Pre-reading a Book before Reading to your Child

A few parents have recently asked me whether they should read to their children easy or rather more challenging books. Frankly, I don’t really mind reading easy books to my son Oskar, particularly, when I know that he clearly enjoys them. However, I still prefer reading books which are both enjoyable and challenging. Books should be fun and teach. Exactly in this order! If your child doesn’t enjoy the book, she/he is not going to learn much out of it. 

When I say ‘challenging’ I mean books which are slightly above child’s current level of vocabulary and comprehension.  Why only slightly over this level? Because children need to know at least 90% of words in the book to understand its content. Some researchers, in fact, argue that children need to know at least 97% of words. 

Stated differently, children can tolerate only very small number of unknown words in the texts.  
Otherwise, they get easily bored and distracted. Also, if the book is too challenging, it requires a lot of explanations which disrupts the flow of reading. Pleasure of reading is gone.

​Unfortunately, it is hard to find  books which are only slightly above the child’s current level of language skills.
And that is why, today, I will show you how I bridge the gap between challenging books and Oskar’s skills.

Yesterday, I finished reading with Oskar ‘Holes’ – a novel written by Louis Sachat.
Suprisingly, Oskar (7) enjoyed the book much more than I thought he would do. 

When we started reading it a week ago, I quickly realised that the book might have a narrative complexity beyond Oskar’s comprehension skills. 

The book is multi-layered. The storyline starts with Stanley Yelnats IV a teenager sent by mistake to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile disciplinary camp. Stanley has to dig daily huge holes in a dry lake to build his character.  Of course, Stanley soon discovers that he and other boys there don’t dig only to build their characters. As the book progresses the storyline jumps between Stanley, Kissin’ Kate Barlow a teacher from 19th century, Sam – her black boyfriend, Elya Yelnats, Madame Zeroni and some others minor characters e.g. Stanley Yelnats I, Stanley Yelnats I, and Mrs  Stanley Yelnats I. The book gets quite complicated.  

To be honest, sometimes I was loosing the plot, never mind Oskar. I wanted to stop reading it, yet Oskar insisted that I should continue doing so.  I agreed. However, I changed my reading strategy. 

Before reading to Oskar, I had spent 10 minutes perusing chapters which I was supposed to read. I identified more challenging fragments, concepts (e.g. discrimination, racism) and violent parts. Since I knew the changes in the plot I was also able to explain better what was actually happening in the story.  I also could sanitise violence if I decided it was too excessive (frankly,  I am still not sure to what extent I should shelter Oskar from it).

This time Oskar was able to follow the book without problems in comprehension. When we were close to finish the book, he actually forced me to read it a few times a day. He loved it so much, he drew a picture of Stanley digging a hole in a desert for a drawing competition in his Polish Saturday School.

Obviously teachers and children had no idea what the picture was about. They did not know that the car in the distance is driven by a seemingly nice Mr. Pendansky who delivers water for boys. They did not know that Stanley has just found something very important in his hole….

 Below a page from the book. 


​I underlined words, expressions and concepts I knew Oskar might find difficult.

  • I decided to teach Oskar: ‘abuse’ and ‘false imprisonment’ and one wider theme: ‘fill charges against’.
  • I did not want to torture him with too many novel words. Therefore, I ignored ‘torture’ :).
  • While reading I replaced ‘what in tarnation’ with  ‘what is going on?’.
  • I decided to ignore: ‘Girl Scouts’, ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Cowboy hat’. However, Oskar wanted to know what Hispanic means. A few pictures found on  Google Images and a short explanation did the job.
  • Although I was sure Oskar knew ‘amazement’ I checked his knowledge by asking him why actually Stanley was amazed. He said ‘because Zero asked a weird question’.
  • I modulated my voice when I read ‘raspy’. I think it helped Oskar understand the meaning.
  • After we finished reading I asked him what he would do if he was abused or falsely imprisoned. He did not remember what the words meant. We discussed for five minutes some situations related to these words.
  • I asked him the same question today. He remembered the words very well.

I really feel my time spent on pre-reading the book pays off. I suggest pre-reading to all parents, however it might be particularity important for parents who don’t speak English as a native language.  Parents  English as a second language might want to look up unknown words, check pronunciation, prepare child-friendly explanations of more difficult words and finally might also need more knowledge to understand unfamiliar cultural references.

Some points for parents: 

  • when you choose a book for reading aloud, first decide whether your child is likely to enjoy it!
  • make sure that the book is challenging but not too challenging for your child
  • if the book is too hard, don’t automatically reject it, see whether you can simplify text  e.g. by replacing difficult words with easier ones, ignoring some words etc.
  • can you do it while you read to a child? If not, pre-read the book before reading to a child and prepare yourself for effective reading
  • if you encounter a bigger idea e.g. discrimination, racism etc. you might want to discuss them with your child before reading aloud
  • select only a few important words for teaching