This month’s Book Nook topic is...

Developing story comprehension with Just a Mess

Have you ever read a book with your child and noticed that he or she doesn’t really grasp the whole story? This might be because she focuses on unimportant details or has difficulty connecting the different events in the story.

In this Book Nook topic, I’ll share some tips on what you can do during book reading to help your child better understand what you are reading. This post will focus on building your child’s understanding of story structure – a key skill that will prepare your child for making sense of the stories she’ll read on her own later.

Story structure: CSPAR

One way to help your child understand what you are reading is to highlight the important parts of a story. Most stories revolve around a problem that the characters are attempting to solve. This means that for your child to fully understand what is happening, she needs to know the characters (who the story is about), the setting (where the story takes place), what the problem is, the actions that occur to solve the problem and the resolution (how the problem is solved and what happens in the end).

To remember what these key parts of the story are, Hanen uses the acronym CSPAR:


My chosen book:

Just a Mess. Written by Mercer Mayer.

Why I picked it:

I love the little critter series – the story lines are simple and clear, with a few characters and lots of problems to solve – making them ideal for talking about story structure. In Just a Mess, Little Critter has lost his baseball glove, and he needs to clean his room in order to find it. This is a problem that many preschoolers can relate to.

The first time you read the book:

The first time you read Just a Mess, the goal is to help your child understand what’s happening in the words and the pictures of the story. You can point out different elements of CSPAR to your child:

For Character, when looking at the cover, you could say: “That’s Little Critter, the story is about him.”

For Setting, again looking at the cover, you could say: “The setting of our story is Little Critter’s room. It sure looks messy!”

On the first page, you could say “Little Critter has a problem – he can’t find his baseball mitt.”

You can talk about what’s happening in the pictures of the book to highlight all the actions that are taking place. For example, you could say “Little Critter is looking in his tree house for his baseball mitt, but it’s not there.”

After you read the book, you can talk about the resolution. You could say, “So, Little Critter solved the problem. When he cleaned his room, he found his baseball mitt.” All of these comments are helping your child pay attention, and develop an understanding of story structure.

The second time you read the book:

A key strategy for highlighting CSPAR is actually using the CSPAR terms, even if these are new to your child. So, now that you’ve pointed out specific points of the story, be sure to use the CSPAR names during this second reading. You will need to explain each term when you use it.

When your child points to or comments about something happening in the book, use it as an opportunity to highlight an element of CSPAR.

For example, if your child points to or mentions Little Critter, you could say: “That’s Little Critter – he’s our main character – he is the main person in the story, the one who the story is about.”

If your child shows interest in the cover, you could say: “The setting of the story is where the story takes place. Our setting is Little Critter’s room.”

When looking at the first page, your child might notice that Little Critter looks angry. You could say: “Uh-oh, there’s a big problem here – Little Critter can’t find his baseball. Let’s see what actions Little Critter takes to solve his problem.

On the page where Little Critter is trying to put his belongings in his closet, you could say “Little Critter is taking action by cleaning his room. He wants to solve the problem and find his mitt.”

After the reading, or on the last page, you could say: “So, Little Critter found his baseball mitt when he cleaned his room. Now he can go and play baseball. That’s the resolution; that means that Little Critter solved his problem and it all worked out well in the end.”

The third time you read the book:

Now that your child has heard the story a couple of times, I might ask one or two of the following questions when looking at the cover of the book:

  • Who are the other characters in this story?
  • What is the setting in this story?
  • What is the problem in this story?
  • What action is Little Critter going to take next?
  • Do you remember what the resolution was at the end of the story?

We don’t want to ask too many of these questions, as they can make your child feel like he’s being tested, but asking a few at the beginning of your third reading will help solidify your child’s understanding of story structure and, ideally, will help your child bring this understanding to other stories that he or she hears.

Happy reading!


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