Teaching Children Book Handling Skills

Your little ones are becoming quite the readers! Yes, your charges might be all of three years old, but you’ve already spotted several budding bookworms. Once upon a time, you could pull out a random, age-appropriate story and read uninterrupted until naptime. Not anymore. Now, you’ve got a bunch of inquisitive toddlers who grab at your book as you try to read, attempt to trace or sound out words over your shoulder, close the book when your back’s turned, or even read along with you.     

Some of those may seem more like rebellion than the actions of book-loving tots, but those storytime interruptions actually represent the first signs of literacy in children. No, toddlers can’t necessarily read full sentences yet, but their ability to understand the simplest things about books – how to hold them up correctly, how to handle them with care, what those squiggly lines on the page mean, what a page is in the first place – is an important first step on the road to literacy.

This process of figuring out how books actually work (or, what literacy experts call book handling) doesn’t seem like much for a child who may be tackling The Very Hungry Caterpillar in a few short years, but this is a key aspect of print awareness that children must master before the work of learning how to read can begin.

Teaching proper book handling skills means understanding the role print awareness plays. Print awareness is a catch-all term for the basic rules that govern early childhood literacy and how children learn to understand words. These rules make sure that readers and writers alike understand how text on the page should be read. At its core, print awareness means that children understand words and letters on a page – even if they have yet to learn what they are – relay a message. Book handling is but one of these rules. If they can understand that words have meaning, they will soon be able to understand how to use books to get to those words, which will lead to being able to understand exactly what those words mean. That, in essence, is learning how to read.

To fully master print awareness, children should also have an instinctual feel for the way print is oriented on the page; for readers of the English language, that means knowing words flow from left to right. Adults can see this instinct in action if a child can tell that a book or page is upside down and tries to fix it. You may also see a child take more control over the reading process by trying to sound out words, tracing words along the page as you read, turning pages, or even snatching a book from you in an attempt to figure everything out without your help. These developing instincts show burgeoning print awareness in children – and those attempts to grab your book and read along at storytime shows that they’re learning the concept of book handling. (All that grabbing may also make it a good idea to show them how to care for books properly.)

Research shows that children develop many aspects of print awareness on their own before the age of three. This makes sense: kids see printed words all around them from birth. Even if they can’t necessarily read a stop sign, they know that big block letters on a red octagon usually means “stop.” They can probably figure out that a printed list at a restaurant means “menu” and that printed pages in a bound book can tell a story – even if they can’t read it themselves. When they’re able to access books on their own, their newfound print awareness lets them know that books should be read and handled in a certain way. It all seems instinctual, but can parents and child care professionals actually teach book handling skills?

The good news is that your children’s emerging print awareness should make teaching book handling skills fairly easy – especially if you already have a classroom filled with books. Placing books in a child’s toy box along with all those dolls, toy trucks, and stuffed animals encourages little ones to explore a book as thoroughly as any other toy. And if the child sits down to “read” one of those books during playtime, you’re already on the right track.

Another key to teaching book handling skills is to surrender a bit of control over storytime. If a little one wants to grab the book and turn the pages, let it happen! Just make sure that you encourage the child to be gentle to teach proper caring for books. If you’re not quite ready for that, make storytime more of a bonding experience by sitting next to the child and tracing the words as you read aloud. Eventually, the little one will make the connection between what you’re tracing and what you’re sounding out – and will probably try to figure out how to pull off that cool little trick independently. As children get older, you can point out the most important parts of the book, like the front cover, title, illustrations, and page numbers.

You can even point out the author and illustrator’s names and explain how those people brought the book to life. If you haven’t done so already, this is a great time to explain how to take care of books.

You can also teach children book handling skills by expanding the child’s print awareness. By helping your little ones understand that letters form words and words form sentences, you’re encouraging them to interact with letters, words, and sentences as much as possible – and what better way to do that than reading books? You can do this by adding some alphabet blocks to the class toy box so kids learn to turn letters into words independently. You can also point out printed signs and their meanings inside and outside the classroom, which may make children excited to encounter more printed words on a page. Furthermore, you can decorate your classroom with word walls and alphabet displays to drive home the importance of the written word.

Sometimes, using more of a hands-on approach to book handling might work best. Instead of commanding the room during storytime, try giving your students a copy of the same book and reading it as a group. You can use it to go over every part of the book together, from the front cover to the back. You can even drill down on identifying things like page numbers, and demonstrate how to properly hold a book and turn its pages. Eventually, your students will be able to identify words and capital letters. Here are some other activities you can try:

  • Act out the books you read during storytime to further demonstrate the connection between spoken and written words.
  • Use books to help children recognize words that are important to them.
  • Help your students create a list of their favorite words from their favorite storytime books and place them on a word wall.
  • Go beyond alphabet blocks and use magnetic letters and word/alphabet games to demonstrate the relationship between words and letters. You can go a step further and find alphabet blocks and games with both uppercase and lowercase letters.
  • Quiz students on finding capital letters and specific words in the books you read in class.
  • Ask your students to predict a book’s story by looking only at the front cover.
  • Bring in a newspaper or magazine (keep it short!) and have students look for certain words or punctuation marks.

You can also try putting together a class library, as long as you set out clear rules for students on caring for books they check out. As they begin to evolve from simple print awareness to being able to decipher words on a page, they’ll need to learn more about how to take care of books, which may lead to a couple of lectures about dog ears and crayon marks. In any case, by kindergarten, your students should be able to:

  • Identify all the parts of a book, including front/back cover, title page, spine, illustrations
  • Hold a book correctly
  • Recognize how text should be read (left to right, and top to bottom)
  • Know the relationship between spoken and printed words
  • Understand that printed words have meaning
  • Understand the importance of caring for books
  • Know the difference between letters and words, and between words and sentences
  • Understand how punctuation marks means a sentence has ended
  • Identify when to start and stop reading
  • Know that stories have a beginning, middle, and end

For many children, the road to literacy begins with a series of simple discoveries: what letters are, how those letters form words, how those words form sentences – and that all those things have meaning. That spark of print awareness often leads children toward learning more about how those words and sentences form the stories they love. Teaching book handling skills (and how to take care of books) involves taking that emerging print awareness and channeling it toward the printed page.

Understanding the basics of the printed word teaches kids to seek words out wherever they can, which means learning as much as they can about books and how they work. Book handling skills involve far more than caring for books. Learning to turn pages, fix upside-down books, and recognize a book’s basic parts may seem inconsequential, but these tiny realizations (and yes, caring for books) are the first steps in a process designed to turn your budding bookworms into refined readers.

Teaching children to read isn’t always easy, but CCEI courses like Environmental and Functional Print , The Read-Aloud Process: Building the Components of Literacy, and Storytelling for Enrichment, Early Literacy, and Fun can help you help your students become the best readers possible.

Visit the ChildCare Education Institute to learn more about these courses as well as our entire catalog of professional development offerings!