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Interactive reading: learn, think and play with The Thinking Train series

December 02, 2020 by v.dax

Among the multitude of benefits of reading stories in the language class, we would like to point out the importance of interaction during reading sessions. We have already discussed that, with the right questions and activities, stories develop language and thinking skills. Picture books also contribute to the development of visual literacy in children. Now we turn to another important aspect of the picture books in The Thinking Train series: dialogic and interactive reading.

Prince Percy sample pages 4-5
Double page from the reader A problem for Prince Percy written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Andrea Alemanno. © Helbling Languages

Learning to talk to the text

Interacting with a story

During my experiences of teaching English in different educational contexts (upper primary, secondary and higher education), I noticed some reading habits of successful readers. When they really want to understand a text, they behave as if they were in conversation with it. First, they have questions before they start reading the story. These might be unsaid questions, the ones we all have in mind before we open a book. What’s going to happen? Where will the story take us? Is there a happy ending? Then, as they become familiar with the characters, they draw a family tree or diagram of them in their minds. They may imagine a map of the locations the characters visit during the course of the novel. Plus, they stop from time to time to interact with the plot. They might comment on the characters’ action and stop to predict what might happen next. They might even get frustrated when something unexpected happens and wonder how they would act in a similar situation and what might make someone behave in a particular way. And then, when it’s all over, they try to make sense of the narrative structure, by retelling parts of it to others or to themselves.

Interacting with academic texts

All these actions form the basis of learning through reading in school. Before students open a chapter in their history or science book, or before they start reading a complex research article, they should follow similar steps. The question students ask can be general (How does the circulatory system work in humans?) or specific (What are the best strategies to learn vocabulary in English for young learners?). Then, students highlight important pieces or bits which are not clear, they also comment on the margin or ask questions. Finally, they need to learn to summarize what they learnt from the text. Learning to interact with stories as a child prepares us to interact with other types of texts.

Modelling interaction

Most children come to school with the basic strategies needed to interact with books. However, in the language class, they need to recreate these familiar experiences in a new language. Unfortunately, not all children have had sufficient shared reading experiences in the family. They are the ones who need more help during the language lessons.

Learning how to interact with a book should start in the classroom with the teacher modelling some steps of the reading process and prompting questions from children. Then, the books students read ideally have scaffolding activities and questions which guide them when the teacher is not present.

Here are some steps with examples from The Thinking Train series to illustrate how the teacher and a picture book can model this interactive reading process.

Start with the cover

Before you start reading the book, ask students some questions about the book cover.

  • What is the story about?
  • Who are the main characters?
  • Who wrote the book?
  • Who drew the pictures?
  • How do the illustrations make you feel?

Learn about the blurb

When you have explored the front cover, move on to the back cover where you find even more information about the story. The blurb tells us about the plot by raising interest in it.

Make predictions

When you open a reader in The Thinking Train series, you will see an introduction page with the names of the authors/illustrator and an illustration with a short text, a sentence or a question. This page either introduces some of the main characters or asks a question to prompt the students to think about the story before they get into it.

Before reading activities

When you open a picture book in The Thinking Train series, you will find two pages with activities that prepare the students for reading. Here you will can focus on the lexical set activated in the story.

Paul learns to plan Before reading sample pages
Before Reading pages in Paul learns to plan written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Vanessa Lovegrove. © Helbling Languages
The Desert Race Before Reading
Before Reading activities from The desert race written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

Questions during reading

After you have read the story once, or during the first reading, it is a good idea to linger for a while on every double page. You can retell that part of the story with your own words,  identifying new objects and practising new words. Children can also ask questions and you can direct their attention to some aspects of the plot. The questions in the reflection boxes help you with this. They focus on a specific thinking skill and they run through each picture book in the series. Some questions will ask you to think about the story, solve problems and make decisions.

Paul learns to plan pages 22-23
Double page from Paul learns to plan written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Vanessa Lovegrove. © Helbling Languages
Football Fury sample pages 10-11
Double page from Football fury written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Manuela Scarfò. © Helbling Languages

After Reading

The activities after each story are fun playbook activities to consolidate vocabulary, practise new language structures and work on reading comprehension. They also extend the story and connect them with personal experiences. They also use the story to generate new tasks to use new language.

Ruby Runs the Race After Reading
After Reading activities from Ruby runs the race written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Marzia Sanfilippo. © Helbling Languages
Deborah's dreams After Reading
After Reading activities from Deborah’s dreams by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

Make and Do

These projects are creative projects which can be done after the reading sessions. You can finish the reading of any story with a creative sessions and make something to remember the story.

Origami monster bookmark
Origami monster bookmark in Deborah’s dreams written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

Do you have any reading strategy that you teach to your students?