The Plot Thickens: How to Improve Young Children’s Critical Thinking Skills During Storytime

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

The Plot Thickens: How to Improve Young Children’s Critical Thinking Skills During Storytime“That isn’t what it says. It says, ‘Scritch, scratch, scratch, scritch.’”

This was the egregious error four-year-old Suzanne pointed out to her Head Start teacher, Wendie Bramwell, when Wendie tried to paraphrase Beatrix Potter’s original wording describing the sound of the farmer’s hoe in Peter Rabbit as “scritch, scritch, scratch.” Recalling the incident now, Wendie says, “She was right, of course, and I started to pay very close attention to how I read, what meaning children were attaching to the story, and how I could continue to learn from them about what they were learning and then expand on that.”

In short, Wendie realized she needed to read to her students in such a way as to encourage their critical thinking and social-emotional skills. Wendie, who is now retired, spent 30 years working in the field of early childhood education with Head Start programs, community colleges, the University of Washington, Committee for Children, and Roots of Empathy, focusing mostly on early literacy and children’s books.

So how do you make storytime more educational, in terms of both critical thinking and social-emotional skills? “The techniques identified in the research are sound,” says Wendie. “Read the book several times, ask open-ended questions, comment on emotional content in the story, talk about the conventions of print, and identify the name of the author and illustrator.”

That first part about reading the book more than once is worth exploring. Anyone who has ever read a book to a young child knows that children love hearing books over and over. And although you may not love reading them over and over (after all, that’s how a person can get from “scritch, scratch, scratch, scritch” to “scritch, scritch, scratch”), it’s a very important thing to do. Wendie says that “one of the advantages of reading a story more than once to a child or group of children is that with the first reading, you intentionally don’t insert questions or comments.” You can use subsequent readings to get a feel for what meaning children have already extracted from the book, then start to build on what they already understand and are curious about. In short, you let the child guide the learning.

Wendie learned how important this method is when reading Goodnight Moon to her then-infant daughter. Wendie had never noticed that there is a little mouse on every page—it was her daughter, who began to rub her tiny finger on the image whenever it appeared, who alerted Wendie to the mouse’s presence. This helped Wendie learn “to be very attuned to children’s reactions. What interests them? What are they noticing? What worries them in the story? What makes the story appealing to them?”

Wendie was able to encourage similar child-directed learning with her granddaughter, who one day observed that the pictures in Frederick look a lot like the pictures in Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. The reason, of course, is that both books are by Leo Lionni. Wendie took this and ran with it. She and her granddaughter compared specific illustrations from each book, discussing the ways in which they were similar and different, and they did the same with other books by Lionni. And because Lionni wrote “intelligent books with difficult words that fascinate children,” says Wendie, they were able to hone her granddaughter’s vocabulary as well as her observational and comparison skills.

In short, Wendie took an observation her granddaughter made and turned it into a fun journey into critical thinking and social-emotional skills, with her granddaughter as the guide.

So the next time you’re rushing through a book and your child corrects you, take it as an opportunity to slow down and talk with your child about what he or she observes about the book, what your child wonders, and what other things you could find out together. You may be surprised at what you can both learn from a children’s book.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at,, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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4 Responses to The Plot Thickens: How to Improve Young Children’s Critical Thinking Skills During Storytime

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  3. sjhigbee says:

    I always used the reading session as a rebonding experience, determined to use books as a bridge. And you’re right – if you break off and talk about whatever the child interrupts you to discuss what has attracted their attention, that’s fine. The book is a way to share the fun of storytime – even if the story the child wants to discuss isn’t exactly the same one on the page in front of you… It’s also such fun.

  4. Reblogged this on Wanda Luthman's Children's Books and commented:
    I love the ideas presented here! Often we get annoyed when reading to a child and they are distracted by something on the page we didn’t notice or think isn’t that important, but if we just SLOW down and pay attention to what the child is paying attention to and then use that to expand and evolve into a learning journey, how fun and special and relevant that would be!

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