Young Children’s Literary Meaning Making

Miriam Martinez & Nancy Roser & Caitlin Dooley. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Much recent attention to young children’s literacy has focused on their acquisition and understanding of the alphabetic nature of English—and on the instruction that ensures their ability to segment spoken language into phonemes and attach those phonemes to graphemes en route to independent decoding (e.g. National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow et al., 1998). Less attention (at least within recent reviews in the US) has focused on compiling evidence for the complexity of children’s willingness and ability to make sense of their reading. Contending that meaning making is the gateway through which young children enter the world of literacy, this chapter reviews research and inquiry that provide insights into young children’s literary meaning making. In particular, we focus on ways in which children from preschool to approximately age eight construct meaning as they read, listen, and respond to written stories. Of course children’s literary experiences are not limited to stories in written form, and there is research that focuses on how children respond to other forms of stories (e.g. Robinson, 1997). However, because the most extensive body of research on children’s literary responses focuses on written stories, we have chosen to make this the focus of our review.

Margaret Donaldson (1978) argues that early in their lives children are working to make sense of their worlds. Although they have their own purposes and intentions, children are soon capable of escaping from their own point of view. Perhaps it is the ability to figure out others’ intentions that signals children’s ability to follow storylines and make literary meaning. Stories invite young people into a complex web of communities and cultures (Robinson, 1997), and figuring out what other people mean—understanding other people’s stories—presents complex linguistic and experiential demands. We examined the research literature to determine how young children seem to rise to the challenging tasks of constructing the intentions and meanings of written texts.

Stories are the most prevalent form of texts with which children are initiated into literacy, yet young children have literary experiences long before they learn to read (Rosenblatt, 1938/1976: ix). Fox describes the development of literary meaning making as children ‘playing themselves into the discourses of literature and literacy’ (1993: ix). Through their ‘storying,’ children reveal their grasp of narrative intent, their openness to layered meanings, their efforts toward character building, and their dexterity with ‘talking like a book’ (Fox, 1993). Likewise, students often encounter narrative texts on television and other media which also influence their storying abilities and interpretations (Robinson, 1997). Narrative, in all its forms, creates an avenue for children to explore the texts, language, and culture of their worlds.

According to Langer (1995) literary meaning making involves (among other things) knowing how to ‘move through’ story worlds. Moving through story worlds, or following the narrative strands of a story, requires a reader, viewer, or listener who is actively involved not only in determining the intentions of story characters, but also in understanding how characters both shape the storyline and are, in turn, shaped by it. Literary meaning making involves connecting pieces of the story—filling in the many gaps that stories naturally offer. To do this, children must draw on their personal experiences and knowledge about the world, including a host of linguistic and cognitive abilities.

Picturebooks are the most likely text encountered by young children, at least in societies in which tradebooks are published for children. When children listen to or read picturebooks, (see Nikolajeva, in this volume), they must process not only written information but pictorial information as well. According to Sipe (1998a), written language is processed in a sequential fashion while the processing of visual art is predominantly simultaneous in nature. So the child in contact with a picture-book story must process and then integrate two quite different kinds of information, contributing to the complexity of meaning making.

During the past quarter century, diverse strands of research have focused on how young children construct text meanings. Much of the earliest research, rooted in schema theory, gave insights into children’s memory representations of stories and how stories become assimilated into what children already know. However, this research was somewhat limited by its reliance on simple, contrived texts. More recently, another body of research has emerged. Conducted from the perspective of literary response theory, this strand has yielded rich insights into how young children construct meanings from authentic works of literature (e.g. Galda et al., 2000; Martinez and Roser, 2002). Much of this latter research has drawn on the theoretical thinking of Louise Rosenblatt, who describes the relationship between reader and text as a ‘transaction’ in which the reader attends not only to ‘what the words point to in the external world [but also] to the images, feelings, attitudes, associations and ideas that the words and their referents evoke’ (1978: 10). Rosenblatt argues that readers attend both to the text (including the ‘texts’ of illustrations) and to the ‘poem’ (or evoked meanings).

Although a number of investigations have focused on older children’s responses, increasingly researchers have attempted to describe and to interpret the literary responses of young children both at home and in school. In this chapter we review the research on response to storybook reading that provides insights into some ways children are initiated into meaning making. We have gathered investigations that examine the literary meaning making of young children from preschool to approximately grade three (about the ages four to eight). We have included studies that describe the nature of young children’s literary responses as well as explore what these responses reveal about the ways young children engage in literary making meaning. We have also included a body of research (stemming from the influence of Vygotsky, 1978, and others) that considers the role social interaction plays in shaping children’s literary thinking.

Current Understandings from Research on Children’s Literary Meaning Making

From our review of studies of children’s responses, several characterizations of children’s responses to literature seem to emerge: (1) children’s responses are rich and varied, centring both on texts and upon the child’s transaction with the ‘evoked poem’ (Rosenblatt, 1978); (2) children exhibit distinct response profiles; (3) responses vary across age groups; (4) responses change when the texts become familiar; and (5) responses often reflect the nature of guidance/modelling by the adult involved.

Children Respond in Rich and Varied Ways

Text-Centred Responses

Early investigators of young children’s responses such as Applebee (1978) and Hickman (1981) found that the story world was of primary importance to young respondents. Subsequent studies confirmed young children’s attention to and interest in the story world (e.g. Martinez and Roser, 1994; McGee, 1992; Sipe, 2000a). However, the earliest descriptions of children’s text-based responses yielded a somewhat narrow view of children’s responses. For example, Applebee (1978) found that his younger subjects (six-and nine-year-olds) focused on story actions as they retold or summarized stories. In fact, Applebee argued that young children are developmentally unable to analyse and generalize about stories.

However, as researchers broadened their methodology beyond structured interviews to include more naturalistic, observational methods, and as they broadened their views about what constituted response, they found vast evidence that children can respond in rich and diverse ways. Using ethnographic (e.g. Frank et al., 1998), sociolinguistic (e.g. Flint, 2000) and other qualitative lenses, researchers have revealed the complexity of children’s responses. Hickman (1981), for example, viewed response as any behaviour that revealed a connection between children and literature. In her investigation, she found that five-and six-year-olds responded to literature through body movements such as dance and applause, by sharing discoveries in books, through actions and drama, and by making representations based on literature. Similarly, Paley (1997) described how a student in her kindergarten classroom, deeply involved in the study of Leo Lionni’s picturebooks, began to interpret her own world through the perspectives of Lionni’s characters. Seemingly, children reveal their responses in multiple ways, including through group dramatization such as readers’ theatre (Trousdale and Harris, 1993), as well as through individual projects such as illustrating or role-playing (Kelly, 1990). Several researchers have also examined how written responses (including those of beginning-stage writers) develop and how children’s attempts to write in response to texts both enhance their writing and feed their oral responses (e.g. Kelly, 1990; Martinez et al., 1992; Wollman-Bonilla and Werchadlo, 1995). By viewing children’s responses more broadly and dynamically, researchers have gained clearer understandings of the ways in which children reveal literary meanings.

Recent investigators have found children’s engagement with the story world to be active and interpretive, in contrast with early researchers who characterized the young child as responding primarily at literal levels. This attention to the active, thoughtful role of the reader sensitizes the child to the non-neutral text—‘the substance on which the [reading] process works’ (Meek, 1988: 5). In an investigation focusing on the literature discussion of a group of six-and seven-year-olds with their teacher, McGee (1992) found that approximately one-third of the children’s responses were inferences and interpretations. Additionally, in his investigation of the responses made by six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds during storybook reading, Sipe (2000a) found that 40% of the children’s total talk was interpretive in nature. Typically this talk occurred as the children actively worked out meaning and focused on the unfolding storyline. Sipe described the range of the children’s interpretive responses:

The children described, evaluated, speculated, or made inferences about story characters’ actions, made frequent use of prediction commented about the structure of the story, made thematic or quasi-thematic statements [and] made evaluative comments about the story. (2000a: 265)

Similarly, Sipe (2001) found that a great deal of urban kindergartners’ talk (about 75%) was reflective of the children’s analysis of stories. Children discussed the significance in format, language, illustrations, plot meanings, and character relations. Additional evidence suggests that after children move through more literal responses, they are more likely to offer inferential, interpretive, and thematic responses (Kelly, 1990; Sipe, 1996). Although there is evidence that younger children are more firmly bound to the story world during their literature discussions than are older students (Martinez and Roser, 1994), it is also evident that young children actively construct meaning and use sophisticated interpretive strategies. There is some evidence that preschoolers are sensitive to (and respond differently to) varying literary genres (Shine and Roser, 1999). Seemingly, the more opportunities young children have to respond to literature, the more adept they become (McGill-Franzen and Lanford, 1994).

Just as Sipe found that his young participants offered thematic interpretations of stories, Lehr (1988; 1991), in her in-depth investigation of children’s ability to infer thematic meanings, found that even five-and seven-year-olds could successfully generate thematic statements. In particular, she found that when children talked at length about characters and their internal motivations, their talk frequently became the pathway through which they were able to discuss story themes. Lehr concluded that children who understood the inner workings of characters were able to take that information and ‘generate an overarching construct for the story’ (1991: 52). The thematic statements made by Lehr’s five-year-old subjects often differed from those offered by adults; nonetheless, the young children’s theme statements were congruent with the texts. Lehr (1988) concluded that although young children process meaning with different perspectives than adults, even young children construct meaning at thematic levels when the texts themselves are within their grasp.

Young children’s text-focused responses also include attention to the author’s and illustrator’s craft. In her model of literary meaning making, Langer (1995) describes a stance in which readers step outside the story world to ‘objectify’ their experience with text, achieving the distance necessary to consider the author’s or illustrator’s artistry. Evidence suggests that young children might actually be more attuned to the illustrator’s rather than the author’s craft. That is, they may be more likely to objectify the illustrations than the text. For example, a child might make an evaluative comment about an illustration (‘Wow! That dragon’s scary’) rather than the text (‘Wow! Those words are scary’). Kiefer noted that ‘as children communicate with and about picture books, they seem to develop a growing awareness of aesthetic factors and of the artist’s role in choosing these factors to express meaning’ (1988; 264). Sipe (2000a) found that 23% of the responses of the six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds in his study involved taking an analytical approach to illustrations. His subjects discussed artistic media, the arrangement of illustrations, as well as artists’ choices of colour and perspective—talk Sipe interpreted as ‘sophisticated.’

Children’s skilful reliance on illustration to make literary meaning has been documented by other researchers as well. Wolf and Heath (1992) produced a case description of how a three-year-old child gained insights into stories using information conveyed through illustrations. In their analysis of children’s responses to Anthony Browne’s Zoo, Styles and Arizpe (2001) found that children as young as four used visual cues to infer the unhappiness of the animals in the story. Because the crafting that illustrators and authors achieve is closely linked with the meanings they seek to convey, attention to text as a crafted object provides young readers and listeners with an additional pathway to meaning.

It is possible that attention to the illustrator’s craft makes clearer to children the notion that text, too, is artistically constructed. Wolf and Heath observed that ‘a child accustomed to illustrative metaphors will quickly recognize the honesty, mischievousness, or inner beauty of a character and use the clues of costume or expression to define character and predict outcomes’ (1992: 57). A number of researchers have documented young children’s attention to the text as an ‘object’ crafted by an author (Green, 1982; Kelly, 1990; Wollman-Bonilla, 1989). Although young children’s responses to the features and qualities of text appear to occur less frequently than other types of response (Martinez et al., 1992; McGee, 1992; Sipe, 1998a), this type of response is, nonetheless, important in terms of the ways in which children construct meaning.

Children seem especially likely to focus on the artistry of literature in contexts in which their attention is directed toward features of craft. Bloem and Manna (1999) described classroom author/illustrator studies as one way to engage readers in thoughtful literary analysis. These researchers found that the eight-year-olds in their investigation attended to the artistry of the texts and illustrations as well as to the teacher models of response. The children took pleasure in the nuances of texts and in querying how an author/illustrator (Patricia Polacco) crafted her work. Madura described an approach to the teaching of language arts through the ‘world of the picturebook,’ documenting how her students came to understand themselves as readers and writers in a learning environment that valued ‘beauty, personal reflection, and the process of creating visual and written compositions’ (1995: 116). Keifer (1983; 1988) suggests that through picturebooks, children can learn that illustrations as well as texts carry meaning. After working for over six years with students from kindergarten through fourth grade, Kiefer found that children’s appreciation for craft develops over time and with many opportunities for response.

Reader-Centred Responses

While attention to text is critical as children respond to literature, researchers have also acknowledged the vital importance of reader-centred responses. As children build bridges between their personal experiences and the stories they read, they are involved in a fundamental act of literary meaning making. Hickman’s (1981) seminal study described the personal associations young children make with literature. Subsequent studies have confirmed her findings (e.g. Martinez et al., 1992; Short, 1992; Sipe, 1998b; Wollman-Bonilla, 1989; Wollman-Bonilla and Werchadlo, 1995). The six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds in Sipe’s (2000a) investigation relied on experiences from their own lives to understand various facets of stories. Studies by McGee (1992) and by Wollman-Bonilla and Werchadlo (1995) identified yet another way in which children use personal experiences to better understand stories: The subjects in these investigations became vicariously involved with character as they stepped into the characters’ roles and made judgements about how they would feel if they found themselves in a similar situation. Wollman-Bonilla and Werchadlo also found that the number of reader-centred responses, especially personal reactions to stories, grew as children were encouraged to respond to texts over time.

A number of studies have found that young children not only use personal experiences to understand text better, but also use text to understand some facet of their own lives—a type of response Cochran-Smith (1984) labels as ‘text-to-life’ connections. Langer (1995) has described a text-to-life connection as a stance in which readers ‘step out’ of stories (even momentarily) to reflect on how the events, ideas, or characters relate to their own lives or the lives of others. McGinley and Kamberelis (1996) found that, for the eight-and nine-year-olds in their study, literature served both a personal and a social function. Their participants used literature as a means of reflecting on experiences and imagining possibilities, but they also attempted to use stories as vehicles to help them better understand and negotiate social relationships and address significant social problems. In effect, the children in McGinley and Kamberelis’ investigation used literature as a lens through which they could better understand their own personal experiences and their world. Wolman-Bonilla and Werchadlo (1995) found that these connections increased over time and with experience.

Children bring their experiences with other texts to literature study, and various researchers have found that young children make valuable and insightful intertextual connections when responding to literature (Oyler and Barry, 1996; Short, 1992; Sipe, 2000a)—producing what Cochran-Smith (1984) calls a ‘text-to-text’ connection. Sipe (2000b) maintains that these intertextual connections are important to children’s developing literary understanding. In his investigations of five-, six-, and seven-year-olds, Sipe found that children use intertextual connections to interpret or analyse the language, narrative elements, and symbolic aspects of stories. In particular, Sipe’s subjects used intertextual connections to ‘interpret story characters’ appearance, feelings, motivation, and the plot’ (2000b: 80). Based on an investigation of young children’s responses to five variants of a traditional tale, Sipe (2001) found that opportunities to explore variants enabled the children to build schemata for traditional tales. In particular, the children analysed the story, ‘understanding the function of characters, the plot sequence, the setting, and the other narrative elements’ (2001: 347).

Individuals Have Distinct Response Profiles

While it is possible to address text-centred and reader-centred responses in general, it is also important to acknowledge that individuals respond to stories and make their own meanings from stories in their own ways. Wolf and Heath (1992), for example, found that two sisters had distinctive ways of responding to stories. Lindsey, the older sister, saw books as opportunities for social interaction. She chose drama as her way to represent her meaning making. Ashley, the younger sister, preferred to sit quietly alone, intently studying the illustrations in stories. Ashley preferred reflection to acting out stories; in addition, she showed appreciation for story language. Sipe (1998b; 2000a) also found distinctive response styles among the beginning readers in his study. He analysed the ways in which four of his subjects, Sally, Charles, Krissy, and Jim, responded to stories. The typical way in which Sally responded to literature was through close analysis and logical reasoning. Further, Sally used intertextual references to substantiate the points she made during discussions and was concerned with identifying relationships between fictional stories and reality. Another defining feature of Sally’s response style was her sensitivity to the feelings of story characters and to issues of equity and justice. Charles was a ‘performative responder’ who often used story worlds as springboards for his own flights of fancy. Charles seemed to relish taking on the roles of characters and creating voices for them. Charles’ responses were typified by his predictions of upcoming story events. The most distinctive feature of Krissy’s response style was her tendency to suggest story-based creative activities in which she and her classmates might engage—art activities, drama activities, and others. Krissy also delighted in inventing alternatives to the plots of stories and sharing her speculations about stories with classmates. She was especially interested in craft and frequently talked about the artistic styles and techniques used by illustrators. The defining feature of Jim’s response style was his ability to take a broad perspective on stories; frequently during story discussions, Jim shared thematic and quasi-thematic statements.

Like Sipe, Keenan (1993) evaluated the various ways in which first-graders responded in writing to characters in fairytales and found that while some children made personal connections (‘text-to-self’) with the characters (e.g. writing to characters for advice or as conversation), others made more ‘text-to-text’ and ‘text-to-life’ connections (e.g. writing to a character from one fairytale about a character from another, or introducing a character to one’s own home and family). The work of Wolf and Heath, Sipe, and Keenan suggests that even very young children may go about the process of constructing meaning in highly individualistic ways.

Children Respond Differently across Age Levels

Even though children develop their own preferred styles of response, they are also developing as responders and meaning makers in ways that can be broadly sketched. Although most researchers seem to agree that development occurs, fine-tuned understandings about that development are still being shaped. In an early investigation focused on the developmental nature of children’s literary responses, Applebee (1978) looked at literary thinking across four age groups. He asked his younger subjects (six-and nine-year-olds) to identify, tell about, and evaluate favourite stories. Applebee examined the children’s objective responses (i.e. those responses concerned with a story’s publicly verifiable characteristics) as well as their subjective or personal responses. In their objective responses, the children focused on story actions rather than story characteristics such as point of view or theme. However, the forms of objective responses differed between the six-and nine-year-olds, with the younger children typically producing detailed retellings while the older children produced synopses or summaries. Further, the six-year-olds typically offered global evaluations (e.g. ‘It’s good’) in their subjective responses, while the nine-year-olds evaluated by placing stories in categories with clearly marked attributes (e.g. ‘dreary’ or ‘interesting’).

More recent research demonstrates changes in how children choose to express their responses as they get older. In a longitudinal case study of her daughter’s responses to various editions of Hansel and Gretel, Wolf (1991) found changes in the style of response with age and exposure to a text. At ages three and four, the child responded more physically (e.g. pantomiming and acting out the story), whereas at ages five and six, her gestures became ‘more subdued and her talk opened up into comments, questions, [and] tentative hypotheses’ (1991: 389). In the same manner, Hickman (1981) observed differences in children’s responses in three multi-age classrooms (five-and six-year-olds; seven-and eight-year-olds; and nine-and ten-year-olds). As noted earlier, Hickman broadened the definition of response to include both verbal and physical responses. Although Hickman found instances of both modes of response in each of the three classrooms in which she collected data, she found that some modes were more characteristic of particular age levels. For example, the younger children were more likely to use their bodies to respond. These five-and six-year-old children frequently dramatized the action of stories read aloud and in teacher-led discussions, and they enacted parts of stories during dramatic play. Hickman observed that the seven-and eight-year-olds appeared to be at a transitional level. At times they responded in much the same way as did the younger children. However, at other times they appeared to be more like the nine-and ten-year-olds whom Hickman characterized as being intensely attentive to books, sometimes becoming ‘lost in books.’

In their oral responses, five-and six-year-olds in Hickman’s study expressed more interest in stories than in the authors of stories. Although they were very concerned with sorting out plot, they often reduced stories to ‘lessons’ when invited to interpret meaning. The personal statements these younger children made were only loosely tied to stories. Finally, these children expressed concern with the reality of stories by talking about whether stories were ‘true’ or ‘possible.’ Even though the seven-and eight-year-olds sometimes responded in similar ways, at other times they showed less need to focus on the story world in their verbal responses and instead revealed connections between their own experiences and story meanings. In addition, they were beginning to recognize the role of the author as the creator of a story.

Lehr (1988) found developmental trends in children’s (ranging in age from five to 10) ability to identify and articulate story themes. Lehr asked her subjects to identify realistic books with related themes as well as folktales with related themes. Although all the children were more successful in identifying related themes of realistic stories, the older children (ages seven to 10) made the same selections as adults more often than did the younger children (ages five and six). The older children were also more successful in making their own thematic statements for the stories. Lehr also found differences across age levels in children’s awareness of character motivation. The older children ‘identified with characters and expected characters to change, whereas [younger] children typically did not want to change actions of characters’ (1988: 351).

A number of researchers have documented differences in children’s literary thinking across grade levels; however, it is not yet clear the extent to which differences may reflect the influence of factors such as instruction and experience rather than developmental constraints. For example, in examining children’s responses, Lehr found that her subjects’ previous experiences with literature were tied to the sophistication of their responses.

Children Talk Differently When the Text is Familiar

In yet another effort to gain understanding about the complexities and shifts in children’s meaning making efforts, several investigators have examined children’s responses across time when the same story is reread (cf. Crago and Crago, 1976; Hickman, 1979; Kiefer, 1986; Yaden, 1988). In both homes and classrooms, adults repeatedly read the same story to children, and these repetitions appear to affect children’s responses. Martinez and Roser (1985) examined changes in preschool children’s naturally occurring responses as they listened to stories read aloud repeatedly across intervals of time. Focusing on the storytime interactions of a four-year-old and her father and a group of four-year-olds and their preschool teacher, the researchers identified four changes that signalled the differences in children’s responses as they repeatedly listened to stories. First, the child at home and those in a preschool storytime talked more about familiar than unfamiliar stories. Secondly, the form of children’s responses changed when listening to unfamiliar and familiar stories, i.e. the child reading with her father asked more questions when a story was read for the first time and shared more comments when listening to familiar stories. In the preschool, the children also made more comments when stories were familiar. Further, the focus of responses (i.e. whether on characters, events, details, title, setting, story language, or theme) changed over repeated readings of stories. The actual pattern of change varied from story to story; however, the shifts in focus suggest that, as children gain control over particular aspects of stories, they are able to attend to other dimensions. Finally, when children chose to talk about a particular aspect of a story across multiple readings, the discussion that occurred suggested that the children were probing the story more deeply than they had initially.

Morrow (1988) examined the number and complexity of four-year-olds’ responses to literature. She also investigated children’s responses to stories read to them repeatedly. The children, all from low socio-economic backgrounds attending urban childcare centres, were assigned to two experimental groups and one control group. The children in the first experimental group were read a different book each week for 10 weeks on a one-to-one basis. Children in the second experimental group heard repeated readings of only three different books. The children in the control group were involved in traditional reading readiness activities. Morrow found that participation in one-to-one readalouds increased the quantity and complexity of the children’s responses. Children in both experimental groups asked more questions and made more comments than those in the control group, and children in the ‘different-book’ group asked more questions, while those in the ‘repeated-book’ experimental group made more comments about the stories they heard. From Morrow’s intervention, it seems that repeated experiences with stories fostered a wider variety of response and more complex, interpretive comments than did single readings of stories.

The results of these investigations suggest that increased opportunities to listen to a story result in more complex literary meaning making. Seemingly, increased familiarity with a story appears to enrich a child’s literary meaning making by giving licence to explore different facets of stories.

The Social Nature of Response

For the most part, young children’s responses to literature are being observed and learned about within social contexts—during classroom readalouds, literature circles, and family story readings.

Vygotsky (1978) and others have characterized the vital role that social interactions play in shaping and clarifying language and thought. Similarly, teachers and researchers have long recognized the importance of opportunities for learners to work together to share ideas, and make meaning. Through opportunities to interact with peers around a shared experience (such as a story), children shape their thoughts and feelings about the experience. Researchers argue that the deepest levels of understanding are made possible though social interaction. While researchers have examined storybook reading in both home and school as contexts for initiating children into meaning construction, in large part we limit this section of our review to the school context which is arguably, for many children, the primary social setting for literary meaning making (Langer, 1995).

Storybook Readalouds

Storybook readalouds in the school may well serve as the best possible impetus to literary meaning making. Langer suggests that:

through literary experience, teachers can help students become aware of and use their various cultural selves to make connections, explore relationships, examine conflicts, and search for understandings through the literature they read and the interactions they have. (1995: 38)

While reading aloud storybooks, adult readers can initiate children into the intricacies of meaning construction as they step into the roles of model, guide, and fellow discussant; concurrently, children have the opportunity to tell what they understand, to ask questions, to extend their ideas, and to develop social and intellectual allies (Pellegrini and Galda, 1998). Hepler and Hickman have observed that the ‘literary transaction, the one-to-one conversation between author and audience, is frequently surrounded by other voices’ (1982: 279). The conversations around literature in which different ideas, conjectures, and backgrounds are shared allow for enriched understanding and experience (Bakhtin, 1986; Lindfors, 1999; Pellegrini and Galda, 1998). However, Eeds and Wells (1989) remind us that a rich exchange of ideas is likely to occur only when adults use strategies that foster ‘grand conversations’ rather than ‘gentle inquisitions.’

Cochran-Smith (1984) conducted a comprehensive 18-month study of preschoolers’ socialization into literacy. She found that the three-to five-year-olds in her investigation learned to interpret stories during group story reading:

In the verbal interaction around books, the story reader instructed her listeners in how to make sense of texts by helping them to use—or using for them—various kinds of world and literary knowledge. She also guided the children in ways to use book knowledge in their lives. (1984: 6)

Through readalouds and the conversation that surrounded them, the adult story reader in Cochran-Smith’s study tried to make more transparent for children the internal reading processes of adult readers. Cochran-Smith characterized the interactions that occurred during the storybook readings in the preschool as being dialogic or conversational in nature. The children answered questions, made comments, and offered interpretations, while the adult reader guided the children based on their responses. The adult story reader and children constructed meaning together.

In her analysis of the data, Cochran-Smith identified two major types of interaction sequences—‘life-to-text’ interactions and ‘text-to-life’ interactions. The life-to-text interactions, which accounted for the majority of interaction sequences, ‘helped listeners make sense of the events, characters, action, and information in the particular books being shared’ (1984: 169). In the life-to-text interactions, children learned to use extratextual information to make sense of the text. In particular, the adult reader modelled how to use four kinds of knowledge to read and interpret stories: (1) knowledge of the world; (2) knowledge of literary conventions; (3) knowledge of story or narrative; and (4) knowledge of how to respond as a member of a reading audience. According to Cochran-Smith, under the tutelage of the adult story reader, the children learned to use both knowledge of the world and personal knowledge to fill in gaps in the story and to integrate story information. When the children lacked necessary world knowledge, the story reader supplied it and then guided the children in using that knowledge. The story reader also guided the children in acquiring knowledge of literary conventions, including genre conventions. For example, she showed them the titles of stories they read, and signalled to the children that titles are likely to hold clues to what the story will be about. She also identified stories by genre and signalled how books in a particular genre should be read (e.g. ‘This is a wordless picture book. Be sure to look carefully at each picture to create a story’).

The story reader also helped the students understand the basics of narrative, which Cochran-Smith identified as characters and action. Story readers placed a great deal of emphasis on both characters and action through the use of questions such as: ‘Who is this character?,’ ‘How does she feel?,’ ‘Why?,’ ‘What do the character’s actions tell you about how she feels?’ In effect, the storybook reading interactions told the children that (1) it was important to make inferences about characters by integrating the information in pictures and texts; and (2) this information ‘played an important role in what happened in a story’ (1984: 21). Finally, the adult story reader shared with the children knowledge of how to respond as a member of the story audience. The adult shaped the children’s responses by modelling how she felt as a member of the audience and suggesting feelings the children might have. Children learned to talk about what they might do if they found themselves in the same situation as the story characters as well as what the story told them.

The Roles of the Teacher

While Cochran-Smith has done an extensive analysis of what young children learn about literary meaning construction during readalouds, others have also added to this understanding. Both Sipe (1998a) and Wolf and Heath (1992) found that the adult story reader helps young children learn to integrate textual and pictorial information. Wolf and Heath observed that children can learn a great deal about interpreting character during the read aloud, both through the reader’s prosodic oral interpretation and through the talk that occurs around stories following the readaloud. These researchers also found that through readalouds children learn about features of particular literary genres.

The roles teachers assume and the strategies they use seem to be critical elements of story sharing experiences. McGee et al. (1994) coded and analysed discussions led by three first-grade teachers and found that the teachers took on five roles: (1) facilitator; (2) helper/nudger; (3) responder; (4) literary curator (i.e. drawing attention to the literary elements in a story); and (5) reader. They suggest that in order to lead ‘grand conversations’ (Eeds and Wells, 1989), teachers in their study invited students’ responses and allowed children to initiate topics of conversation. They found, however, that the teachers in their study did not model their own responses enough and rarely took on the role of ‘literary curator’—both roles that might have supported students’ growing literary awareness. Roser and Martinez (1985) identified three roles that teachers and parents seemed to take as they read and talked about stories with preschoolers: (1) co-responder; (2) informer; and (3) director. As a co-responder, the adult entered the conversation as a participant and modelled literary meaning making and response; as the informer, the adult interpreted aspects of the story and guided children through the process of constructing meaning. The director role was one of assuring procedures and routines typically unrelated to story understanding. In a study of the storybook readaloud styles of six teachers of five-year-olds, Martinez and Teale (1993) documented differences in three facets of their readaloud style: (1) the focus of the teacher talk; (2) the type of information that the teachers and students talked about; and (3) the instructional strategies used by the teachers.

As part of their role during storybook readaloud time, many teachers ask questions to prompt and maintain discussion. McGee (1992), in her study of the ‘grand conversations’ of five-and six-year-olds, compared the level of interpretive discourse before and after teachers inserted one interpretive question into the literary conversation. After reading each story, the discussion leaders simply asked, ‘What do you think?’ In each case, children talked freely about one of three picturebooks, with the teacher initially following the children’s conversational leads. Teachers asked no questions as the children talked and made comments only to clarify. Then, as the discussion waned, the teacher leaders posed one previously prepared interpretive question intended to focus children on the significance of the story as a whole (but not intended to elicit a single ‘right’ answer). McGee’s analysis revealed that students made more interpretive responses and produced more focused responses after the question than before it. McGee concluded that:

although it seemed important for students to explore stories on their own terms, switching from topic to topic in an open-ended conversation prompted by their own responses and questions, it also seemed important to focus the conversation around a teacher-posed interpretive question which called for students to reflect on the work as a whole and to use inferential and critical thinking. (1992: 186).

The teacher’s role in creating an environment conducive to literary meaning making was explored in a study of Spanish/English bilingual kindergarten children using their knowledge of languages to respond to stories read aloud (Battle, 1993; 1995). The bilingual teacher contributed to children’s collaborative meaning making in English and Spanish by encouraging her children’s responses in three ways during storytime. First, during story discussion, the teacher made it ‘safe to talk’ by focusing on what the children had to say rather than the language forms they used. Secondly, throughout the readaloud the teacher encouraged questions, observations, and opinions. At times, she repeated, paraphrased, or added to the children’s talk, sharing her own enthusiasms. Thirdly, the teacher provided multiple invitations to speak, but did not demand or require response. Battle concluded that this teacher’s participation encouraged, supported, and maintained thought and talk in book discussion in both languages:

The teacher’s role seemed to be to highlight either the aspects of text or the children’s comments and questions that might hold potential for discussion, and then to allow the children to talk. (1993: 166)

Nevertheless, not all storybook readaloud experiences are equally rich opportunities for young children to participate in literary meaning making. Cochran-Smith (1984) observed the storybook readalouds that occurred when her subjects visited the library and found that some adults discouraged interaction during the readaloud. Rather, the librarian in her study expected the children to listen to the story and reserve their talk until after the readaloud. In her study of the literacy opportunities in three communities in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas in the United States, Heath (1982) found that families in two of the three communities read to their children. However, in one community parents typically expected their children to sit quietly during the readaloud and then answer follow-up ‘what’ questions (as opposed to ‘why’ questions). By contrast, the families in the community that Heath described as ‘school-oriented’ engaged their children in interactive readaloud experiences and also helped their children use book meanings to make sense of their world. Similar evidence comes from a series of three case studies of teacher-led readalouds in preschools: McGill-Franzen and Lanford (1994) found that preschoolers in lower socio-economic areas received fewer opportunities for open-ended, higher-level literary discussions than those in higher socio-economic areas.

Learning to Construct Literary Meaning is a Complex Task

Against contemporary pressures to attend to only part of children’s literacy learning, Sipe and Bauer have cautioned:

Too often, the view is that literary understanding is a frill, and that what children really need is more drill and skill approaches. The crisis of literacy may not best be solved by these more fragmented methods, but by capitalizing on the meaning-making and interpretive richness that children bring to literacy and literature. (2001: 340)

When we understand more about how and why children approach stories and make meanings, we become better positioned to teach. Fortunately, as a learning community, we are becoming ever more understanding (and appreciative) of children’s understandings (Duckworth, 1987). We have learned that students’ responses to literature vary with development, with experience, with the text, with the tasks, and across readers. As a learning community of researchers and teachers, we value opportunities for children to reveal their literary meanings and to be supported in the process of making meaning.

If literary meaning making is to be both an avenue to and an outcome of children’s literacy learning, a number of factors seem implicated. First, it appears important to let children hear, read, and talk about stories and texts. As James Britton wrote, ‘Perhaps the most important general implication for teaching is to note that anyone who succeeded in outlawing talk in the classroom would have outlawed life’ (1970: 223). Secondly, children seem to require (beyond rich language learning opportunities) time to revisit favourite stories repeatedly. Rereading both reacquaints and reassures, as well as reopens to new discoveries and understandings. Thirdly, the richest meaning making appears to occur in interactive experiences in which children share with and learn from other listeners and readers. Fourthly, children seem to require multiple opportunities to respond (and demonstrate their meanings) in a variety of formats. Fifthly, some of the best meaning making opportunities seem to occur in the presence of the most inviting texts—stories with powerful language and themes that inspire ideas and feelings, thought and talk (Martinez and Roser, 1995). Sixthly, literary meaning making is rigorous activity. Meanings are not, as Rosenblatt cautions, all of equal value. The most value is assigned to those literary responses that can be supported by returning to the text. Seventhly, teachers can introduce children to a variety of texts using a wide range of media. For example, by providing time for discussion of televised texts, teachers can help to create more informed and critical viewers and consumers (Robinson, 1997). Finally, the role of knowledgeable teacher/leader must be seriously shouldered. By selecting texts, reading evocatively, modelling responses, thinking aloud, prompting students with the well-placed comment or question, drawing children’s attention (or noticing their attention) to the authors’ and illustrators’ craft, teachers scaffold young children’s thinking and meaning making abilities.

Directions for Future Research

While existing research has revealed a great deal about children as constructors of literary meaning, questions remain. The earliest strand of response research explored differences in children’s meaning construction across age levels. While this work was pioneering in nature, subsequent research has been increasingly grounded in literary theory and has relied on more sophisticated techniques for collecting and analysing data. There would be value in revisiting the question of how children’s meaning construction differs across ages, grounding that research in our deepened understanding of the nature of literary response. We are also at a very beginning point in understanding the nature of young children’s textual knowledge (e.g. their knowledge of genre features, narrative devices, author and illustrator styles), how they acquire this knowledge, and how this knowledge impacts their construction of meaning. Further, researchers investigating young children’s meaning construction have focused primarily on children’s responses to picturebooks. Perhaps this comes as no surprise given that picturebooks are the form of printed literature to which most children are first introduced. However, through readalouds many young children at home and school are also introduced to chapter books. There have been no investigations of how young children learn to navigate these lengthier and more complex works of literature. The cultural realm of response is one that especially deserves our attention as researchers. We need to explore differences in the construction of meaning that may exist among cultural and ethnic groups, especially the differences that may exist among groups that come from oral storytelling traditions rather than narrative traditions grounded in printed texts or the media. A portrait of young literary thinkers has begun to take shape from existing research; yet that portrait is one that is likely to take on increasing depth and richness as we continue to pursue investigations of children as meaning makers.