Monday, January 12, 2009

On Teaching Children to Love Reading When They Are Very Young

It's on days like this, when I manage to capture a priceless picture like this one, that I'm happy I have a blog. The title...well, doesn't this picture imply that I have learned the secret? Christopher Robin and Raindrop are reading a story from James Herriot's Treasury of Inspirational Stories for Children. I am, of course, joking, as neither my 4 year old or my 5 month old are able to read for themselves yet, other than very short basic words in the case of my 4 year old. However, in keeping with the title of my post I will describe the successes we have experienced as a family in passing on to our kids the love of reading.

First, we did not read books to our infants every day. During the hospital stay for the birth of each of our children we were encouraged to take the time to read to our baby every day from infancy to help instill in them the love for reading. I tried with Christopher Robin a few times, but it felt pointless. At some point, probably sometime around his first birthday, he developed an interest in words and learning the names of things, and he loved to sit in my lap and point at pictures in books with me and hear me say the names of the things we pointed to. Later, sometime during the year he was 2, he had a book with very few words and he would point to each letter individually and ask what it was. After doing that hundreds of times, we realized he knew the names of all the letters in the alphabet. As his vocabulary and understanding increased, so did his love for books, and since he was very small (but past infancy), he has loved to be read to. We really didn't have to teach him to love books. We were just willing to read to him a lot, and supplied him with lots of books.

Peanut Butter didn't develop an interest in books as early as his older brother, but eventually, after I was beginning to think he might never like them, he started to ask me to "Eed diss, Mom." Again, I think his interest in books corresponded with his increasing vocabulary and ability to understand ideas. It developed a little later than Christopher Robin's, and may not be quite as strong, but it's pretty healthy.

I do not read to Raindrop. Though she has developed a strong interest in touching books. Often she's in my lap while I'm reading to her brothers, and she thinks pages themselves are fascinating.

I started taking Christopher Robin to the library when he was 2 and Peanut Butter was 5 or 6 months. Our local library has a story time for preschoolers, and we've been attending fairly regularly for a couple of years now. We check out 6 or 7 books from the library every week, so we always have a fresh supply. Some books get read often throughout the week and some just once or twice, but we have read lots of good books. I don't let the kids just choose randomly, or if they do, I check to see what they have picked out... sadly, most recently published books aren't allowed to come home with us, because I can't stomach the "kids rule, grown-ups drool" mentality of most of them. But there are lots of good wholesome older books to choose from, and lots of classic stories I wouldn't want my kids to miss, so I aim for those. Sometimes I print off suggested reading lists I find and work from them, but I've found lots of great books just by browsing, too.

I have been trying, with some success, to get in the habit of reading to the kids during breakfast, a Psalm (we started with Psalm 100, and when that was fairly well memorized I moved to Psalm 19), and then a Bible story like David and Goliath (I'm pretty sure Christopher Robin has big sections of that memorized...I heard him quoting parts of it as I was putting the kids down for their naps one day) or Daniel in the lion's den, or Samuel the boy hearing God speak for the first time. You wouldn't necessarily think small kids would have the patience to listen to a story straight from the Bible, when many of the words are beyond their understanding, but they really seem to get what's happening (I use the New Living Translation), and since they're sitting down eating breakfast or lunch anyway, it gives them something to think about while they chew.

I recently started reading to them from Laura Ingall's Little House in the Big Woods for a few minutes after I put them in their beds for naptime. Peanut Butter loves the pictures here and there, and Christopher Robin understands most of what's going on. They lived a pretty exciting life in the big woods far from town, surrounded by wildlife like panthers and bears. We read about their Christmas Day, just a few weeks after our own Christmas Day, and Christopher Robin really loved that!

And my favorite habit, which we started shortly after Christopher Robin turned 2, is reading poetry to them each night before bed. I always wished, before I had children, that I would be able to teach my children to love poetry. I never did like it when I was young...books of poems bored me, and I never spent any time with them, except for random times when my Dad would read us poems from a book he had when he was growing up, especially our favorite poem, the one we'd always request, entitled "Daddy Fell Into the Pond". I asked him, a few years ago, if he still wanted the book or if I could have it. He said he did want to keep it, so I looked for a copy of my own just like it on e-bay, and found one! It was in good used condition, and didn't cost much at all, and when it arrived I was thrilled to have my own copy and determined to read to my kids from it regularly. I started by reading the same poem each night for many nights, because I had learned in college from my wonderful literature professor that poetry is like a symphony. You learn to love a great piece of music by listening to it again and again until your heart soars and dips with the melody. You learn to love a piece of poetry by reading it again and again until its words penetrate and its beauty unfolds to you. So I read the same poem many nights in a row, and then chose a new one. After a while Christopher Robin asked to choose the poem, so I allowed him to choose one, then I read another one that I chose myself. When Peanut Butter was old enough to ask to choose one, the number of poems we read each night went up to three. So every evening before bed we read three poems and then pray together. Do they love poetry? They know a lot of poems by heart, which is a beginning, and they would be very upset if we skipped reading poems before bedtime. I think in time these poems will become familiar, beloved friends.

I bought Christopher Robin a new book of children's poems I stumbled across on Amazon. It came with a CD of many of the poems read, some by the authors themselves. I like it pretty well, but again, many of the more contemporary poems lack a tone of respect for authority and some are crass. The beginning pages are falling out already, so it isn't holding up well, but I'm not terribly upset about that. I tore one poem out of the book myself, because I didn't like it. Our original book, Piper, Pipe That Song Again, is wonderful.

We have always limited television and videos. Not only do they program kids to have shorter attention spans, TV and videos eat up their spare time, too, leaving less time for asking me to read a book to them, or deciding to play with playdough or paint a picture or race firetrucks around the house. TV isn't something they can turn to when they're bored in our house...they're allowed to watch it at specific times (in the morning when I take my shower), and then they're done. We're having to limit our new Wii to specific times, too, but that's a whole other blog post. I think how much TV kids watch does influence how much they enjoy reading.

I certainly don't have all the answers about how to help kids love to read, but I have been intentional about making reading a big part of our lives, and while some personalities are much more inclined to sit with a book for long lengths of time than others, I do believe that specific habits formed early and intentional steps taken by parents can boost a child's potential to love books.

An aside about poetry: Midday Connection, a daily radio program broadcast by WMBI, Moody Broadcasting Network, had a wonderful program last Friday about poetry, and my beloved literature professor, Dr. Rosalie de Rosset, was a guest, talking about how to appreciate poetry. It's excellent.

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