Storytelling & Literature

Young children enjoy language. The magic of stories. Silly rhymes. Words make fun sounds AND they mean something! They see adults happily and easily communicating complex thoughts while they struggle to make the “r” sound.

Scholars have found that hearing and reading stories influence children’s understanding of their culture and social rules. They provide safe ways to explore strong emotions and to understand themselves.

In school, children really experience the emotional power of words. They know the pride that comes with praise or the feelings of anger from being taunted. We can help them better understand the complexities of language and its impact.

And as they continue to learn and evolve, they begin to find and craft their own voice. We can partner with them in some of those tender conversations until – well – the need for independence becomes a primary driver in their lives.  So let’s make some hay while the sun shines.

I Pledge


This person is pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  …  Explore promises with your child.  It is a word that carries special importance.  Sometimes just saying the words isn’t enough; we act out the importance by raising our right hand or by placing our right hand over our heart. What if, to show how much we mean it, we had to hop on one foot? Would that work? Photographs: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) &





Memorize a poem together

“Committing meaningful words to mind is like taking training wheels off a bicycle,” says Cambridge Professor, Dr Debbie Pullinger.  “You may be a bit wobbly at first, but only then can you really feel the way the bike is moving over the surface; only then can you find your balance.”

Consider beginning with The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • How do you like to go up in a swing,
  • Up in the air so blue?
  • Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
  • Ever a child can do!
  • Up in the air and over the wall,
  • Till I can see so wide,
  • River and trees and cattle and all
  • Over the countryside –
  • Till I look down on the garden green,
  • Down on the roof so brown –
  • Up in the air I go flying again,
  • Up in the air and down!
  • You can lead, perhaps having your child finish key lines, like “Up in the air so ___” and “Ever a child can ___.” Eventually you can be responsible for longer sections.
  • Do these words remind you of what swinging feels like? Do the word take you up and down?
  • If your child has just experienced an “up and down” day, think about beginning the poem – and helping them connect to the up and down nature of life.

Boss of Art?

The arts are very powerful. So powerful that dictators fear them and do what they can to control what people see, the stories they hear, their music, even what people wear – everything. They know the arts can change people’s feelings and even make them feel they can make a change in their government. The purpose of this discussion is to help your child recognize the reasons dictators fear artists and the messages they bring.

Definition: A dictatorship is a government or a social situation where one person makes all the rules and decisions without input from anyone else.

  • Why do you think a dictator would want to control the arts?
  • What might happen if people living under a dictator wore a t-shirt that was insulting to the dictator?
  • In free countries we often have protest songs inspiring people to make the world – and their country –  a better place. Do you think it takes courage to write and perform songs that criticize leaders in free countries?  In dictatorships?
  • How do you think other citizens feel or react when they see risky art? Do you think they look away because they are afraid? Do you think they try to protect the artist?
  • Dictators are afraid that people will come together and challenge them. How do you think the arts help people come together?
  • Let’s try to find art in our country that might not be legal under a dictatorship.

Folk Heroes

These conversation pointers can help your child recognize that stories about ordinary people who fight for what is right can help us all be strong. Before you begin, start to notice the heroes in your child’s life. Favorite books? Cartoon or movie characters? Video games? Or even real life heroes? Folk heroes are ordinary people – like you and your child – who face tough circumstances. No super powers here – just humans at their best. Super heroes come from a different place.

  • After reading a story featuring a hero, tell your child why you see that character as a hero. I like the way that character struggled with how to help, but then mustered up their courage to stand up to that mean king. This exposes them to the concept of hero.
  • What do you think was going on in that character’s mind and heart when they stood up for what is right? Do you think they were scared?
  • Occasionally ask about heroes in books that you are reading together (or shows that you watch together).
  • What characters stood up for what is right? Robin Hood? Joan of Arc? Paul Revere?
  • Sometimes heroes step outside the rules to make things better for others. How might you know if it is time to break a rule?
  • Malala is a real folk hero who is alive today.  Here’s a book by Malala.

Can you listen and remember at the same time?

Photo: Magda AdamczakHelp your child appreciate that part of the magic of reading or listening to stories is that it is always interactive. Even without trying, when we hear about other worlds or other people, we automatically bring our whole selves into the story. We connect it to things that we have known or have felt.

Every now and then, when you are reading a story together, stop and ask,

  • This story is making me remember …..
  • I’m wondering what sorts of things your brain is bringing into the story right now.

Read the science behind this.

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Run On, Sentence!

The purpose of this activity is to have some fun with your older children exploring the concept of a full sentence or complete thought. Obviously this should be handled with a light touch – but – if you can make it work, the lesson is a good one.

  • When you notice a rambling or incoherent sentence from a magazine, newspaper or tweet, laugh, share it out loud and see if your child can help you figure out what they think it means.
  • Get out a piece of paper and try to re-write it. Post both versions on your fridge.
  • Suggest that the two/three of you can be known as the Sentence Doctors.
  • Create a space/way to collect examples.
  • One night a week, at dinner, take turns reading the examples and have fun trying to re-create their original intention.
  • Post on fridge or bulletin board – before and after.

Slang Lang

These discussion ideas can help your child appreciate that language can evolve specifically to show belonging.

  • One of the first signs of impending adolescence is the desire to put space between them and their parents’ generation. What better way than to be able to carry on a conversation – right in front of them – that they cant quite understand?!
  • As a parent, the challenge is show support and stay abreast while keeping some distance. Trying too hard to communicate in their vernacular can appear (to them) to be a bit of cultural appropriation.
  • When you hear a new term, ask if they could help you understand what it means. Try using it in a sentence but be ready to endure a bit of teasing. Having you not quite ‘get it’ is the outcome they want. It is their language.
  • Have some fun sharing some of the terms that have come into and out of favor as you grew up.
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Letter Scavenger hunt

This activity can build your child’s awareness of letter sounds in their real life.

  • Tell your child it’s time for a letter treasure hunt – and we begin with the letter “R”
  • Let’s see if we can find 3 things in this room that begin with the letter “R.”
  • Move around with them, haying “hmmmm” or “RRRRR”.
  • If they seem to be struggling, pick out different articles and name them. “Do you hear an “R” in that word?”
  • Eventually ask them to pick out items – say their name – and then decide.
  • Soon they will be able to move about on their own.
  • “I’m wondering, does Teddy Bear start with an R?  What if it DID start with an R? Would it be Ready Bear.”
  • You can increase the difficulty level by setting a timer or raising the number of examples.
  • Give them a turn to name a starting letter that YOU have to find.
  • This is a great game for car rides, too.

Make a Story Book With Your Kids

This exercise sets your child onto a path of authorship – as worthy creator. The challenge is to keep the activity as fast and light as possible while slipping in a few key concepts.

  • It’s probably better not to start from scratch – initially. Instead, try building on a character in their world already. It might be that you already have a family favorite. (We used a Belly Wanster who loved to sneak up and tickle bellies.) Or you could imagine animating a favorite stuffed animal or toy.
  • Ask what you think that character would do in some different situations – build their sense of a profile.  No need to write anything yet. Help them develop that imaginary world.
  • Is that what you might do in that situation? Do you think the character often has the same feelings you have?
  • At some point, I think this character wants their own book. They think other kids would like to hear their story. Do you want to write a book about ___? I think it would be fun and I will help.
  • Can you tell me what the character looks like (if made up)? Big or small?
  • What do you want the character to do in the story? Get silly? Make someone’s day better? (Still – no writing yet.)
  • Can you tell me the story and I will write it down for you?
  • What kinds of pictures would help? Maybe tomorrow you can draw some pictures and I can put the words under them.
  • Build the book. What do the want the cover to look like? Be sure to list author and illustrator.
  • Invite family members and friends to ask about the book and ask your child to read the story to them.
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Although your little ones are a long way from being able to say onomatopoeia, it’s never too early for them to have some fun with this word category. For a longer list …

  • Sometimes words sound like what they mean.
  • Click, tick tock, quack, zip, knock, hoot, meow, ding dong, hiccup …
  • What sound does a zipper make? When they say the word, act it out and repeat it.
  • What sound does a cat make?
  • Help them see that they can come up with words just because they know the sound. What sound does a glass make when it breaks? When a fork hits the floor? When a horn makes a noise? When a raindrop hits the car?
  • At some point introduce the word, onomatopoeia. Get in the habit of saying onomatopoeia when either of you identify one. Then do a high five.
  • Picture grandparents surprise some day when your child comes out with THAT word.

Sign Language

Human beings thrived because of our ability to connect with one another. These easy activities can expand your child’s experience of focussed connection – focussed listening. By using our eyes alone we can share content and feelings.

  • You can start to explore sign language by asking if they know how to say certain words without their voices. Of course they know ‘hello’ and ‘good-by’. ‘Yes’ and ‘no.’
  • Ask them if they know what a wink means? Applause? “I smell something I don’t like.’ When someone rolls their eyes – what do you think they are saying?
  • Learn a few of the basic signs together – ubiquitous basics like ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ ‘Yes’ and ‘no.’ ‘I agree’ or not. ‘Good night.’ ‘I love you.’
  • Get in the habit of partnering the signs when you use the words. Eventually, dropping away the words altogether.
  • Have a sign language chart posted near the kitchen. Occasionally interrupt what you are saying, run to the chart, then return and use the sign in combination with the word. This shouldn’t feel like a lesson – but should be more of a thread you incorporate creatively.
  • It gets fun when you see them across a room, and you can secretly communicate a message or two. Connection complete.
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Early journals

The purpose of this activity is to celebrate your child’s life. To watch it evolve and revisit feelings and changes and show that those feelings matter. And this might just be the beginning of a journaling habit.

  • Two or three evenings a week, before story time, ask your child about their day. What did they notice or do or feel? Draw pictures together. Glue special things. Write their words.
  • Every few weeks, get the journal out to read with your other bedtime books.
  • Encourage them to read their story to grandparents and other family members.

Animal Talk

Sometimes fish discover water last. These conversation ideas can help your child appreciate the intentions of words and sounds to convey meaning and to communicate in the animal and the human world.

  • What kind of sounds do animals use to communicate with each other?
  • Can people understand what “meow” means? Or is that a language that cats use for themselves?
  • Let’s borrow from the cat world and substitute the word “meow” for a word we use often, like “please?”
  • Meow may I have some more juice?
  • Excuse me, (name) but would you meow give me a hug?
  • Let’s think of other words we could use meow to replace?
  • Let’s see if, as a family, we can substitute that word for a whole meal?
  • The next day, surprise them by slipping the substitute work in.
  • Later in the week, let them decide what animal language you will play with at dinner.

Nursery Rhyme Habit

The purpose is simple – getting your child accustomed to the rhythms, rhymes and word play.

  • Use the length of a nursery rhyme as a timer for brushing their teeth. Walking up the stairs at night?
  • For little ones, after they have heard the rhyme a few times, start repeating the rhyme, but leave off the last word of each line – and let your child finish it.
  • Create cards with an image of the rhyme. When you serve breakfast, each person has to see if they can recite the rhyme that matches the picture. The rhyme itself can be written on the backs of the cards, so if they get a card they don’t know, they can try to read it – or ask for help.
  • Over time introduce verses from more sophisticated poems.
  • When you have grandparents or friends over for dinner, ask your child to put a card next to each plate. Let them be the ‘director’ – explaining the game and deciding who goes first.
  • On slips of paper, write a single line from a rhyme. See if they can remember the whole rhyme.
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Words Make You Feel

These discussion ideas help your child appreciate the power of words.

  • For young children … Share your feelings if someone says something that makes you sad. Ask your child if someone ever made them sad with words? Why did the words hurt?
  • I liked it when you laughed at my joke. It made me happy.
  • For older children, you can introduce more complexity. When you hear that someone has said something insensitive or hurtful, ask, “what is it about that statement that might be hurtful?”
  • Is being truthful about feelings a good thing? How might “You did a great job” make you feel? If someone ridiculed you, how would you feel? Both of these feelings happen instantaneously. Words are pretty powerful.
  • Help your child appreciate the power they hold in their hands. The power to make a difference in how people feel.
  • Explore different ways of saying the same thing – tilting from hurtful to positive.

Label stories

The big lesson? Helping your child learn that written words represent things. These symbols help a child think about items not actually in front of them.

  • Use index cards to represent objects in your home. Put the word, “chair” on a chair. Or the words “kitchen chair” or “Mommy’s favorite chair” when they are ready for more complexity.
  • Gather a few cards, sit in a comfortable spot, and make up stories using the cards. Have the “dog” sit on the “chair”. Or have the “dog” run.
  • Create cards naming what you are serving for dinner. See if they can match the cards with the food.
  • Ask them what cards they would like to see.
  • Make up some silly cards with mistakes, like a card that says “Mr. Poopy Pants” on their favorite stuffed animal. Have them help you make a correct tag.

Create storytellers by telling stories

The intention of this activity is for children to hear you spin a yarn or two.  Or tell real anecdotes – in a dramatic way. The magic comes from using something in their real life as the launch point.

  • Expand your bedtime routine to include ‘fresh’ stories – stories they can add to in real time.
  • Starter idea: When you were just 2 years old, your favorite umbrella looked like a frog. Then make up a story about what that special umbrella (shoes, pjs, etc.) did when not in use. It’s secret life.
  • Once upon a time, long ago, when Daddy was just a little boy ….
  • Did I tell you about the time Grandma brought some stars home in her pocket…?
  • Encourage them to add twists and turns.
  • Take turns starting stories.
  • Develop a standard way of winding down until the next bedtime, like, “and so, we leave this story tonight. We will let those characters go to sleep. Maybe we can revisit them tomorrow?

Does Nonfiction Mean True?

These discussion ideas are meant for older children. We all have some basic assumptions about the difference between the literary categories of fiction and non-fiction. But there are so many variations or lenses available when we consider the artistic intentions of both. But first, let’s look at the definitions:

Fiction: literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people

Nonfiction: prose writing that is based on facts, real events, and real people, such as biography or history

  • Why do you think it is important to know if a book is fiction or nonfiction? What might happen if someone believed that the Pinocchio (for example) was true?
  • Why do you think we need and enjoy imaginary stories? Why do you think they are valuable?
  • Sometimes imaginary stories have life lessons to share. What might the story of Pinocchio teach?
  • What fiction books are you enjoying now? What about the stories seem real or possible?
  • If a nonfiction story is based on a real person, can the author make some parts up? What if they didn’t know the actual weather for an event. Is it okay if they describe a stormy sky?
  • What if a nonfiction book is based on a real person, but only tells parts of that person’s life that support a particular point of view? How is that story true? Untrue?
  • There are many advice books available, everything from how to lose weight to make lots of money or how to find the perfect spouse. What about those books may be true and trustworthy vs fiction and untrustworthy? How can you tell?

Secrets & Promises 

Some words carry real weight. They matter. These discussion ideas can help you and your child explore and better understand the concept of ‘your word.’

  • What does “giving your word” mean? Explore the concept of ‘promise.’
  • Can you think of some promises you have made to people?
  • When I was your age I remember promising ____. It turned out to be a very difficult promise to keep because ….
  • Sometimes we make a promise that we have to break. What should happen? How would you feel if someone made a promise they didn’t keep?
  • Is there a way to make a promise without using the word? It’s like the word is what makes it real.
  • What is a secret?
  • Why do people want someone to keep what they just heard as a secret?
  • I remember when I was your age. I wanted to tell my friend about —-, but it was really important to me that they keep it a secret. They said they would, but later I found out they had shared it.
  • Has that happened to you?
  • Why is it so hard to keep a secret? What if you decide to share it with just one other person – and ask THAT person to keep it a secret? What might happen?
  • Is it ever okay to share it with someone else? With a grown-up?
  • If you or one of your friends broke a promise or shared a secret, what would be a good way to discuss what happened?

Why is it called texting and not writing?


What Does Mean Mean?

What is the language of bullies?

  • What do they say to be mean?
  • Do they want to scare people? Embarrass them?
  • Are there words that are never okay to use?
  • How can someone best respond if they are being bullied?
  • If you see bullying, what could you say to help the situation?
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Persuade Me!

When your child asks for something (a privilege, electronics, etc.), have them write a persuasive argument that convinces you.

Publish a Family Newspaper or Magazine

Encourage your child to publish a weekly newspaper. Suggest a day of the week it gets published (copied, printed and handed out). Ask what they will need to do or think about during the week so they can be ready. There are many lessons to be learned.

Depending on the age of your child, consider some of these options:

  • interviews, quotes
  • proofreading
  • guest contributors
  • letters to the editor

Copy and send electronically or print and hand out. Holidays can be especially fun. Relatives will love it. Include interviews with grandparents – cousins, etc.

“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions” by James A. Michener

Just 5 Words!

After meeting someone – or after an outing or event – you can help your child learn the importance of carefully chosen words.

  • “In just 5 words, how would you describe ….?” Note the words that match from your lists – and explore those that are different. Can you each understand why the differing words were chosen?
  • After a movie or TV show, ask for 5 words to describe the main character – or the action.


  • Play a guessing game. See if you can guess who they are describing – one word at a time. Can you guess in one word? Two?

How to Disagree with a Friend

The Good News, A Magazine of Understanding

“Frame your conversation by saying something like, “I need to talk about something important, and I’m uncomfortable,” or “This is hard to say, but I really need to tell you how I feel,” suggests Kathleen Galvin, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

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Take advantage of kids’ natural interest in awards and winning. When you have a big family event planned, or a bunch of friends are vsiting, have your child write funny awards for each person.

“If you had to give Uncle Seth a funny award, what would it be? Write a short description so any of us can read and give the award”

Help them find a way to bring a little truth, a lot of appreciation and a whole lot of fun to each award.

Write Movie Reviews

Start a family practice of writing (somewhat) formal reviews of movies and television programs. You can start by rating movie ratings (the extent to which the ratings seem accurate) from the news.

Then start your own system according to your criteria. Agree on a rating system – thumbs up? 4 hoorays?

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Sports Writing

At a family (or friend) event, ask your child to take notes at the “sporty” activities (or even board games) so they can then write an article to distribute later.

You might want to review the sports pages of your newspapers with your child in advance so they get the feel of well written documentation.

An alternative approach, have them write the story and then record it. Fake ads? Special photos?

So Very Really

Tell your child you really really want to reduce your use of the words “so,” “very,” and “really”. You’re going to try so very very hard. Will they notice and remind you when you weaken? You can thank them so so much.

Keep it Real

Children who may shy away from writing as an exercise often relish doing real work.

Give them the responsibility next time you need a note written, or instructions. A few examples:

Directions – to your home, or to a common meeting spot.

How-to – assemble something, or use a new tool or piece of sports equipment (to use with a visiting guest).

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.

Flannery O’Connor

How Teens Communicate: 7 Things You Should Know

For the time being, however, you can rest assured that most teens think land lines and email are lame, according to the study, which interviewed nearly 2,000 teens ages 13 to 17. Ericsson ConsumerLab said the respondents are representative of teens throughout the United States.

Here are seven useful (or at least interesting) takeaways from the study:

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Host a Quarterly Book Event

Invite friends and family. Your child picks the book everyone will read beforehand. Here are some ideas:

Plan a menu the protagonist would enjoy.

Have a (book title) jeopardy game with prizes.

Create and hand out a list of 10 key words from the story. Any time someone uses one of the words, the first person to ding the bell gets a nickel.

Develop a protagonist profile by asking people to answer questions in advance: What would be (character)’s favorite book? Movie? TV show? Food? What’s their middle name?

Magazines Aimed at Preteens and Teens

This requires a delicate approach – so there is no sense of judgment. The goal would be to engage in a conversation that explores magazine or newspaper content.

Can you picture being an editor of (your favorite) magazine? How do you suppose they select articles to include – or not include?

What do the articles all have in common? Length? Style? Content?

Can you tell what newspaper or magazine an article is from even out of context?

What would you do differently if you were the editor?

What-Kids-Who-Don’t-Like-To-Read-Like-To-Read: The Reading List

From the Parents Choice Foundation

Nationally and internationally recognized experts select, with groups of children, books which entice reluctant readers to reading – and keep them reading.

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The Name Game

A little word fun from Shirley Shirley Bo Birley Ellis, 1965.  All I can say is, man, lyrics surely have changed over the decades since then!

NPR’s Backseat Book Club

If you’re a kid who likes to read, we want to hear from you! Every month, we’ll pick a Book Club selection. We hope you’ll read it and send in your questions. At month’s end, we’ll put some of your questions to the book’s author during our afternoon radio program, All Things Considered.

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Newbery Award Winners

The 2012 Newbery Medal winner is Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, published by Farrar Straus Giroux.

The importance of history and reading (so you don’t do the same “stupid stuff” again) is at the heart of this achingly funny romp through a dying New Deal town.

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The Reading Habit

Plan a family reading time (1/2 hour three times a week plus 1 hour on weekend?) Or a family reading chart (same time commitments).

One mealtime a week the conversation is about what you have read. How did you pick that book? Was it what you expected? What did you like about it? Will you try to read something else by the same author?

Book Talk

After you have read a book, discuss it with your child: why you liked it; what you would have done if you faced the same circumstances as the protagonist; are there aspects to the character which you can identify with; did the ending surprise you? Just easy musings – modeling that it’s natural to discuss what you read.

To engage your child in a discussion about one of their books, try, “Tell me about …,” keeping it informal. These conversations are a great opportunity to reveal as much as to learn.

Apple of my eye

Appreciating metaphors can help children appreciate the beauty and power of language. Have some fun with this, over time. Create a little ritual (high fives, keeping score, etc.) when you spot one. Keep a list on the refrigerator.

Here are a few familiar metaphors.

His head was spinning; feel blue; broken heart; apple of my eye; a moving speech; heated debate; deep thoughts; breaking news; winds of change; glued to their seats; end on a sour note.