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Let the story begin! Open the box and set out the props.

Ms. Bailer, seated in the library corner of the kindergarten classroom, reads the next-to-last page of the book, "And chances are, if he asks for a glass of milk..." She pauses, then turns the page and five kindergartners enthusiastically recite the final page, "He's going to want a cookie to go with it." Their teacher quietly puts the book away and selects a special helper, Adam, to sit next to her and retell the story.

Next, the teacher removes an assortment of props from a box and sets them out on a small table. A small stuffed mouse sits amid the variety of items requested by the inquisitive, energetic character in the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Numeroff, 1985). Ms. Bailer tells the story once again while she manipulates the props. The antics of the little mouse come to life as she reenacts the story events, even pretending at one point to trim his hair with the little nail scissors and sweep away the mess with a miniature broom.

Adam comes forward again to retell his version of the story with the same props. He stands behind the table and maneuvers the accessories as he weaves them verbally into his story. At the conclusion, the four children serving as audience move forward to explore the props. The children paraphrase parts of the story but, for the most part, handle the props unsystematically, laugh and play with language. Experiential background connects with the activity at hand and extends the children's vocabulary in creative, spontaneous and humorous ways. The little mouse has his hair styled with a "little mousse," his bed prepared with a "comfy" blanket and his bedtime anxieties soothed as he is "lullabied" to sleep. When the level of interaction and spirit of play diminish, the children go to an adjacent table set with cookies and milk to experience one of the best parts of the little mouse's adventure.

Many types of learning experiences are needed to promote optimal literacy development in young children. Story retelling with props represents one of a growing number of literacy approaches being implemented in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Advocates for developmentally appropriate practice are redirecting the focus of early literacy education away from workbooks and basal readers featuring discrete skill components and simplified vocabularies. As educators depart from the step-by-step progression of instructor's manuals, new goals, sequences and directions become possible. Teaching strategies, notably the controlled interaction between teachers and students during story reading, emerge with redefinition.

Although early educators have long utilized an array of graphic devices (flannelboard accessories, puppets, cutouts, props) to complement and enhance group storybook reading, they were primarily used in teacher-directed activities. Current emphasis now focuses on moving children from dependence on the adult for information to more independent, self-generated activities in cooperative settings. Invented spellings and nonconventional literacy behaviors become increasingly prevalent as children write in classbooks or journals and read books to partners without necessarily attending to the print.

With this change in perspective, instructional components in the curricular mainstream stress the mechanics of reading less and give increased attention to generative strategies promoting children's search for meaning. Diversified response activities--musical accompaniments, choral readings, creative dramatics and story reenactments--are resurfacing as models of appropriate practice. In all of these activities, considerable discussion and social interaction occur among the participants. Children learn vocabulary in conversational situations as well as in book reading contexts. Moreover, children develop the ability to express understanding of a text--what it does and might mean in one's life. These experiences call for natural, childlike communication and provide a means for children to discuss the events in books.

This article discusses the value of reconstructing storybook events and suggests ways teachers can implement retelling activities. The author also recommends books and props suitable for classroom use. The final section describes children's behavior during retelling and prepares teachers for their role in guiding young learners during these collaborative literacy experiences.

Benefits of Reconstructive Activities

Storybook reading has an important influence on children's early literacy development. The range of positive effects is well documented (Clay, 1982; Holdaway, 1979; Schickedanz, 1986; Teale, 1984). Storybook reading events enable children to differentiate formal book language from informal oral communication and to realize that print has meaning. Reading to young children on a regular basis develops awareness of written language features and prepares the way for conceptualizing principles of directionality, orthographic patterns and story structure. Extensive reading also fosters positive attitudes, linking young learners to continual literacy experiences (Feitelson, Kita & Goldstein, 1986).

Researchers who have studied how reading achieves these effects report that learning from storybooks appears to be a multifaceted experience (Teale, Martinez & Glass, 1989). Children process the printed and pictorial information while absorbing the adult reader's accompanying talk. Social interactions escalate as the adult and children interact to determine meaning. Construction of knowledge advances when children ask questions and receive answers from a mediating adult (Cochran-Smith, 1986; Teale & Sulzby, 1987). The entire storybook experience is an active, meaning-gathering process. Comprehension occurs as the reader constructs relationships between the text and his/her own knowledge and experience (Wittrock, 1984).

Recent research in emergent literacy has explored instructional strategies that encourage the reconstruction of meaning. Studies of retelling activities with kindergarten children report positive benefits (Morrow, 1985, 1986). Experimental groups in Morrow's studies showed significant improvements in oral language, comprehension and inclusion of story structure elements. In a different study, 4th-grade children who engaged in retelling practice sessions performed significantly better in reading comprehension than other children (Gambrell, Pfeiffer & Wilson, 1985). Enacting specific play roles, another form of story reconstruction, also improves comprehension of story, story retelling and cognitive development (Pellegrini & Galda, 1982; Saltz, Dixon & Johnson, 1977; Silvern, Taylor, Williamson, Surbeck & Kelley, 1986). All of these activities utilize concepts of emergent literacy by promoting active involvement in story events and social interaction with adults and peers.

Introducing Retelling with Story Props

Retelling with story props is ideally suited to small group settings. By restricting group size, every child has an increased opportunity for active manipulation of the props. Also, peer interaction is fostered in informal settings where children are more likely to contribute in full-fledged discourse.

Retelling activities need be in no particular sequence. In fact, variations on the retelling procedures may produce positive and interesting results. In one structure, the teacher introduces the title of the book and shares any information that might spark interest. After reading the book, the adult retells the story using props, and then a child retells the story in his/her own words using the same props. Variations might include having the teacher begin by telling the story with props and then later retelling the story without them or reading the story from the book.

Regardless of the particular structure, children benefit from active participation throughout the activity. As the story is read and retold, listeners should be encouraged to join in on repetitive or familiar phrases. Children delight in the opportunity to produce sound effects--vroom noises for cars or planes, munching sounds for food items and buzzing choruses for insects. Verbal involvement and accompanying hand/body motions sustain engagement, promote positive association with the activity and develop a sense of camaraderie between reader and audience.

Some teacher assistance may be necessary when a child is retelling. Since it is often difficult for preschoolers and many kindergartners to remember the story's beginning, teachers need to provide orientational clues. Extra support can also be elicited from the peer group. A change in routine can be achieved by asking two children to jointly retell the story, especially when dialogue exists between two characters. Some stories might be retold by all the children, with each child holding a different prop. Retelling sessions can end with a few moments for playful investigation of the props and friendly exchange among the children.

Maintaining a Successful Story Prop Collection

Picture books with uncomplicated story lines, a limited number of characters and events familiar to young children are excellent choices. Predictable books make initial retelling easier, as do books with repetitive phrases and dialogue. Traditional books, such as Little Red Riding Hood (Hyman, 1983) and Stone Soup (Brown, 1975), and more contemporary stories, such as The Grouchy Ladybug (Carle, 1977) and Jump, Frog, Jump (Kalan, 1981), work equally well. Books selected for retelling should elicit enthusiastic responses from children over repeated readings and should lend themselves to props.

The number of props will vary according to the story. Younger children or

children inexperienced in retelling will benefit from stories that require fewer props. As children become experienced in retelling, books with a larger array of props may be selected.

Prop collections originate from two different sources. Actual items can be used. Possible props for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Numeroff, 1985) include a stuffed mouse, a cookie, a glass of milk and 11 other tangible items readily found in most households. Teachers can also simulate props. Props for The Mitten (Brett, 1989) can include a series of teacher-constructed stand-up animal props and an oversized hand-sewn mitten.

Some prop collections can be a combination of authentic items and teacher-made simulated props. For example, the basket and fruits mentioned in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (Zolotow, 1962) could be readily and inexpensively obtained, but the little girl and rabbit characters would need to be constructed. Teacher-created stand-up props or shoebox dioramas can also depict scenery. In Rosie's Walk (Hutchins, 1971), scenic props can be designed to represent the yard, pond, haystack, mill, fence and beehives; puppets can be used to portray the hen and fox.

Cardboard boxes with attachable lids are recommended for storing and stacking books and props when not in use. Ideally, classrooms could have several boxes containing props for different books to ensure high interest level and active rotation. Parent volunteers could assist in supplying materials, creating simulated props and labeling the boxes. Once the props have been used to illustrate a story, they should be left in place for a few days as an interest center for the children. A great deal of oral language will be stimulated as children manipulate the props and tell their own versions of the story.

The Nature of Children's Behavior

With practice, most young children are able to reconstruct stories on their own. Progress is evident as the total number of words and T-units increases between their first and second retellings. During the activity, the teacher moves back and forth between noninterference and subtle intervention. False starts, such as "Um" or "Uh," and repetitive phrases, usually in the form of "and then, and then," are common and provide the child with time to collect the next thought. Such behavior does not require teacher attention.

Sometimes, however, children become frustrated and make direct requests for support. When this happens, the teacher could display an illustration from the book to signal the next event in the story. Children in the audience can also be counted on to respond with verbal clues and even visual reminders. For example, when one boy kept forgetting the word "antlers" in If You Give a Moose a Muffin (Numeroff, 1991), another child playfully placed his outstretched hands behind his head and whispered, "antlers."

Props also serve as a mechanism to assist the child in retelling and as a catalyst to awaken questions and thinking. When a teacher placed a small head of cabbage into the pot during the retelling of Stone Soup (Brown, 1975), a girl drew on her own experience in making soup and queried, "Aren't you supposed to cut it up?" Later, as that same child retold the story, she pretended to slice the vegetables, although a knife was not present. Young children are able to reproduce a complete flow of events by pretending to incorporate missing props. Sometimes the opposite effect happens; children finish telling their story only to realize their failure to incorporate all of the available props. In most cases, children make the decision to self-correct, thereby demonstrating that they are concerned with the larger, integrated story meaning.

Some props can be distracting and cause interference in story retelling. The toy boat, plane and crane ("big thing") for Are You My Mother? (Eastman, 1988) were so enticing that the child retelling the story paid scant attention to the stuffed animal props. An observant teacher can redirect the focus to the props that have not been fully incorporated into the story line. Similarly, a youngster can become so absorbed in one part of the task that other equally important parts are omitted or diminished. During the retelling of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Numeroff, 1985), a young narrator spent a disproportionate amount of time drawing a picture for the mouse instead of steadily progressing ahead to the remaining events. A follow-up discussion on the importance of balance among all events in the story may be needed.

Props representing difficult vocabulary can cause frustration. In The Very Quiet Cricket (Carle, 1990), the insect names were unfamiliar to the children and their appearances lacked distinguishing features. Children regressed in their storytelling as they struggled to find distinctive features to identify the locust, praying mantis, spittle bug, cicada and dragonfly. Interestingly, one child generated a solution to the complex task; he simplified the naming process with a generic classification technique. The cardboard insect props became "the little bugs, the bigger bugs and the dragon-size bugs." But for most children, teachers will need to tap outside resources prior to introducing books with specialized vocabulary. Taking young children outdoors in warm weather to collect insects provides firsthand knowledge and motivation for reading nature books. Furthermore, instructional resources such as charts, pictures and videos help build background experiences to ensure that children have a framework to draw on as they identify props during retellings.


Extending storybook events through the use of story props is a potentially powerful mediational strategy. Props assist children in constructing and expressing their understanding of stories. At this early age, a sensorial approach is important to children; it encourages them to make discoveries through active manipulation that lead to creating mental representations of the events. Props may reduce memory processing and free children to initiate, sustain and draw closure for a larger, integrated whole. At the very least, props appear to assist children in generating language, organizing their delivery and acquiring practice in narration.

Props are most effective when implemented in a social setting. Teachers need to establish a learning environment utilizing small group arrangements where young children can collaboratively interact to facilitate optimal social and cognitive growth. The child's retelling can then be guided not only by his/her own oral language and world knowledge, but also by the teacher's retelling and informal comments and questions from peers and adults. As a result, interactions will flow within an easy conversational mode that allows for joint construction or negotiation of large segments of meaning. For multiple satisfying outcomes, storytelling with props should be incorporated into the mainstream of early literacy curricula.

Note: Readers may be interested in a similar article: Dowd, F.S. (1990). What's a jackdaw doing in our classroom? Childhood Education, 66, 228-231.

Cathleen S. Soundy is Assistant Professor, College of Education, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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Author:Soundy, Cathleen S.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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