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The Importance of Chapter Books in Children's Literacy

Also see this post on picture books by Kenni Smith.

I have a confession to make. When it comes to children’s literature, I like chapter books more than picture books. I feel much better now. I needed to get that off my chest. I felt dirty hiding it from you all.

I was reminded of this recently when I was reading with my own daughter. At the end of each evening, just before bed, my daughter, Karina, my wife, Nina, and I huddle together and take turns reading aloud. She is now old enough for us to read the books that I loved reading with my students. Over the weekend we finished Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. (If you have not read this book you need to—today.) Right now we are reading Roald Dahl’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We all love the story—that does not surprise me. What surprises me is Karina’s reaction to the process and the thinking she does as the book progresses.

On Tuesday we came to the part of the book where children around the world are beginning to find Wonka’s golden tickets. It was Charlie’s birthday, his family all chipped in to give him a Wonka bar to see if he too would find a ticket. As we read, Karina was clearly becoming more excited. She pulled on my arm, she kept sticking her head in front of Nina (whose turn it was to read). She was trying to read ahead to see if she could discover if he got the ticket or not. Then at the climactic scene of that chapter when we discovered that Charlie’s chocolate bar did not have the golden ticket, Karina was distraught.

“The title of the book is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” she shouted indignantly. “He had to get that ticket, it just does not make sense.” We stopped reading for the night so she could go to bed. (Which of course she was overjoyed to do—displaying a bit of her own interpretation of Veruca Salt.) We talked a bit about the story and finally coaxed her into bed. The next morning as I was making Karina breakfast, she started talking about the book.

“You know daddy,” she said, “he’s got to find that ticket.”

“Huh?” I said in a groggy, pre-coffee voice. “Why in the world do you think that?”

“I mean,” she replied, “What’s the point of writing the book if he does not find the ticket? I just wonder how it will happen. Charlie’s family does not have money to go and buy more chocolate for him. But he’s got to find that ticket. What is he going to do?”

This reminds me of the critical role that reading longer books plays in children’s literacy. Over the days we have been reading this book, Karina has been developing her own very particular line of thought about the book. Each chapter tests that theory and adds to or changes it. She knows because of the buildup of the first few chapters, the title, and her experience with other texts that Charlie will somehow find the ticket. What I find important and interesting is how the story lingers in her mind in between readings. As a parent, it is a fantastic way to bring my family closer together at the end of each day. As a teacher, I know that this is critical skill my students need to develop.

The challenge, of course, is to find time in our already too-full days to linger over books together. “Lingering over texts” does not appear often in our state standards. Nor does crying together over the death of a character we have come to know and love over weeks of reading like when my fourth graders read The Bridge to Terabithia. Buy the crying, lingering, giggling, and huddling together over books forms the garden where our ideas grow.

We have to take the time.

(Originally published in 2010.)

Peter Brunn is the vice president of organizational learning and communications at Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC). Previously at CCC, he was the director of professional development, director of staff development, the assistant director of CCC’s Reading Project, and a staff developer. Before coming to CCC, Peter was a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and worked in New York City public schools helping teachers implement reading and writing workshops in their classrooms. Peter received his master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University, and his undergraduate degree in history from Marquette University. Peter is also the author of The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning, published by Scholastic. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pdbrunn.

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Comments (12)

Great post, Peter.  Thank you

Great post, Peter.  Thank you for sharing.  I love when that lightbulb goes on and they make that leap from picture books to chapter books in their independent reading too.  Sometime in 2nd grade, usually, when they read their first "Magic Treehouse" or "Cam Jansen Mystery" and finish it completely on their own!  What a ride.  :)  Sounds like your daughter is super blessed.  Don't you wish all of our students could spend their evenings/bedtimes that way?  

I so agree with you, Peter! 

I so agree with you, Peter!  My son had the wonderful good fortune to be 7 years old when the first Harry Potter book came out, and 17 when the last one appeared. I read every word of every book out loud to Eric, and we enjoyed it no less when he was a high school Senior than when he was a second grader.

Each chapter ended in a way that we either 1) took a few minutes trying to figure out what would be happening when we opened the book next, or (and most often), 2) HAVING  to continue reading because we couldn't wait!  The conversations, the predicting, and the time we spent loving books will remain some of the most cherished memories of my life, and I hope, of my son's as well.


Loved your post, Peter. I

Loved your post, Peter. I still remeber the books I read aloud to my 2nd & 3rd graders, and I hope they do, too--Charlotte's Web, Pippi Longstockings, My Father's Dragon, No Flying in the House, From the Mixed Up Files..., and many more. I only regret that as a parent, I didn't realize how important it is to continue reading aloud to your children long after they can read independently, as Robin's post so convincingly points out.

What I love most is your

What I love most is your description of your daughter's anticipation (and anxiety) about what would happen next! We talk a lot about kids needing instant gratification and how, even as adults, we expect spontaneous resolution to complex social problems (preferably in 30 minutes or less and with no more than 3 commercial interuptions). What a great way to remind us all of the importace of the "cliffhanger" and how reading chapter-by-chapter teaches kids (and us) that patience has a payoff - that Charlie WILL get his ticket, but not before we've had some time to wrestle with his problem, empathize with his plight, consider possible solutions, and fear for Charlie's future--all the while knowing that it certainly must work out, because there'd be no point to a book that never lets Charlie make it to the chocolate factory. Very nice.

I love that you and Nina

I love that you and Nina still make reading aloud to Karina a priority even though you know she's a great independent reader. I think that parents and teachers tend to think that once their children are reading on their own, that reading aloud to them becomes less important or not needed at all.

I'm currently reading Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook and he is a huge advocate of reading aloud to children from birth well into the teenage years. In the book he includes many stories of how reading aloud to children of all ages instills a life-long love of books and learning. In a country where the occurrence of reading aloud for pleasure drops dramatically during a child's school life (Trelease sites the National Reading Report Card which reports that by fourth grade only 54% of students read anything for pleasure daily and by twelfth grade, it drops to 19%) it seems that spending time with our children, reading high-quality literature, having discussions, and nurturing thinking is a great way to invest our time.

Jackie - Jim's book is great.

Jackie - Jim's book is great. There is another one by Pam Allyn, a former colleague at Teacher's College,  that I like. it is called 

What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child--and All the Best Times to Read Them.  


Check it out and see if you like it.


Here's a great companion

Here's a great companion piece about the importance of reading aloud!:

I fear that reading aloud

I fear that reading aloud goes away in school as children grow and become independent readers. This makes me so sad! I still read aloud to my graduate students and the moments are powerful. When was the last time you were read aloud to as an adult?

Nice post, Peter!  I also

Nice post, Peter!  I also think that reading chapter books aloud can be very valuable to children at a young age. When my daughter, Lila, turned four I decided to read her Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. She had seen the movie prior to the reading which I thought would help her follow the story. It took her a few chapters to get used to not having pictures to help her understand the text. She kept asking, "Where are the pictures?" "Why doesn't this book have pictures?" We talked about how to make pictures "in our heads" by listening to the words. She would study the few pictures that were there very closely. She was able to follow the story from reading to reading (we always reviewed what happened in the last chapter before beginning the next one). Lila enjoyed the story and was eager to keep reading it. Nonetheless, I don't think she was able to understand the themes at a deep level. She will definitely benefit from rereading it again when she is older. 

What chapter books have others read aloud to very young children (ages four and five)? I'd love to get suggestions!



a response from a friend with

a response from a friend with two small kids... "Thanks for the link! Very timely as we are reading "Games and the Giant Peak", aka James and the Giant Peach. Both PO and A love it and are so excited, processing it all day and asking questions about it. I have such great memories of my parents reading to me, too."

Wow, powerful post, Peter.

Wow, powerful post, Peter. You reminded me of how I miss the years when my children were young and at home; and chapter books were the after-dinner treat. I now also miss having my own classroom where those chapter books (even among first graders) promoted questions, anticipation, and musings that brought an entire community of children together. My most recent memory was an after school book club of intermediate grade reluctant readers (my master's thesis). The depth of discussion and eagerness to read more was invigorating!! Thanks for sharing your family's blessing.

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