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Reading to Children - Are We Doing It Right?
Setting the Stage - Reading is One of the Big Boosts to Life:
Several studies over several years in several settings have all shown a high correlation between reading to young children and academic competence throughout their traditional school years. We all know by now that reading stories to a child is an important part of the child's early development, and so we read to them. Some parents read because they enjoy passing along the good feelings they remember or sense they had as a child. Others read to their young children because they have heard it's a good thing to do. Still others do it to calm an agitated baby. And then there are those who don't see the point. The intention of this article is to get you to think about what might be happening inside the child as you approach your reading time together, and see if there might be something that could improve this quality time you are investing in each other.
The problem with reading to young children is that the available material is often pretty boring to us, the readers. This often makes the actual reading kind of a chore for us. Compounding this problem is the fact that young children, and almost everyone else, can tell when you're faking it. When you put these facts together, unless you are exceptionally gifted or fortunate, your children are probably learning all about faking it along with whatever academic preparation they're getting out of your reading. Or worse, they're getting the idea that reading is boring. It's difficult to tell exactly what's going on in their heads at this stage, but I have to imagine there's a little of both mixing it up in their developing synapses.
So, how do we address these potential problems?
There are two approaches:
APPROACH # 1: Work on the symptoms (Don't feel bad, this is what almost everyone does) - Over-animate with your voice and pump yourself up for the ordeal - similar to sales preparation and self-hypnosis. This is actually a pretty good form of compensation and can effectively mask the boredom. The challenge is in making the boring material come alive through animation. If you can pull this off consistently, you'll be okay. Another "mask the symptom" approach is to improvise to the point that the story becomes interesting to you. This takes a Robin Williams kind of personality, and most people will not be able to sustain this with any level of competence over the long haul. The last "bandaid" is to read it like you see it - make reading a bedtime activity and use it to bore the child to sleep. This may have unpredictable consequences later on, but it has been demonstrated to be far better than not reading to the child at all.
APPROACH # 2: Work on the root cause: Select material that you like - not in terms of subject matter necessarily, but in terms of rhythm or clever word construction or fun, off-the-wall logic. It's out there, but you do have to search for it. Select material that helps you recover some of the perspective of your audience and use it as a launching pad to get you "into" their level of joy and sensation. Another approach to chip away at the root cause of the problem is to write your own material to your own standards. Don't be afraid to try this. You won't do any worse than most of the published children's authors.
The Scope of the Solution:
Since the root cause of the problem is boring material, we need to find more stimulating material that would also be of interest to children who are beginning to understand our language. Ideally, it would be nice to find material that makes some sense, caters to a child's view, is well illustrated, has short sentences, has appropriate vocabulary, and helps us connect with the child's view of life. This can be somewhat tricky, but it is not impossible.
Elements of the Solution - Perspective:
From the child's point of view, anything that interests you that is prose will work before the age of about 6 months (not chemical engineering textbooks). At this point, developmentally, the child is still getting his bearings, and any audio he gets is useful input to his little computer that is sorting through the intricacies of language at a frightening pace. After this age, it is probably wise to start selecting stories that a child with 6+ months of experience might relate to, from his experiential perspective, so he can become interested in the subject matter as his comprehension skills adjust to the task. I'm talking about stories iwth short sentences that are loaded with vivid, age-appropriate sensory descriptions and common objects that can be found below the 2-foot level. It might be useful for you to walk around with a video camera strapped to a stick that can be easily moved around a foot off the ground, and watch the resulting video to see what your target audience is seeing, and how they're seeing it. You'll be surprised to see how much structural engineering they are recording. This exercise can give you a standard by which to judge the material you think might fit your audience.
Examples - both good and bad:
Think about the stories you remember and enjoyed from your childhood. There probably aren't very many. For the younger set, the Dr. Seuss collection (Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Oh Say Can You Say, etc.) seems to be a consistent winner. The rhythm, rhyming and surprises keep the stories moving, the sentences are short, the ideas are simple, and the length of the stories is just about right for the content. The plots and conclusions are sometimes a little quirky, but hey, maybe that's part of the magic. For the same group of young children, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a good choice. This is what I refer to as a gimmick book - but this one is particularly good in that the sentences and page pauses make it especially easy to animate, and the pictures are big and colorful. Besides that, the gimmick is actually relevant to the story. Very well done. This is my article, so I can interject a personal opinion now and then.
Fairy tales are a special case, and probably depend more on your personal memories than on any "gold standard". The abridged versions of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty seem to be good ones, in spite of the somewhat unfamiliar concepts of witches and fairy godmothers. On the other hand, Little Red Riding Hood has so many violations of common sense and such serious implications of parental abandonment that responsible adults would run from that story. Of course, that assumes the parents are paying attention, which goes back to my original thesis of boredom being a problem. I can go either way on The Three Little Pigs, but your children must be familiar with the "Huff, and Puff" segments to be accepted later in social settings, and those same segments do make for a great and memorable animation opportunity.
Recommendation for Fairy Tales: Confine the stupid ones to the 0-6-month-old set so they can have the benefit of cultural familiarity, but switch over to the more "palatable" selections when comprehension starts to become evident.
As the child gets a little older, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day seems to work well. Good perspective, appropriate word choices, fun, long enough to get comfortable, but short enough to stay interesting, and with subjects children can relate to. This is actually close to the ideal children's book, if there is such a thing. A very interesting example is The Giving Tree. This story is pretty good for children because of its style, emotions and vocabulary, even though it involves some fairly complex and abstract emotions that are outside the scope of their experience. These emotions are handled in a way that makes the story work for all ages. Pure Genius.
Closing Comments: You are in charge. You are the absolute selection authority for your children. You must take responsibility in the use of this authority you have and make informed selections. You control how boring, inappropriate or insane the material is that you are willing to deal with yourself and subsequently transfer to your children. Conversely, you control how exciting, interesting, and profitable this selection is also. Then you inflect all the excitement you feel for the material through your animation. After the critical selection and inflection phases, the only thing left for you to do is to pay attention to how the material is written and read it with the rhythm that the author was humming in his head when he wrote the story (if rhythm is a part of the content).
Kent Walters is a veteran of reading to his own four children from an early age. He is educated in languages and linguistics, with an emphasis in the linguistic foundations of mental orientation and understanding. He is passionate about the benefits of reading to children, and is on a crusade to raise awareness and encourage this behavior in all parents. As a part of this crusade, Mr. Walters has deployed a couple of websites to encourage the review and generation of more quality children's books. He has written a few children's books himself, one of which he gives away as a free sample on his websites, http://www.reading-to-children.com and http://www.kidsstuffnews.com
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