Showing posts with label Reading to Children. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading to Children. Show all posts

Friday, October 24, 2008

On Reading To Children

Okay, here is a quiz...

1. Does research show that reading to kids improves literacy? Yes or no.

If you read Jim Trelease's books, you're likely to get this one wrong. Reading to kids has been shown to improve kids' language development--and this might have a positive impact on reading--but no studies show that reading to kids improves their reading ability.... Really.

2. When you read to kids should you focus on picture books? Yes or no.

Research studies don't really tell us much about the impact of reading specific books on children's learning, but the key to having an impact on children's language learning must be a balance among several factors. It would matter that the book presented kids with adequately complex language. It would matter how much the context of the text supports kids understanding the new words and ideas presented. And it would matter that kids found it interesting enough to pay attention. Picture books do a pretty good job of all of these, especially the latter...

But what if... what if ... you read really long classical books to kids? I must say that's what I did. My wife read picture books to them, and I read books like Wind in the Willows and Black Beauty and Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman. I started this practice when they were babies, and continued until they were about 13 or 14.

These books had a powerful impact on their lives. My oldest daughter (the lawyer, book editor) loves reading, at least in part due to that reading, and several of those books are still on her favorites list. She has read everything Richard Feynman wrote as a result of reading, Surely You Must Joking to her. I think it thrilled her that smart people could do such neat things by thinking. Every summer when she returned home from college she reread The Hobbit, and I have no idea how many times she has read The Odyssey.

Her younger sister didn't care for reading (or being read to) as much as she did. In fact, when she was a toddler I literally had to capture her to read to her (holding her in my arms, often for no more than one or two minutes while I tried to read and to quiet her at the same time). But over time, it caught on and I read to her a bunch. One day she said, "Why don't I ever get to pick what we read?" I told her she could, and just to test me she pointed to a book on my shelf: In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall's memoir about working with chimpanzees as a young woman.

I shocked her by reading the book that she picked and not surprisingly it became a favorite. She is still a big Goodall fan and I suspect that was the beginning of her fascination with science (she is now a bioengineer). Other favorites of hers were books like Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World.

Lots of the books that I read to them became summer vacations. Of course, we had to go to Virginia to see the miniature horses at Chincoteague once we'd read about Misty, and another trip had to spent in Missouri in the cave where Tom and Becky get lost in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain was the subject of my oldest's bachelor's thesis in English as a result of these early reading experiences).

Still other books led us to see the videos (like The Wizard of Oz or The Yearling).

I can't claim that reading these challenging chapter books has been proven to be better than reading picture books to kids. However, I once asked my kids to name some of the books their mother read to them. They expressed surprise: Mom read to them? Of course she did, and quite a bit, but as they figured out, those books take only a few minutes, while the books I read often required their attention over days and weeks and even months. Those became unforgettable experiences, in the way that most picture books cannot.

The books I read to them were rich in language and ideas, powerful in their ability to transport you to different times and places, and demanding of attention and memory all good things for developing young minds. It is clear to me that the books I read, whatever their impact on language and literacy, helped shape their tastes and talents.

But you know what I like best about reading those kinds of books to kids? We, the kids and I, really enjoyed the quiet time together. It was a real delight.

Maybe you should read those kinds of books to your kids or to your grandkids. Toward that end I have put a carousel of these read aloud books on this blog site. I'll list more choices in coming days and swap some of the carousel books out. They would make a great Christmas present or Chanukah present (when they were growing up, we gifted them a new book each of the 8 nights of Chanukah). Oh, and by the way, those two little girls that I wrote about above--they both got married this year, one on Memorial Day weekend and one on Columbus Day weekend, and both will be reading such books to their children someday.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Why Do We Still Read Books?

          I’m amazed at the persistence of the book in spite of dramatic advances in information technology over the past fifty years. The book—a 1500-year-old invention—not only survives, but thrives. The computer revolution has changed how we buy books (thanks, Amazon), but the fact is we still buy books, rather than disks, tapes, MP3 downloads or whatever this flavor-of-the-month’s info format may be.

           Tech companies hope to lure readers away from paper-paged books in favor of their sleek electronic readers (reminiscent of the old Marlene Dietrich films in which she’d try to steal the hardworking men from their loving wives). I’m sure the manufacturer has great hopes—and the newest e-book is admittedly better than past attempts to replace pages with bytes—better because this one looks like a book (imagine Dietrich without the mascara). Maybe this electronic hardware will persuade us to jilt the book, but I doubt it.

           Why do books persist? Part of the draw is that the book is a highly evolved technology. Books fit into a complex functional niche particularly well, making them especially hard to displace. One aspect of this functionality is portability. There are coffee-table books that may weigh several pounds, but most books are small and light: small enough to allow a woman to slip the latest Barbara Kingsolver into her purse or for a soldier to carry a Bible in his camouflaged blouse on an Iraqi battlefield. While I can read a book on my PDA, Blackberries make for poor reading experiences, because of glaring screens, small print, and short lines.

           Books are also remarkably versatile; they fit well into the nooks and crannies of our lives. I can comfortably read a book on the beach, in bed, or on an airplane. Books are ready to go when we are; there is no waiting for them to boot. On long trips, I worry about computer batteries, but in books I trust.

           Reading any kind of book—paper or electronic—is rewarding because of the author’s ideas and language. But books offer additional aesthetic pleasures. Book reading is not just a visual experience, it is a tactile one. We describe exciting reads as “page turners” and talk about “closing the book” for a reason.

           Many years ago, I was reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter. We scrunched into an over-stuffed armchair, the only sound, the sound of my voice speaking E.B. White’s spare diction. Erin sat in my lap in her fleece nightgown, and I held the book in both hands, encircling her warmth in my arms. I can still feel the flannel against my arms, the heft of the book, and the soft textured paper under my fingers. When I read of Charlotte’s death, Erin burst into tears. Someday fathers may read e-books to their children in the same way; but, of course, it won’t be in the same way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reading Hard Books to Kids

          I'm frequently asked about reading to children. Obviously reading to kids is a good idea, though this is one of those satisfying times when the research literature actually supports the good idea. Research clearly shows that reading to children improves their oral language development (at this stage the evidence that it contributes directly to the improvement of reading skills is pretty sparse).

          Turn on the news and there is a PSA encouraging parents to read to their kids. You take your child in for a check up and the pediatrician gifts you with a book and encourages you to read (check out Reach Out and Read to find out more about this wonderful idea. Your child has trouble at school, and you guessed it, the teacher tells you to read to him if you want to help.

       Maybe we oversell the idea of reading to kids, but I tend to think we mis-sell it.

  1.  We too rarely make it clear that book reading is only part of this equation. Reading to kids pays off, but it pays off best when there is a lot of talk between parent and child about the book, about its vocabulary and its connection to the child's life. Children sometime lead this talk with their questions and comments and sometimes the parents do with their questions and explanations.
  2. We act like reading anything to kids will have a positive impact... doubtful. Some books will  entice kids and engage their minds and hearts... and some will bore them or interest them    momentarily without leaving any residue behind. When my kids were young I read to them all the time, but I didn't usually read the hot picture books that are so ubiquitous at book sharing time. I read classics--demanding, grown up, lots of pages... Books like Alice in Wonderland, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, The Odyssey, The Hobbit, Charlotte's Web, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, The Wind in the Willows. Don't be afraid to challenge your kids with something that will stick to their ribs. If you pick wrong, you can always bail out and pick something better suited to your child's needs.
  3. We encourage reading to kids when sometimes we want the kids reading to us. Studies show that when children start to read (kindergarten, first grade, second grade) it is very powerful to have them reading aloud to you. I'm always surprised that at those levels the teachers are pushing reading to kids when the parents could be even more helpful by listening.
  4. We rarely talk about what age kids should be read to. I started with mine the day they were born. You don't need to start that early, but it won't hurt (and mine seemed to take to it). Too many parents don't read to the kids until they get to school, losing a lot of opportunity. However, I also know plenty of parents who stop reading to kids when they start to learn to read themselves. Big mistake. I read to my kids from birth all the way up to 8th grade.
  5. We push the idea that reading to kids improves their language (and maybe their reading too), but  there is a lot more too it in my opinion. I see it as a great way of expressing love. My kids and I were able to connect around books; the books I read to them made a difference in their lives--in what they have chosen to do for their work lives, in what they care about, in what they know about. I suspect that when they read a really wonderful passage of something, they even think of me (a nice return on a small, and easily made, investment).
  6. We act like reading to kids is about reading stories. Of course, sometimes that is exactly what it is about. But each kid is unique and they like lots of different things. For one child, there would be nothing better than a good storybook, and for another a book about computers or science or baseball would more likely fill the bill. My youngest complained that I always picked the books. I told her she could make the next choice. She didn't really believe me, but looked hard at the bookcase, and asked if I would read In the Shadow Man, a book about the study of chimpanzees by Jane Goodall. Not exactly the kind of book one thinks of reading to a six-year old, but she fell in love with Jane Goodall (and is still a big fan), and found her own interest in science that day--now she is a bioengineer.