Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One Path to Reading

Nolie is starting to "read," and by that I mean that she is beginning to pick up books, show interest in words, and do her best to sound out or guess at words based on the pictures on the page.  She's doing this in much the same way and with the same books that Addie did, so I was thinking it might be a good idea to post about how we've promoted reading for the girls in our house.

Friends have asked us how we have "gotten" the girls to read.  I should be clear that we don't have any proof that their reading has much to do with us or things we've done.  We haven't invested in any phonics programs, or done a lot of things we wouldn't have done otherwise.  But I think we've probably created a good culture of reading in our house, and for what it's worth I'll write about that here.  So these are not rules or guidelines, but rather things that have worked in our family and that we've wanted to do.  There's nothing surprising here, either--I think a lot of the early childhood stuff says similar things.

Here are our strategies:

Have lots of books around.  We were lucky from really early on to have boxes and boxes of books from my childhood that my mom had saved for me in the hopes that I would someday be lucky enough to snag a man and procreate.  There were tons of classics in those boxes, including nearly a hundred of those little golden books.  So Addie had a complete library before she could even walk, and now she and Nolie share it.  As they grow out of particular books, I box them up and ship them off to my brother, who has been lucky enough to snag a woman and may procreate someday.

Go to the library every week.  In addition to inheriting all of those great books from my mom, I commit to going to the public library every week (whose existence is now in some jeopardy thanks to those douchebags on Wall Street.  Yes, I said douchebags).  I don't take the kids, hardly ever.  I just swoop in on my way to work with an old diaper bag, fill it with books randomly off the shelves from the kids' section, grab a movie or two for movie night, and check out.  It takes five minutes.  I suppose eventually the kids will want to come and pick their own stuff out.  But for now this is easy, and it works.  Addie also checks books out from her own school library.  Some get read, some don't.  But that's what's great about libraries:  it's a no-risk way to try out whatever you like.

Read every night, and other times, too.  It's a rare night that we don't all cuddle up in bed with library books or books from the girls' collection after bath and before bed.  I think we all love these moments of togetherness.  I especially love the magic of trying out a new story with the girls and seeing how they react.  Then the girls get on p.j.'s, brush teeth and hair, and head off to Nolie's big bed, where I read to them in the dark, using a reading light, from a chapter book (we've done Harry Potter, which gave some nightmares, The Littles, Lily Dragon, and are now on to Charlotte's Web, to name a few.  Whatever's around.)  Addie has always already read the book on her own first, because that's just how she is, but she LOVES being read to, and asks tons of questions about what words mean and how characters feel.  I hope they never stop wanting me to read to them.  We also read on the weekends when the girls need a cuddle, or whenever they bring a book our way.

Talk about what you read.  No magic there.  Mostly the girls ask us questions about particular books, but we also try to make connections to what we've read in our daily conversations (hey, you're dancing just like Angelina Ballerina in Angelina Visits the Tsar!).  Stuff like that.

Encourage storytelling and writing.  Nolie prefers to tell stories orally, and let me tell you, they are about as exciting as a box of bricks.  Addie loves to write and illustrate her own stories now, also boxes-of-bricks-ish.  But I think this is an important part of getting into narratives and how they work, so I suffer through.  Woe.

Let them see you read.  Eric is mostly a magazine and newspaper guy, while my head is always in a book or a Kindle.  I guess I think this shows them you value reading, but mostly I do it because I love to read and can't imagine my life without it.

A few gimmicks that work.  Okay, these aren't even gimmicks.  But two books that have really set both girls on the path to reading have been the P.D. Eastman book Go Dog Go (classic) and the little phonics books in the "Now I'm Reading" packages.  The sentences are quite simple (See Spot Run type stuff) and they map neatly on to the pictures.  So the girls can guess at the words based on the picture.  And you can offer big praise for them "reading."

And finally, my best suggestion:  Avoid teaching them how to read.  We haven't done actual phonics lessons, we don't work with them to "sound things out," we encourage guessing at words, faking our way through books, and all sorts of silliness.  They get the more serious "skills" at school.  Our main thing has been to keep reading fun.

A few disclaimers:

1.  Boys are probably different from girls, and I don't know if these strategies would work with boys.  My guess is probably not, especially after reading Sax's amazing book Girls on the Edge.  You might need to do different things with boys.

2.  I have no idea how much having a gift for reading is genetic.  Maybe a lot.  But that doesn't mean we can't think about how to foster particular behaviors in our kids.  But I'm careful not to take too much credit for Addie's great reading skills and Nolie's budding interest.

3.  If you have a baby and especially a little baby, don't worry about any of this stuff.  I don't think reading to babies does anything, unless it makes you feel good.  It might be good for them to hear your voice, I guess.  But I'm not sold on any of that stuff.  Once kids are toddlers, I think that's a great time to begin to introduce them to age-appropriate stuff.

Alright, that's my wisdom for the day.  Hope to post more this week now that E. is back in town (again).

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