The Whole Book Approach Goes Online: Tips to Enrich Storytimes During Periods of Emergency Remote Learning

By: Megan Dowd Lambert
(as originally posted on Charlesbridge)

My book, Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See (Charlesbridge 2015) introduced the Whole Book Approach storytime model I developed in association with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art to a wider audience. Now that it’s in paperback, I’m thrilled to see my book reaching even more readers, and new Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets for grades pre-k through 5 from Steps to Literacy are poised to help educators shake up storytime in the new schoolyear. Each set includes a sturdy book bin holding:

I put my whole heart into this project, and I am so excited for the sets to find their way into classrooms; and yet, my excitement is dampened by the tremendous uncertainty facing educators and families alike as the 2020/2021 academic year looms before us in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As a parent, I’ve been searching for resources to help guide and structure my children’s experiences with emergency remote learning since school shutdowns began in our community last March. Their teachers rallied to provide online learning, and I supported, encouraged, and augmented my children’s participation as best I could. As an educator, I also began trying to provide resources to help others. I co-authored an annotated picture book list for Embrace Race, I led professional development webinars, offered online storytimes with Link to Libraries and Story Starters, and gave online interviews. Given the fact that shutdowns seem more like an inevitability than a possibility for many schools during the upcoming academic year, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about how my new Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets might be most useful during periods of emergency remote learning.

First, although the household market wasn’t the planned target audience for the sets, I hope that some families with children in preschool and elementary school will be able to purchase Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets to enrich their picture book reading at home. During the spring 2020 shutdown, booklists, activity ideas, and homeschooling advice proliferated on the internet, leaving many people (including me!) feeling overwhelmed. Although the sets could be a big financial investment for an individual family to make, each one is a one-stop resource with 10 excellent picture books and associated discussion plans and activities for each title. I imagine families reading and rereading the picture books in their bins, and then expanding on those readings with the resources and activities paired with each title. (A pie-in-the-sky dream that would require major funding would be for schools to purchase Sets for every child in a classroom to take home in the event of a shutdown. Then, children and families would have access to the same books and resources, literally putting everyone on the same page.) Ideally, the Whole Book Approach tips and tools they use with their book bin titles will also help them see other picture books they have at home with new eyes.

As for how teachers and librarians might adapt the Whole Book approach for use in online programming and teaching, it might sound paradoxical, but I actually suggest that they hold back from doing whole Whole Book Approach readings online. Every plan in every Whole Book Approach Storytime Guide is filled with questions and prompts to guide storytime discussion about the titles I chose for the sets. Rather than restating those plans here, below, I emphasize quick comparisons, connections, definitions, and observations during online readings. It’s definitely harder to keep a group’s attention and to facilitate discussion in an online forum than it is to do so in an in-person storytime. I therefore think it’s best to use online Whole Book Approach storytimes as a means of introducing vocabulary and ideas about art and design, rather than trying to have full, lengthy discussions. As children engage in these quick conversations, tell them (and any grownups at home who might be supporting their learning) to take the terms, ideas, and questions you introduce and apply them to their reading and thinking about picture books they might have at home.

Here are some tips for teachers and librarians about how to best move Whole Book Approach storytimes from being on-the-rug to being online (Since Charlesbridge is hosting this post, all examples are drawn from their titles included in the Steps To Literacy Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets):

  1. If you want to pre-record a storytime, check publisher guidelines about sharing recordings to avoid copyright infringement. For example, this link provides the guidelines from Charlesbridge.
  1. Whether you offer a pre-recorded storytime or a live video-conference meeting in which children can voice their responses (or perhaps type them or dictate them for someone else to type into a chat function), you can integrate Whole Book Approach tools into your reading by opening with a comparative analysis of picture book trim size. For example, if the book you read has a smaller than average trim size like Grandma's Tiny House by JaNay Brown-Wood and illustrated by Priscilla Burris, hold it up next to another book with a large trim size and ask, “Why do you think the artist chose to make this book have a tiny trim size, while this one is much bigger?” After pausing for responses (in real time, or to accommodate children watching a recording) you may want to provide your own thoughts about the rationale behind these design decisions, and then proceed into the reading. When you wrap up, remind children that you started off your reading by discussing trim size and encourage them to think about this design element when they are reading at home.
  1. Book comparisons to start storytimes also work well with a focus on picture book orientation. For example, if the picture book you are reading online has a portrait (vertical) orientation like Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN by Michelle Cusolito and illustrated by Nicole Wong, hold it up next to a picture book with a landscape (horizontal) orientation and ask, “Why do you think the artist chose to give this picture book a portrait orientation so it’s taller vertically, while this other book has a wider landscape layout?” Again, after pausing, perhaps provide your own thoughts about the rationale behind these design decisions, and then when you wrap up, remind children that you started off your reading by discussing orientation and encourage them to think about this design element when they are reading at home.

  1. Or, begin with the endpapers! Tell your group (in a recording or live) that endpapers can give us clues about picture books. A very quick and easy way to demonstrate this function during an online reading is to share a picture book like my companion titles A Crow of His Own and A Kid of Their Own (illustrated by David Hyde Costello and Jessica Lanan, respectively), in which endpaper colors match the protagonist rooster, Clyde: in the first title, endpapers are green to match Clyde’s tail feathers, and in the second they are red to match his comb and wattle. Ask students, “Can you make a match between the color of the endpapers and something in the jacket art?” If you read a picture book that has illustrated endpapers, like Chris Barton and Don Tate’s Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, you might ask students to comment on what kinds of clues those pictures give about the story as you enter the picture book. Once again, when you wrap up your reading, remind children that you started off your reading by discussing endpapers and encourage them to think about this design element when they are reading at home.

  1. Another way to foster group participation in an online storytime is to invite children to have a picture book or two by their side as you begin storytime to engage in hands-on book exploration.
    • First, invite students to hold up their book if it is in landscape orientation; then, switch to portrait orientation books; then see if anyone has square or shaped books.
    • Next you might ask something like, “Who has a paperback book and who has hardcover?”
    • Continue by prompting those with hardcovers to remove book jackets to see if the case cover underneath is the same or different.
    • Or, tell them open to endpapers and share if they can make a color match between endpapers and jacket art and if so, why it’s significant.
    • Or, turn to front matter pages to see if there are any illustrations there and ask for volunteers to share how they help begin the visual storytelling.
    • Or ask them all to point to the gutter in a book and then teach them that the verso is on the left-hand side and the recto is the right-hand page.

Then use the hands-on time to launch into your reading of a picture book with an emphasis on one of the design or production elements your opening exercise highlighted. For example, you might decide to draw their attention to layout and the gutter by saying: “Watch how the layout of the pictures uses or accommodates the gutter in this story. Does the gutter divide characters? Unite them? What do you think about these choices?”

  1. Or, instead of reading an entire picture book straight through online, tell your students you want to use a book jacket to teach them three questions they can always use to help them be excellent picture readers. Hold up a picture book with engaging jacket art like Susan Wood and Duncan Tonatiuh’s Esquivel! Space Age Sound Artist and take just a few minutes to guide students in reading the picture with questions inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies, one of the main influences behind the Whole Book Approach:
    • What do you see happening in this picture? This question will ground the group in the visual and prompt them to reflect on narrative meaning in the art instead of simply listing things they see.
    • What do you see that makes you say that? This question prompts evidentiary thought, inviting students to engage in metacognition, or to think about their thinking.
    • What else can we find? This question invites students to dig deeper as it holds space for more than one person to offer ideas and questions.
  1. Again, it can be difficult to sustain a group’s attention in an online discussion, so freely use these questions to dip into reflections that will show your students how they can use the same kind of inquiry in their independent or shared reading at home. Some other open-ended questions you might like to introduce are:
    • Watch the use of any frames—what happens to them? Why is this important in the visual storytelling? Are some pictures full bleeds without frames? Why do you think the artist chose that sort of layout for some pages and not for others?
    • How do words and pictures work together in this book? What do pictures tell you that words do not?
    • What do you notice?
    • What do you wonder?
  1. Tell students that some picture books have different levels of text to help convey different parts of a story and invite them to reflect on typography as you read. For example:
    • My picture books A Crow of His Own and A Kid of Their Own use speech balloons for some dialogue, and they also have intraiconic text, or text within pictures, in addition to the main narrative text. Ask students to pay attention to how those other kinds of text help reveal characterization.
    • Other books like Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady and illustrated by Amiko Hirao include epistolary text, or letters. You could lead into reading this book by pointing out how the display type on the jacket looks like handwriting, and then turn to any pages where you see postcards or letters in the illustrations. How might children’s experience of the book change if you flip through the book and only read the letters before or after you read the book as a whole?
    • Other titles like We Are Grateful: Ostaliheliga by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac use different font colors to make certain words stand out. In this case, Cherokee words in the text are highlighted on the page and then typographical choices help showcase pronunciation guides and definitions. The Charlesbridge website page about this picture book includes recordings of the pronunciations of the Cherokee words in the text that would be ideal for sharing in an online learning environment.

    As I mentioned above, each plan in each Whole Book Approach Storytime Guide includes activity ideas and additional resources. Like the Cherokee pronunciation recordings on the Charlesbridge website, many of these extension materials would be ideal fodder for online remote learning. I hope that teachers who buy the sets for classroom use will find these parts of the plans especially helpful if they start the year in remote learning or again must shift to such arrangements.

    Ideally, shared reading, whether in-person or online, can forge connections between people as we meet to engage with stories, art, and each other. I hope that the ideas I’ve presented here will help people foster such bookish connections even if the pandemic continues to keep us from gathering as we wish we could in our classrooms and libraries. I’d love to hear how readers are using the Whole Book Approach to support online storytimes, so please reach out to me at www.megandowdlambert.com, on Twitter @MDowdLambert, and on Facebook at @MeganDowdLambert.

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    Learn the Whole Book Approach with Megan Dowd Lambert!


    On Tuesday, April 28th - 3:00-4:30pm EST, Megan Dowd Lambert will be hosting a Zoom webinar on Introducing the Whole Book Approach to help you learn how to Shake Up Storytime!

    The Whole Book Approach is an interactive storytime model focused on the art and design of the picture book, which she developed in association with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Traditional storytime often offers a passive experience for kids, but the Whole Book approach asks the youngest of readers to ponder all aspects of a picture book and to use their critical thinking skills. 

    Active participation throughout the session will allow everyone to reflect on a diverse array of picture books in order to add Whole Book Approach tools and techniques to their own storytime practice.

    If you can't make this event, but would like to receive updates about future events and Steps to Literacy updates, please click here.
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    Introduce some NEW "heroes" to your guided reading collection!

    Rigby is a valued and trusted partner to teachers across the country for high quality guided reading books. At Steps To Literacy we have been proud to include Rigby content in our guided reading collections for over a decade. Recently, Rigby expanded its offering to include a new series- Hero Academy!

    True to the Rigby that we have grown to know and love, the Hero Academy titles are meticulously leveled, and offered in formats that range from early readers to chapter books. Each carries with them the predictable text and illustrations we would expect to see. What makes these titles extraordinary is their explicit focus on Social Emotional Learning within the context of guided reading. The recent push for federal funding for Social Emotional Learning means that this series couldn’t have been released at a better time. 

    The first page of every book starts with an explicit introduction to the main and supporting characters along with some details about what makes that main character special. The attention to detail across this series is incredible as the format and trim sizes change and grow as the reader does. Titles at the Kindergarten levels have large square trim sizes that make it much easy for young students to hold the book and see everything in the spread. The Kindergarten leveled titles also contain a final page with picture support that facilitates the practice of retelling a story.

    As we reach levels towards the end of Grade 1 and beginning of Grade 2, the trim size becomes more reminiscent of a chapter book but refrains from actually including any chapters. From there, once we reach levels in the middle of Grade 2, we finally see a chapter book trim size with a chapter book format to match.


    Front and back matter is all about supporting the teacher/caregiver! Front matter includes bullet points to guide you in ways to motivate students to read, support on blending sounds, high-frequency words, and a call-out to the important vocabulary in the text. Additional bullet points provide tips on guiding children who may be struggling with skills such as decoding, fluency, and reading with expression. Back matter provides a list of open-ended questions to support children as they reflect on their reading as well as provides prompts to extend the learning outside of the text.

    On-level collections for Grades K – 3 are available now! CLICK HERE to view our Hero Academy offerings. Looking to customize a guided reading collection? Please contact us directly or your local Steps To Literacy representative and join us in celebrating this wonderful release from Rigby!


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    Universal Children's Day

    Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This international legal framework was a promise made by world leaders in 1959 to protect and fulfill the rights of children. Contained in this treaty is a profound idea that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made, or are adults in training. Rather, they are human beings and individuals with their own rights. Childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until 18; it is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop, and flourish with dignity. For more on this topic, you can lean more here: https://www.unicef.org/child-rights-convention/what-is-the-convention

    Celebrating our children can be a great opportunity to introduce a special time for reading. Not only is it a great way to bond over a shared experience, you should not simply read to them, but share in reading duties to help them become stronger independent readers themselves.
    There are countless other activities around reading that can be used to help your kids on their reading journey:
    • Create a comfy place for your students to crack open a favorite story.
    • Encourage buddy book reading in pairs.
    • Ask them to tell you and their peers about the books they’ve read.
    • How about you create a book club within your class by grouping 4-5 students together and assign the same book. Then after they're done you can show them how each group came to similar or different conclusions.
    Any of the books that are chosen for these activities should be used to encourage conversation, such as the social issues that the content addresses. Make sure that your students learn that when it comes to reading, their experiences and feelings about the story are sometimes just as important as the text itself. 

    For ideas on buddy book themes, check out our social emotional book collections. 

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    National Nonfiction Day!

    Nonfiction books can be a glimpse into another part of the world, a voyage to another era, or an introduction to new fascinating people.

    On National Nonfiction day we celebrate all the all the authors and publishers who have brought high-interest, factual content into our classroom libraries.

    Some of our favorite publishing partners for non-fiction books include:

     Our non-fiction collections feature a mix of all these publishers. We share in the same belief that students should have the opportunity to have exciting nonfiction adventures just as often as their fiction adventures. 

    Check out our website for Nonfiction collections in:




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    National Family Literacy Day


    Families who read together succeed together. November 1st has been designated as National Family Literacy day since 1994 and for the past 25 years libraries, schools and educational programs have celebrated this day by spreading the message of the importance early literacy has on children. Studies conducted by NCES (1999) showed that children who were read to three or more times a week were more likely to know their letters than those who were read to less frequently. Furthermore, children who were read to more frequently were more likely to be able to count to 20 or higher, write their own name, and read or pretend to read. 

    Tips for reading at home:             

    1. Create a quiet place for reading to happen
    2. Start collecting books for an at home library
    3. Carve out time each day to read to your child and have them read to you
    4. Join the local library for story time and other literacy activities
    5. Read EVERYTHING - lists, magazines, recipes, signs, user manuals, the more words children are exposed to the better
    6. Make reading fun let your child pick books
    7. Lead by example - be a reader


    References: Nord, C. W., Lennon, J., Liu, B., & Chandler, K. (1999). Home literacy activities and signs of children's emerging literacy: 1993 and 1999 (NCES No. 2000-026). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000026.pdf

    Image Source: http://readdbq.org/2014/11/



    In The Condition of Education, 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) describes survey results showing that literacy activities in the home contribute to early reading success For example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study measured children's home literacy activities using an index that counted parents' reports of how often they read to their children, sang to them, and told them stories, as well as the number of children's books and audiotapes or CDs in the home.The children who ranked higher on this home literacy index also scored higher on reading and literacy skills when they entered kindergarten. The positive relationship between a home literacy environment and children's reading knowledge and skills held true regardless of the family's economic status (NCES, 2003, p. 74).

    Another analysis of NCES survey data by Nord and colleagues (1999) read to them three or more times a week were more likely to know their letters than were children whose family members read to them less frequently.

    In addition, their research found that children whose family members read to them frequently were more likely to be able to count to 20 or higher, write their own names, and read or pretend to read.

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    National Comic Book Day

    Blog Header 3 - National Comic Book Day

    Superman made his heroic debut June 1938 in Action Comics #1 where he rescued Lois Lane from a precarious situation and investigated a corrupt Senator for his newspaper The Planet. Since that publication, comic book appeal has continued to grow in popularity both because of the user-friendly format and because of the appealing content. While the comic world has had a more recent appeal on the big screen, their roots stay true in the written form. Thus, presenting the question: What is the difference between graphic novels and comic books? Although it might seem minute, knowing the difference can help in choosing a format that would work well for individual readers in a classroom.Comic Books VS Graphic Novels

    For students who are striving readers either form (comic or graphic novel) could work… depending on his/her ability to recall information. Both graphic novels and comics have the comic strip artwork that help the reader visualize actions instead of having to interpret how the story is moving along. To get your classroom started with a graphic novel collection check out the link below.

    Steps To Literacy's Graphic Novel Collection!

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    Strategies for More Choice and Voice in the Classroom

    Blog Header 2- Strategies for More Choice and Voice in the Classroom
    How can our kids become better readers? Let them read.
    What if the book is not at their level? That’s ok, let them Choose.


    As lChoice and Voice iteracy educators our goal each year is to create a safe learning environment where students feel empowered to take risks, think outside the box, and walk away with a wealth of knowledge. One way we can achieve this is by giving our students Choice and Voice. What does this mean? As scary and hard as it might sound, it’s giving up part of the decision-making process and letting students pick the books they want to read. *Studies have shown that by giving students the independence to decide what is taught and how to present their knowledge, it gives them a greater sense of autonomy, competence, and achievement. The article below gives 5 ways to give students more Choice and Voice in your classroom.

    Independent reading is a perfect time and place for teachers to have mini lessons about how to choose just right books, discuss the different genres, and what to do when a reader makes a wrong choice. Our Choice and Voice Classroom Libraries are filled with a mix of genres, high interest fiction and nonfiction titles, and model texts for teachers to use throughout the year.

    Click here to read 5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice!

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    The Importance of Nonfiction Books in Classroom Libraries


    “A non-fiction writer is a storyteller who has taken an oath to tell the truth”
       ~Russell Freedman, American Biographer

    Independent reading time is becoming more and more prevalent in daily classroom curriculum. Having a large classroom library to support student book exploration is integral to maximizing this piece of balanced literacy. During independent reading students are tasked with choosing a variety of texts based on their own interests. Many teachers will try to tempt students to read heftier fiction or curriculum-linked nonfiction, but do we ever allow our students to browse the science section without direction?

    Reading nonfiction for the joy of learning builds vocabulary, critical thinking, and analytical skills that are essential in our information-heavy society. Young readers are curious and love to share facts about information they are passionate about, so it is essential that a classroom library include a wide range of nonfiction texts on different levels and subjects.

    In effort to keep reading for fun during independent reading… we’ve comprised a list of tips and tricks to help engage students with the all-important, nonfiction portion of the classroom library:

    Tips to Keep Nonfiction Reading Fun:

    1. Use narrative nonfiction picture books to help introduce topics that may be unfamiliar or difficult to comprehend – illustrations and an engaging plot can make all the difference!

    2. Fill at least 50% of any classroom library with a wide-range of nonfiction subjects on many different levels including: science, social studies, history and biographies!

    3. Be aware of your own biases – just because you find algebra a bit boring, one of your students might be obsessed with learning equations.

    4. Highlight and recommend new nonfiction books that will appeal to student interests, the same as you would fiction titles. If a student loves fantasy titles, a nonfiction book on myths and legends will absolutely be of interest!

    5. Share your favorite nonfiction text, even if it is an adult book, to explain why you wanted to learn about the subject and what new information you pieced from it.

    6. Reference texts, atlases, and infographic books are excellent ways to foster curiosity in students who may have trouble picking out subjects they want to learn more about.

    7. Graphic nonfiction is an excellent way to introduce more visual learners to subjects without sacrificing engagement.

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