Helping Beginning/Developing Readers…Otherwise Known as Emergent Storybooks — By Claudia Vecchio Wille

I’ll be honest, for the first 3-4 years I taught the emergent storybook unit, I really didn’t get why or even what an emergent reader was. I dutifully taught the unit my colleagues had taught in the past and followed their advice. I think it served its purpose for my students, but I could do so much better. And I did. Once I took the time to do some professional reading around the topic, I really started to understand who my emergent readers were and, therefore, what I needed to teach them.

I think the most important aspect of using emergent story books in the classroom is they help students do the hard thinking work of reading, even before they can read words conventionally. This applies to all students, but especially your earliest and developing readers. Using emergent storybooks teaches students to look closely and think hard as they “read” their books. Alternately, when I was an emergent reader, I learned to work hard to correctly read the words and then answer questions about it. The thinking part was never taught. I had to struggle to figure it out.

 IMG_0467   Emergent storybook study also helps students with concepts of print, story structure, and vocabulary growth.

Emergent reading and story books was an idea introduced in 1966 by New Zealand researcher Marie Clay. She used the term emergent literacy to describe the behaviors exhibited by young children when they use books and writing materials to imitate reading and writing, even though they can’t read or write conventionally. Many others, including Elizabeth Sulzby, continued expanding on this idea. Sulzby found that literacy development is nourished by social interactions with caring adults and exposure to literacy materials, such as children’s storybooks. She researched young children and developed an emergent storybook reading unit. Many teachers include an emergent storybook unit in their kindergarten yearly curricular calendar. All teachers, should consider using the ideas of emergent storybooks with individual students or small groups of students who could benefit from it.

So, what do you do in an emergent storybook unit? The short of it is, you read really rich and enjoyable children’s stories several times and then teach your students ways to read and think about these books as they “read” them independently. Most of your lessons will be strategies to help readers use pictures (context clues) to help them read the story and think about what is happening in the story. I can condense it this way, because my 4 year old daughter who has never been to school can read several books, verbatim-like (final stage of Sulzby’s Classification Scheme Instructional Profiles). All I did was read her some of my favorite children’s books — Knuffle Bunny, Caps for Sale, Three Billy Goats’ Gruff, The Gruffalo — over and over again, at her request. We talked about the stories and looked closely at the pictures. When she started to chime in, I would encourage her with strategies. “Look at the picture.” “What happened next?” “And then…”


Here is my list of emergent story books, but use any picture book that has a strong, sequential story line, clear illustrations that reflect the text, is a story that children can relate to or easily understand, and loved by all.

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Some teaching points/reading strategies you might teach:4

  • Readers read their emergent storybooks by looking closely at the character, naming the character and describing what the character is doing.
  • Readers connect each page to the next by saying “and then…” as they turn the page.
  • Readers can read what the characters in the book are saying by saying, “he/she said…”
  • Readers think about what they know about the characters in star books and change their voice to sound like they think the character would sound.
  • Readers understand star books by staying longer on each page and thinking about what the other characters might be doing.
  • Readers read star books by looking at the pictures to remind them how a story goes and using the author’s words.
  • Readers have ideas about the story and use words lik, “I think…” to express their thinking.

How do I know who needs an emergent storybook study?

IMG_0188Pre-schoolers, Kindergarteners in October/November, any student still learning letters, their sounds, and how words work, and any student struggling to read at grade level. I can tell you this, but you’ll want to really consider your individual students. Administer a concepts of print assessment and a phonemic awareness assessment.

Here are some links to some phonemic awareness assessments:

Emergent storybooks have benefits for all students. Use them, enjoy them, and help your students find the joy and privilege of reading. Reading is hard, but it doesn’t have to be if readers can start here and grow their thinking while their letter/sound knowledge is growing simultaneously.

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