Reading Aloud is More Than Just Reading (And an Introduction to Brontorina)

It’s rather well-known that reading aloud to children is one of the best things you can do to promote literacy.  While simply hearing the story has its benefits, really building literacy, comprehension, and vocabulary requires conversation off the page.  Here is an example of some of the conversation that took place as I recently shared a wonderful book, Brontorina by James Howe,* (*affiliate) with a group of young children.

Before starting the story, I show the children the cover and ask what they see.  They notice the ballet dancers and the enormous dinosaur on the cover.  They love that the dinosaur’s head is bumping into the letters above.  Some point out that there are BOY ballet dancers, and an old lady.  “Probably their grandma,” someone suggests.

I ask what they think the story might be about.

“The dinosaur wants to eat the kids.”

 “No, that’s a plant-eater.”

“I think he’s dancing.  Wait, is that a boy dinosaur or a girl dinosaur?”

We talk about their ideas.  We’re building prediction skills and a foundation for connections and comprehension.  Then I point out the title as I read it.  We talk about the letter it starts with and the sound it makes.  Then someone points out that the name of someone in the class starts with a B as well.  We talk about who Brontorina might be, and they all agree it must be the dinosaur on the cover.  The kids can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen, so we jump in!

In this delightful story, a massive bright orange dinosaur named Brontorina Apatosaurus arrives on the steps of Madame Lucille’s Dance Academy for Boys and Girls hoping to fulfill her dream of becoming a ballerina.  While Madame Lucille hesitates, Brontorina begs her, saying, “In my heart I am a ballerina”.  While two of Madame Lucille’s students, Clara and Jack,  beg for Brontorina’s admission, others whisper in the back, saying that she is too big and doesn’t have the right shoes.  The children and I talk a little about how that might make Brontorina feel.

As the story goes on, Brontorina tries her best to be a “graceful” ballerina.  What does “graceful” mean?  Some children hear it as “grateful” and assume it has something to do with saying “thank you“.  Others can’t give a definition in words, but know what it looks like.  “It’s moving like this,” one girl says as she performs a preschool version of an arabesque.
Soon we come up with some definitions: moving smoothly and beautifully, and not crashing.  After we talk about the word a bit, I go back and read the sentence with the word in it again and continue the story from there, putting the new word back into context.
After a few weeks, Madame Lucille decides that perhaps Brontorina really is too big, she hardly fits into the studio.  Upon hearing the disappointing news, the story records Brontorina’s reaction this way:

“Downcast, she turned to leave.” 

What does that mean?  I ask the children if they can make faces that look downcast.  They each make their own sad, heavyhearted looks and I comment that they do indeed look very “downcast” and then I throw in a few more synonyms like “sad” and “disappointed”.  We read on:

“Wait!” Clara called out. “Don’t go. My mother has been working on a surprise for you all week, Brontorina.  She is bringing it today.” 

“Oh my goodness!” I say, very excitedly.  “What could the surprise be?” I ask, modelling prediction skills that help with comprehension.

“Maybe a tutu!”

“Maybe some shoes!”

“Probably a huge treat!”

The children make their predictions and we go on with the story.  Soon, Clara’s mother comes with……BIG ballet shoes!

“I knew it!” several of the kids say.

And of course, when presented with those perfect shoes, “Brontorina beamed”.

“What does it mean to beam?”I ask the children.  “How do you think Brontorina feels if she beams?”  After a little discussion I ask the children to make their faces beam too.  (And my heart takes a little picture of those darling “beaming” faces.)  We talk about how “downcast” and “beamingdescribe opposite emotions for Brontorina.

“I am a ballerina, or I would be if I weren’t so…big.”

Madame Lucille decides the problem is not that Brontorina is too big, but that her studio is too….(I pause to let the children fill it in)…SMALL!

Madame Lucille and her students, including Brontorina, search for a place that will be just right for all the dancers.  Finally, they end up at a barn.  Too small once again.  But then someone says they have an idea!

“What could their idea be?” I ask the children.

“The barn will work!”

“They’re going to build a new one!”

“They see another place!”

We turn the page and find the whole group dancing out in a pasture.  Above them, a new sign reads:

“Madame Lucille’s Dance Academy for Boys and Girls and Dinosaurs…..and cows!”

Clara’s mother sits at a booth, selling shoes in all sizes.  And on the last page, we see Brontorina being lifted by her new dance partner, a triceratops, as we are reminded:

“And it all began with a dream.”

I talk a little with the children about what that means.  Is it the same as a dream they have when they’re asleep?  What was the dream that started it all?  Did Brontorina’s dream come true?  What are their own dreams?

Brontorina was a fantastic book to share with this group, and it was enjoyed by all the children (yes, boys included).  Enjoy it with the children you love and teach, but remember that reading aloud is more than just reading.  Move read-alouds from passive listening to active engagement, and you’ll find that the stories not only become more enjoyable, but that your little ones will build more reading skills in the process.

What tactics to you use to engage children in a read-aloud?

For more tips on how to improve your read-alouds, try:

How to Improve Your Read-Alouds with Young Children

10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Story Time with Your Preschooler



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