Let us talk about what big books are. These are large picture-books designed to be shared with young readers by adults around them. By and large they are for pre-primary and primary aged children who are just beginning to enter the world of written texts.
How do we use big books? The recommended format is to conduct ‘shared reading’ with children. Don Holdaway developed the Shared Reading technique in New Zealand in the 1960s (Holdaway, 1979; Park, 1982), to help young readers enter and enjoy their early encounters with books. During shared reading, the teacher holds the big book up and shares it with the children while pointing along word by word using her finger or a pointer. The children are encouraged to look at the book being held up, and join in with the teacher at any point that they feel comfortable. So, the teacher does most of the reading aloud, but the reading is shared with the children. The teacher usually reads one Big Book multiple times (across several days) with her class, so that even children who were less able to join in during earlier readings, are able to participate more in subsequent readings of the book.
Now why do we need to share books in this manner with young children? Why should we have these very large books with big pictures and the large fonts and the teacher tracking along and asking the children to join it? The reason is that when children are coming to pre-primary or primary school, they already have oral language, they already are users of oral language. But many of them do not yet know how to read and write, they do not understand how to navigate the world of texts and of print. These big books then act as a bridge from the world of orality to the world of literacy. And when children are invited to read along with the teacher, the burden of decoding the script is not on the children. The teacher takes the primary responsibility for reading. And children are free to either just listen to the teacher or to call out the words or phrases that they may remember, or to predict from the pictures. In effect, there is no burden on the young children to actually read by themselves, yet, they are able to participate in, and enjoy a shared reading experience. In this way by using a big book, children learn a lot about the world of text, the world of literacy, how books work, etc.
If the teacher is doing most of the reading, then what do the children learn from such an experience? The most important thing to remember about Shared Reading is that it introduces young children to the pleasure and relevance of reading. This is especially important in countries like India, where most young children come from homes where adults have not read aloud to them. If you give books to young children, you will see that they start telling the story from the pictures in the books. Young children who cannot yet decode the print often rely exclusively on the pictures to make sense of what is going on in the book. Even though they cannot yet independently decode, they understand that texts carry meaning. This is one kind of learning we introduce children to through shared reading experiences. Children also get exposure to wonderful stories and poems and begin their journey as readers. As they participate in the shared experiences, children begin to see themselves as readers, and develop identities as readers.
We can also use Big Books to introduce young children to ‘Concepts about Print’ (Clay, 2000), about how print functions. For example, when we point along the words and conduct a shared reading experience with children, they may notice that the meaning of the text is coming from both: the pictures and from little squiggly shapes which may be placed under the picture or over the picture or by the side of the picture—even though they may not know what these mean. They see that it is the squiggly shapes that the teacher is pointing to, they realize that the teacher is attending to these shapes and they start attending to these shapes too. And then they realize, the words are coming from the shapes and the shapes have meaning. That’s when they start realizing that the print has meaning. They also learn other things about how print functions. For example, its directionality. Either it moves from left to right, or right to left; and it typically moves from up to down. By following along with the teacher, children learn the directionality of the print that they are learning to read. They also learn how to hold a book, they learn that every page has to be turned one by one in sequence, and not haphazardly. If you look at how very young children handle books, they may open a page to the middle of the book, then come back to some other page, then skip five pages and so on. It is only through shared book experiences with adults or older children that they realize how books must be handled to reveal their meaning. Slowly, they understand that books have a correct orientation. There is a front cover, there is a back cover. ‘You have to turn the book page by page. You have to look at these shapes and at the picture to make sense of it.’
Later, they may notice particular shapes within the print that seems to direct the adult’s pace or expression or reading. And with the help and support of adults, they may realize: the teacher pauses when she sees this mark. That’s a full stop! Then, there is another kind of shape where the teacher raises her voice like she is asking a question. That’s a question mark! Sometimes the teacher speaks in a very excited or loud voice. There is an exclamation mark. Slowly, they start attending to the finer aspects like punctuation marks, capitals and so on and so forth, depending on the kind of print or script. They also learn about the spaces in between… because when we speak in the oral language, we speak in entire phrases. We don’t stop after every word. But in the world of print, there is a pause after every word, because there is a gap and the children learn about these gaps and the role that they play by watching the teacher track along.
Many of these capabilities can also be built through good Read Alouds, where teachers read aloud high quality books to children. The main difference between a Read Aloud and a Shared Reading, is that in the former, the teacher reads out the book; and the children listen and respond to questions and discussions. During Shared Reading, the children themselves are invited to read along with the teacher to the extent that they can.
It is also important here to talk about certain characteristics that good big books have. Remember that big books are being used to help children to bridge from oral worlds to the written worlds. Therefore, it is very important that they have large pictures in these books. It cannot be books without pictures, because young children rely largely on the pictures to make sense of the story. So the pictures should be able to convey a lot of meaning about the text.
Then, the fonts need to be large and the layout needs to be easy to follow, so that the young readers can follow along when the teachers are pointing (at the text). There should be a limited quantity (a few lines) of text per page. Remember that young children cannot yet read the print that the teacher is reading. They rely initially on their oral memory to join in the reading. Therefore, the text needs to be sensitive to the needs of relying on oral memory. This means the text should have a predictable, memorable pattern and should ideally be rhythmic, repetitive and fun for the readers! If the storyline is very complicated, or if every line has a different structure to it, the child will never be able to chant along with the teacher. But if there is repeated, highly patterned text, children will be able to predict, and read along purely from oral memory. For example, there is this book published by Eklavya, called Shaljam. It is an adaptation of a folktale translated into Hindi. An old man plants a turnip. A turnip that is too large for him to pull out. The text is rhythmic: …budhe ne shaljam ko kheencha, pura jor lagakar kheencha, magar shaljam nikal na paya. Fir usne budhiya ko bulaya. The teacher can pause and ask the children, ‘Do you think the budhiya can pull?’ The text continues, Budhiya ne thama budhe ko, budhe ne thama shaljam ko. Dono ne usko mil kar kheencha, pura jor lagakar kheencha. Magar shaljam nikal na paya. And in each page, one more character joins to ‘kheencho’ the ‘shaljam’. Each time, the sentence structure is kept the same. The new person will ‘thamo’ the old person and each character will be named, until budhe ne thama shaljam ko. Sabne usko milkar kheencha. Pura jor lagakar kheencha. Magar shaljam nikal na paya. This kind of repetitive, memorable, text helps children predict what is coming next. Even if they cannot read the print, based on their oral memory and from their experiences with rhyme and songs, they are able to join in.
There is a myth that if you take any good children’s book and produce it in a very large form, it becomes a big book. But as I have just explained, big books are a bridge from oral language to written language for the young children. So any interesting storybook that does not have a repetitive, predictable, memorable storyline, does not have an easy layout, does not have very good picture clues, will not serve as a good big book.
There is one last point that we have to remember about big books. Big Books are not meant to teach children to decode the script. They are wonderful ways to invite children to get curious about the written world of texts, help them participate in meaningful reading experiences with trusted adults, help build oral language and assist in acquiring various emergent literacy skills. This has a particular salience in all low-literacy settings.
Shailaja Menon is a language educator who currently leads the Center for Excellence in Early Literacy at Tata Trusts. She has spent more than a
quarter of a century researching, teaching and writing in the areas of early language, literacy and children’s literature.
Clay, M.M. (2000). Concepts about print: What have children learned about printed language? Heinemann: N.Z. ECLAS-II.
Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. New York: Scholastic Book Services.
Park, B. (1982). ‘The Big Book trend—A discussion with Don Holdaway’. Language Arts, 59 (8), 815-821.