Lila took one look at all the words in the Harry Potter book then pitched it in the air and caught it three times. She opened it to the exact middle, stood it on its edges and made a tent. Then she fanned the pages till the breeze made her sneeze. "What a great book!" she exclaimed. Lila's discovered a new way to read.

Teacher Says: Think outside the print. When kids in primary grades invent creative ways to avoid reading, use picture books, scrapbooks, magazines, comic books or illustrated cookbooks to teach them comprehension skills. The skills transfer to word books and lead to test scores that are nothing to sneeze at.

"When children look at pictures in books, the process of meaning-making is similar to cognitive efforts to construct meaning from printed words," write Alison H. Paris and Scott G. Paris, who conducted a study of narrative comprehension in 158 kindergarten through second grade students in a Michigan public school.

Their study found that children's abilities at age 5 and 6 to construct stories from picture books "correlated significantly with standardized reading test scores two years later."

The ability to narrate a story is a meaning-making process where story sequencing, developing a theory and taking a perspective develop simultaneously. It grows like Lila as she learns how to listen, play, memorize and enjoy TV shows and movies.

Most important, "it helps children map their understanding onto texts," say the Parises.

Families and friends can get in the picture. By acting as co-narrator when Lila reads a picture book, you not only boost her comprehension skills, you provide tools for constructing her own stories.

The Parises recommend using books with illustrations that tell the story without depending on the text. The story line should be clear, have an obvious sequence and contain all the main elements of the story: settings, characters, problems and resolutions.

Books should match a kid's growing skills. In preschool or kindergarten, use books that have only pictures.

In first grade, use picture books with small amounts of text. With second-graders, select books that mix pictures and text. For quick learning bursts, use the newspaper comics section.

When you run out of library books, make your own. Find a book with luscious illustrations then cover up the words and photocopy it. Black and white illustrations might be less distracting than color for kids with attention deficits.

And don't cut anyone out of the picture. Because phonics and decoding skills are not required, picture book activities benefit not just early readers, but those new to learning English or older kids allergic to printed words. Then they will see that although a book might make an excellent tent, it tells a way better story.

Resources

"Assessing Narrative Comprehension in Young Children" by Alison H. Paris and Scott G. Paris, Reading Research Quarterly, January 2003.

"Guided Comprehension in the Primary Grades" by Maureen McLaughlin and Mary Beth Allen (International Reading Association, $23.95).

For ages 4-8:

"A Boy, a Dog and a Frog" and "One Frog Too Many" by Mercer Mayer; "A Story for a Bear" by Dennis Haseley; "Amanda and the Mysterious Carpet" by Fernando Krahn; "Country Crossing" by Jim Aylesworth, and "Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge" by Mem Fox.

Contact Evelyn Vuko at evuko@teachersays.com and join her live online at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com

A study has found that story-making with pictures at an early age improves reading comprehension later.