books.
  2. VOCABULARY:  Knowing the names of things.
  3. PRINT AWARENESS:  Understanding how books work (in English, books are read from top to bottom, left to right, and they have a beginning and an end).
  4. NARRATIVE SKILLS: A child’s ability to retell stories, understand the meaning of what’s being read, and put in order the events that happen in a story.
  5. PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS: A child’s ability to hear the sounds in words, identify rhyming sounds, and recognize that words are made up of many individual sounds.  
  6. LETTTER KNOWLEDGE:  A child’s ability to identify the letters in the alphabet and recognize that they each have a different sound and name.

Think about these fundamentals.  And start reading to children when they’re infants, to help them develop these six skills. You’ll be laying the groundwork for future good readers!


* “Born to Read: Resource Guide for Parents of Infants and Toddlers,” Carmel Clay Public Library, Carmel, Indiana.