I confess that many years ago I underestimated the power of story retelling as a strategy to strengthen children's reading and writing. Retelling shows up in most early childhood reading lesson plans week after week. However, this strategy often translates to superficial practice and can be easily taken for granted in the realm of literacy instruction. For example, retelling becomes the “after reading” activity if time allows or sometimes becomes a means to an end for completing a story map. I knew there was more beneath the surface of this strategy and that tapping into it would lead to deeper and more intentional teaching. I began by asking myself: What is really involved in the process of retelling a story? Why do children need to learn and practice retelling in the early grades? Here are three shifts in my thinking that occurred while exploring those questions:
1. I used to think that retelling was a simple process. Now I know that it is more complex than it seems for young readers. Retelling is a process that involves deconstructing and reconstructing a story. Taking the scattered details of a story heard or read, figuring out what’s important, and putting them back together in an order that makes sense is just the beginning. Retelling then invites children to tell the story in their own words. Although this may seem simple, translating a story into your own words reflects a certain level of comprehension, vocabulary, and oral language skill. Retelling involves an active working memory which is shown to be a predictor of reading success. Working memory is the space where we hold information long enough to recall and manipulate.
2. I used to think of retelling in isolation. Now I know it as a purposeful comprehension strategy that connects to writing in so many ways. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a book and suddenly realized that you have no clue what the last few pages were about? Retelling is one of the strategies good readers use to recall what is happening in the story and to monitor understanding. It lays a strong foundation for summarizing and develops an awareness of story structure that transfers to writing.
3. I used to assume that if a child understood the story then they should be able to retell it, right? Now I know that teaching children how to retell stories is a process that must be taught explicitly through modeling and practice, practice, practice. Props, visual aids, and other manipulatives are purposeful tools that can support and expand children’s retellings.
Young children are natural storytellers and stories are vehicles for learning. With this in mind, let’s think about how to make the most of story retelling in the early grades to encourage literacy success. What we should take for granted is that children come to school to hear, tell, read and write stories Every. Single. Day.