The Play’s The Thing: Lessons from Preschool Storytimes  for College Classrooms

The Play’s The Thing: Lessons from Preschool Storytimes for College Classrooms

Though one might imagine that suggestions emerging from a preschool storytime may not seem to be a likely source of wisdom for an adult audience, I find that we often forget the importance of basic literacy skills as we age. No longer considered necessary or on par with our educational expertise, foundational literacy skills are scoffed at or abandoned for what we believe to be more advanced thinking. Yet, the evidence speaks for itself: at a recent preschool storytime, a gaggle of preschoolers vivaciously discussed the merits of Judy Allen’s Are You a Butterfly? One child exclaimed, “I love butterflies!,” to which another child replied, “I hate butterflies!” A third child chided, “You can’t use the word hate!” Isn’t this more or less the essence of literary criticism, save a larger vocabulary and more citations? I digress.

I have been in a variety of public and private schools for the past 20 years, so far. It was during my 21st year within the educational system that a foray into the nonprofit world brought me back to square one: preschool literacy. As an English 1 & 2 Instructor during my MA program in 2012-2013, I discovered that teaching is similar to leading an improv group: in both instances, you show up for your gig, torn between the desire to “direct” and the urge to allow conversations to unfurl organically. Sometimes, you witness beautiful moments. At other times, chaos ensues. As a young instructor in an old institution, I was worried I was performing from some predetermined teaching script acquired during my time there. In my current position in an alternative academic setting, I discovered a mode of comparison and upon reflection, found some teaching practices I could bring back to the college classroom.

The early childhood education program that I now manage works towards preschool literacy and kindergarten readiness. In addition to story-times and comprehension-building activities, we advocate for family engagement in reading. One of the tools we offer to educators and caregivers alike is a list of reading tips and suggested activities that adults can do at home with their children. Below, I offer four preschool exercises that can translate to higher education. And, true to the spirit of our program, I encourage you to play around with these ideas, to ask questions, and certainly, to contradict loudly and with gusto, if necessary:

1. Go for a Picture Walk

One can think of a “picture walk” as the preschool equivalent of skimming, albeit, with more intentionality. During preschool storytimes, talented teacher-librarians encourage children to look at a book’s cover and pictures, in order to make predictions about the plot of the story — all before ever reading a word. In this featured video, the teacher-librarian reads the author’s name to her preschoolers and asks questions such as, “Who is the author? What does the author do? Do you think the author is the same as the illustrator? No? Well then what does the illustrator do?” and so on.

Unless you’re one of those effortlessly cool teachers who uses graphic novels in your class, your readings very likely do not include actual images. The same principle still applies to front and back covers, as well as the way that text visually appears on the page. I usually hope that most college students read at least the covers (and even the occasional preface) of a book before they crack open the spine. Those of us who have given our students what I will call a “mercy quiz,” however, know that this isn’t always the case. Students do not, in fact, always take the time to read the author’s biography, impetus for writing the given text, and sometimes, they don’t even read the author’s name.

When books have more than one author, especially concerning adapted foreign novels or transcribed texts, we can ask: whose name comes first? Whose is larger? Who is actually the author — the one who transcribed and wrote the book, or the one who orally provided the material for it? How do we know? And most puzzlingly, why does it matter? Contextualize the story, just as the preschool storyteller does. Spend time reading the author’s biography with your class. Though brief and often written for commercial purposes, these tid-bits can prove illuminating. Consider comparing the publisher’s version of an author’s biography with any autobiographical information that the author provides, either in the work itself, or online.

Many of us within the university system are familiar with the scholarly editions of books that contain pages of source notes, articles, and references that tell us not only what the book will include, but also how we might interpret it, using specific lenses. Though this front matter may color our readings, a purposeful picture walk can help us to question basic assumptions and explore contributors’ intentions. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself is a prime example, first, because it’s a fairly canonical text, and second, because my graduate school copy of this text was replete with a preface, additional materials, and appendices. All of these are fodder for a college-level “picture walk,” and if you are going to take the time to assign these materials, then you should also take the time to question them — their sources, their motivations, and how they inform the primary text.

2. Letter Recognition

When we are building literacy skills from the ground up, it’s important to teach children how to recognize and differentiate letters, along with the sounds they make. We hope that after thirteen years of schooling, our students have mastered this skill. Most have, but there were many times in my college classrooms that my students struggled to read aloud. Some of the discomfort around reading aloud may arise from a general fear of public speaking — but some, I suspect, also comes from an unspoken belief that it is an unimportant, and therefore uncultivated, skill. I discovered that if my students did not understand how to pronounce a word or if they did not know what a term meant when they were reading, they usually tried to mumble it, skip over it, or my personal favorite, say something like “that f-word.” Rather than ask what an unknown word meant, they tried to mask their academic anxiety with humor. It’s important to create a safe space to practice these basic literacy skills. Admit that even you, as an instructor, do not know everything, nor do you recognize every word. This is a great opportunity to put those smart devices that your students are partially hiding under their desks to use. Look the words up, right then and there. Share and discuss them with the class. This is a learning moment for all and only takes a matter of seconds.

3. Re-tell the Story

For young children, retelling a story builds comprehension. It allows us to see whether or not the predictions that we made during a picture-walk came true. It also serves as a good time to reflect on the lessons learned along the way. When one listener is having a hard time remembering what happened next, another classmate can step in to continue the narrative thread in a collective culture of learning.

At the college level, I am not interested in simply having students regurgitate what the author of the text says word for word, but I am interested in how my students reacted to the content, and how they articulate that reaction. It can be particularly illuminating to draw attention to subjects, verbs, and objects. For instance, consider the photograph below, complete with the author’s original caption:

Women in shorts

“In 1937, two women caused an accident by wearing shorts in public for the first time.”

Pay special attention to who is committing the action of the sentence upon whom. As an astute commenter replied, another description of this photo could read: “In 1937, a careless driver caused an accident when he took his eyes off the road to ogle 2 women wearing shorts in public for the first time.” While not every case is going to be this evident or polarizing, this photo caption provides an illuminating example of how we use language to place power or blame upon a subject. Try this exercise with your class: print out this, or a similar, photo without the caption, and charge them with the task of writing a captain for the image. You might  be surprised by how many will re-produce language very similar to the original caption. Feel free to get creative, and re-create this exercise with newspaper headlines, movie taglines, commercials, tweets, etc.

4. Do the Voices

When reading aloud in class, always do the voices. I know, you don’t want to be “that teacher,” but trust me, do the voices. Do you remember the first time someone read to you, or you listened to an audio book, and you heard a voice so wonderful, so adaptable that it made the storytelling come alive for you? Chances are, so do your students. If they haven’t had that moment yet, create it for them. Be their Alan Rickman. If you are reading a text with any kind of dialogue, it makes sense to distinguish between characters with different voices for the listener. Moreover, dynamic dialogue provides an opportunity for us to remind students of the oral tradition that pre-dates our written language. Besides, it’s a good excuse to get multiple students reading aloud in response to one another, particularly when you have a group of students with a performative flair.

I do not anticipate that you will teach your courses using the exact same structure that early childhood educators utilize during preschool storytimes. I do believe, however, that the principles themselves can provide a practical application of the teaching theories that dictate how we originally learn to understand and interact with texts. While some of these examples may be more or less useful depending on the general makeup of your classes, learning objectives, and time-constraints, you might be surprised what can happen when you and your students dare to think like children. Approach a book with that self-same sense of discovery and wonder as when you were a child. That alone can make us more thoughtful readers and proactive learners.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Sean Michael Morris and Valerie Robin.

[Photo, Minimalism outside by 55Laney69, licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

About the Author

Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno

Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno lives with her partner, Adam, in Tacoma, WA, where she manages a preschool literacy program through a nonprofit organization. She likes: sewing Totoro stuffed animals, taking walks at Pt. Defiance, and admiring other people's dogs, in the absence of her own.

One Comment
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  1. Mary Rizzo says:

    Thanks for this piece! I love the idea of incorporating preschool teaching techniques with older students, or adults, and could see these techniques working really well in public humanities settings, like community conversations. One word of caution about doing voices, though: be careful that the voices do not turn into stereotypes. Patterns of speech and accents “read” as certain racial, ethnic, class, and geographical groups, and can be problematic if used, especially unwittingly, in reading aloud as a character.

  1. […] why an article like this one is so refreshing and so surprising.  Even the subtitle (“Lessons from Preschool Storytimes […]

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