How To Read To A Wiggle Worm

Reading to young kids isn’t always easy – especially when they don’t want to sit still. This guest post by Dr. Claire Elizabeth Cameron provides a unique perspective on what to do – and why it works!

While some children sit still when you read to them, others are wiggly and want to act up or speak out while reading. Aren’t they supposed to just be quiet and pay attention?

Actually, no! Acting out the parts of a story may help children remember what happened.

If children are given toys that represent characters in a story, and they act out the characters’ actions as they read, later those children answer more story questions correctly than those who simply reread the key sentences a few times. In small groups, even children who watch other children acting out the story remember what happened better. There are a few reasons this could be:

  • Children may not know all the words in a story, but acting out the story may help them figure out the unknown words.
  • Doing a movement along with saying the words that go with the movement creates multiple locations or “codes” in children’s brains for the information – whereas saying the words creates only one.
  • When children read or hear a story, they create a mental model of what is happening, and acting the story out may help them create the model.
  • Watching a sibling, or a peer, act out the story may work just as well.

A theory known as “embodied cognition” means that our brain works together with our body to help us learn. For example, children may learn new words or phrases by mapping the word they haven’t heard before to the action or object that they see when they hear the new word. They also gather information about the world by deciding how they might interact with a given object, like a sofa. Seeing the “sofa” as something fun to jump up and down on helps them understand and learn the meaning of that word.

So while it’s nice to try snuggling together to read books on the sofa, it’s okay to encourage the wiggle-worms to act out – or even imagine acting out – the story. And this approach may also be good for the book worms too!

Claire Elizabeth Cameron is a Research Scientist with expertise in early childhood development at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). She received BAs in Honors Psychology and Italian, a MS in Developmental Psychology, and a PhD in Education and Psychology from the University of Michigan before completing a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Institute for Education Sciences at CASTL.

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