Helping pre-readers research

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 01:25 PM

Some ideas for helping children who are not yet reading independently:

• Let them choose books at the library — and don’t restrict them to only picture books or books with very little text! They can choose books that they want you to read to them.

• Give them a pad of small post-its and let them flag pages that you (or an older sibling) will read to them later.

• Collect ephemera: posters, charts, postcards, brochures, etc. The more images to compare and contrast, the better!

• Look for videos at the library or on youtube; remember that you can watch only a part of a film or video with a small child — you don’t have to watch the whole thing. Remember also that they will probably want to watch their favorite parts over and over and over again.

• Make a Pinterest board with a selection of age-appropriate, project-related YouTube videos and other online resources. Your small child can now safely navigate this curated collection and choose what to watch.

• Do observational sketches together and ask them to tell you about their sketches as soon as they are finished drawing them — then again the next day. Pre-readers can “read” their own sketches. Just a few lines can prompt them to remember a great deal.

• Label the parts of their sketches, e.g., the parts of a fire engine: ladder, tires, bell. (Ask their permission first! You can also label a xerox of their original sketch.)

• Make illustrated lists of the commonly requested AND project-related words for your child’s reference. Your child can draw the illustrations or, if they prefer not to, digital photographs and xerox copies of book illustrations work great. Print the words large and clear with a black marker. Laminate these sheets if possible; children will use them for the length of the project. They can refer back to these lists when they want to write a word on a drawing, letter, sketch, construction, sign, poster, or book — allowing them to work more independently. (They won’t have to ask you over and over again how to spell, e.g., “dinosaur” or “Grandma.”) (Make illustrations small enough to put a group of related words together on a page, e.g., “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “Grandma,” and sibling names on one page, while a project-related page might say things like “firefighter,” “engine,” “hat,” “ladder,” “dog,” “hydrant,” etc.)

• Make sure your child knows that if they dictate stories, notes, letters, e-mails, and so on, you will be happy to write them down for him or her.  Make sure they understand that you will write anything for them that they need! If they are making very frequent requests, funnel them to your dedicated project time.

Pre-readers and pre-writers can research independently if they know they have a dependable resource for helping them find and decode the resources they need. You don’t have to be at your child’s beck and call 24/7, but you do need to be a trusted resource and you do need a dedicated time when you can offer your attention and support. It’s fine to say “Mark all the pages you want me to read and I will read them to you after lunch/at project time.” But be aware that if you don’t follow through a few times in a row, they’ll probably give up and stop asking.

This is just one way you can support your child’s investigations — being a trustworthy partner in learning, helping them locate and decode the resources they need.



Comment by Megan on October 15, 2008 at 02:34 PM

"Give them a pad of small post-its and let them flag pages that you (or an older sibling) will read to them later."

Perfect! Both my boys are interested in subjects and details, but the text is beyond their own reading ability. Thanks for this idea! This is a part of what has been missing in our project afternoons. Seems silly, I know, but I had not thought about reading *the pages they wanted* Our school day continues to benefit so much from your suggestions!


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 03:05 PM

glad to help, megan - let me know how it works for you.

Comment by Stefani on October 15, 2008 at 03:26 PM

This is so very full of wonderful ideas. Thank you, Lori.

And um... yesterday's post too. We keep a journal that is mainly a record of things done, but I really like the idea of documenting their questions/needs/ideas too.

I think I'm going to have to carry post its in my pocket though because they never fail to ask the best questions when my hands are covered in flour, or I'm driving or we're out on a walk. 9 times out of 10 we forget what it was we were going to research "later on".

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 03:46 PM

i’m glad you are getting some good ideas stef. ;^) it’s exactly that “9 times out of 10 we forget” that makes the project journal pure gold!

Comment by allie on October 15, 2008 at 09:18 PM

I also like the idea of having children flag pages to look at more in depth -- perhaps their post-its can be places to make small sketches about what interested them. And we as adults can model that careful looking and flagging, too!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 09:20 PM

allie, we used this technique very successfully with our preschool students — let me know if you try it!

Comment by Juliann on October 16, 2008 at 01:19 AM

I have only just stumbled on your site but I am definately coming back. What wonderful words and ideas you have to share.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 16, 2008 at 01:28 PM

hi juliann & thank you!

Comment by akari on July 9, 2010 at 03:57 AM

My older son who will be 4 in two days. He has been finding lots of insects. The two he found two weeks ago were White tussock moth caterpillars that turned into two wingless females. I so happened to love bugs and had a blast one night researching this particular bug and designed and printed out a little booklet. We let the moth girls go so they have a chance to mate some day. He now has a new and different caterpillar.

Tonight I used the post-it tab idea for him to mark photos within a caterpillar book to find one similar to the newest mystery caterpillar. We discussed looking those names up online so that we can find out what kind of adult this caterpillar would grow to be. And what kind of food he will need.

Being a working 9-5 away from home sort of mom, I catch myself feeling and expressing how little time I have with them... So often I feel rushed and find myself stealing the discovery away from my son... because I'm also starving a bit for new and exciting discoveries. This isn't great to either of us. There is a balance to strike in there some where...

Discovering his interests and discoveries are growing more interesting for me. Still, how does a mom stay present and engaged in the activity without over interfering?? That's been my most recent question. Pre-readers that my boys are, I want to do it all and find all the 'correct answers'. I keep on stopping myself from taking over, to want less to design their entire 'lesson." I know all to well that there is no such answer of "what they are supposed to get" out of any given activity. But still I keep finding myself wanting to control... why?
to feed my ego??

I have been a big fan of your blog for quite some time.
Thank you for being a great resource!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 9, 2010 at 02:04 PM

akari, "so often i feel rushed and find myself stealing the discovery away from my son" .. what a beautiful articulation, thank you!

it can take so long to learn this way .. "slow learning", as i call it. when you said you had a blast researching and designing and printing the little booklet .. that is really work that you want him to do, right? and to feel that excitement and pleasure of doing the research and creating something that shows what he learned.

and when you point out that you are also a bit starved for new and exciting discoveries .. you express this beautifully.

hopefully what happens with project work is that your new and exciting discoveries become rooted in learning how your son learns - discovering what awakens his excitement and engagement - figuring out how you can best support him while he has his own ideas and builds his own knowledge.

"[H]ow does a mom stay present and engaged in the activity without over interfering?"

Remember that he will figure out very quickly how this works. If he knows that if he waits or lags, you'll immediately take over, then he'll wait and lag. If he knows it's really *your* thing, then he will let it stay your thing.

Try to put your energies into creating space, time, materials, etc., for him to do this work. Clear it out, then start to slowly fill it up. Accrue books and posters. Hang up his drawings and paintings. Do a lot of *different* things, all centered around the same idea. Draw the moth, paint it, get out 3-D materials and build a model (wire, tissue paper, as many different things offered as you can), photograph it, xerox pictures from field guides, etc. etc. etc.

Listen very carefully and try to help him isolate and focus on his questions and the things he wonders about.

Try to let go of "correct answers" and focus instead on helping them begin to learn the ropes of what it is to be a self-directed learner. Every time they express an idea or ask a question, that's a win. Every time they make a plan and then execute it, that's a win. When something doesn't go as planned, that's a rich vein of discussion, exploration, and learning.

Whatever they learn about moths is gravy. ;) The main point is what they learn about learning itself - exploring interests, investigating, doing research, expressing ideas, putting ideas into words, putting ideas into three-dimensional materials, etc. etc. etc.

That need to control is absolutely natural .. you have a well-developed human need to shape the story and have it make sense. Just keep reminding yourself that you are there to assist these fledgling thinkers and learners as they shape their own story.

And pour your own ideas, questions, plans, etc., into your journal. Document *everything* they do and then carefully examine your own research. Plow all your excess energy into shaping *that* story - the story of you being their learning mentor, the story of them becoming self-directed learners.

thank you so much for your kind words and excellent comments - i hope you keep adding to the discussion! and let me know how things are going!

Comment by Tracy M on November 7, 2011 at 12:23 AM

your last post there is a big help to me... especially the part about how they'll lag and let you take over if you're not patient enough.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2011 at 09:35 PM

i'm glad, tracy — feel free to e-mail me if you have specific questions! lori (at) campcreekpress [dot] c o m

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