Dump Dora, and 7 More Tips to Help You Enjoy Reading to Your Young Child

IMG_2974 We all know we’re supposed to read to our kids. And while I often truly love our snuggle time with a book, reading to a child — let’s be honest — can also sometimes feel like a bit of a chore. Especially the third time that we’re both plodding through the same book in a row.

And I’m a notorious bookworm! As a child, I was such an avid reader that I would walk and read at the same time, floating obliviously through the hallways of my elementary school like a bespectacled nerd zombie.

Still, reading is one of those no-compromise parental duties. Despite decades of programs like “Stop, Drop and Read,” many children are not read to enough by parents or caregivers, and the richness of the “print environment” for kids varies widely and tragically among neighborhoods and income levels.

James Trelease’s classic, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,”  notes these differences in fairly stark terms according to social class. He writes about a 2005 study of 42 families over 1,300 hours of observations, and starts with the similarities:

Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children…. [But] when the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old from the “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the “working-class” child 26 million, and the “welfare” child only 13 million.

That’s a gap of 32 million words, which is a lot for schools to cope with when kids start kindergarten. Trelease goes on to explain that although all those conversations help to develop the brain and interest kids in what can be accomplished with language, spoken words are not enough.

Turns out that kids need exposure to words, images and concepts outside of things like “where are your shoes?” and “finish your spinach.” To better stoke their imagination, equip children with a wide range of “background knowledge,” and keep pace with the fact that kids’ comprehension far outstrips their ability to speak, we must expose them to all the “rare” words in books:

Whereas an adult uses only nine rare words (per thousand) when talking with a three-year-old, there are three times as many in a children’s book and more than seven times as many in a newspaper.

So, how should we think about the job of reading to our kids in a way that makes it fun for both parents and children? And what really matters in the act of reading a book, anyway? While I found Trelease’s book was mostly a screed on educational policies about reading, he did have a few good tips (and includes helpful reading lists by age group at the back).

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Here’s his useful insights plus a few of my own, picked up along the way:

  1. The most important: Make reading a snuggly, relaxed time from the very start. Beginning with your newborn, read as many books as they seem interested in with an easygoing manner. Spread focused times for reading out across the day, and extend the time as the child remains interested. (By the time Maya was 10 months old, we were looking at books for at least an hour a day. It’s easier to find and make this time if TV and other screens are not in the equation.) Don’t force reading time, and discontinue it if your child becomes uninterested. As they get older, talk with them about how nice it is to read together, and make it a habit. We snuggle with books first thing in the morning, before dinner, and at bedtime, at a minimum. Singing your way through Mother Goose is a nice way to be with a toddler, and the rhymes are contagious and help with memory development to boot.
  2. Create a text-rich environment: Leave baskets of books near play areas and around the house where they are easily accessible without adult help. For toddlers, books near the potty areas are a no-brainer. Keep a mix of books, including board books, around, but focus on reading the ones that are more challenging to your child at that developmental moment, and let them look through the simpler ones by themselves unless asked you’re specifically to read those, more or less for old times’ sake. And think about playing with letters and text! Put magnet letters on the fridge, make felt shapes in letter forms for a felt board, play with tracing letters and building them (here’s a nifty set I really like, despite the plastic!), print your names and trace them, etc.
  3. Build patience and stamina for stories by sustaining interest: According to Trelease, by the age of three, most children should be able to endure some stories with longer blocks of age-appropriate text on one page of a two-page spread. Alternate picture books with more textually dense, but well-paced, stories. Audiobooks can also be used to build patience for listening, as they ask kids to use their imagination: start with books they know (we like both The Polar Express, and Blueberries for Sal), and then branch off into new books. When reading, ask questions about the text, prompting your child for predictions about the contents of a new book based on the cover to develop observational skills, or connecting the subjects to something they know (“we picked blueberries, didn’t we?”). Be ambitious in picking stories that keep introducing new subjects, places and kinds of people, and that ask for patience from your child. They will let you know when you’ve gone too far!
  4. Introduce books as beloved creations: Read the name of the author or illustrator, explaining that’s who wrote or drew in the book. Insist that books be treated with care and respect, and ask your child to help keep them neat and organized. Three- and four-year-olds can make books as an easy craft, drawing pictures on folded paper and “binding” them with yarn tied through two punched holes. You can act as scribe for their book ideas, and help them write out a story, talk about and do illustrations, and read it aloud back to them.
  5. Change it up: To combat boredom (mostly for me!) and maintain interest, I like to have a lot of books around to choose from. (While I liked many of the suggestions in the parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, I was staggered by the suggestion that a child needs only 12 books! That’s just absurd.) If you’re like me, you’ll need to find ready sources for cheap books (or time for weekly trips to the library). Luckily, book and library sales, garage and yard sales, thrift stores and used books from online sources are all good options. I like to circulate books, moving them from the playroom to the bedroom and back again about every three months, and getting rid of the ones that are no longer needed. A little re-org on a Saturday morning does wonders for making our collection “new.” Because we have storage space and to keep our many books affordable, books are another thing I buy ahead when I see classics on sale for pennies at the thrift store. When you have limited time to ascertain a book’s quality (or attend as Darwinian a library sale as the one here in Takoma Park — LOL), I’ve found it’s helpful to eyeball the quality of the illustrations. Beautifully designed images or drawings, often by someone other than the author, are a tell-tale sign of more thoughtful execution and expense by publishers.
  6. Dump Dora. Really. Yes, my dear daughter also is drawn to the unnaturally wide-eyed perky wonder that is Dora the Explorer. But over time, I have painstakingly weeded out all of those books, as well as ones starring “The Wiggles,” or containing any Disney princess-y BS or other objectionably idiotic, marketing-driven nonsense. Why? Because they are painfully unpleasant and dull to read, lack a plot or any character development, and are poorly drawn to boot. Anything I don’t enjoy reading is out. I can’t tell you how much this simple principle has improved both our lives since I became a merciless hard-liner for quality reading material. Do it! You won’t regret it one minute. (Still need convincing? Just order or borrow any book by Jan Brett and read it aloud back-to-back with some commercialized dreck that found its way onto your bookshelf like an unwelcome house-guest, and then you tell me.)
  7. Re-write as you read: Since I have a daughter, I can’t help noticing that most books are stuck in, say, 1975, when it comes to gender pronouns. The default of a male persona for animals and other characters is irritating. So I just read them as “she.” I’ll also soften some scary parts of fairy tales a bit to lessen the blow. More fun, though, is playing silly games with substitutions when I find myself reading the same book six times in two days. I’ll sub in preposterous first letters for the existing words (so it becomes “Bleen Beggs and Bam”), and make Maya correct me. Or I’ll add in odd adjectives, nouns or verbs (“Purple Eggs and Spam” ) and insist that they are right. Sometimes pickles just appear at odd moments in the story. The wackier, the better. On occasion, Maya wants the comfort of repetition rather than a game, and she lets me know! But other times, this silliness keeps familiar books alive for both of us, and makes her giggle at me while showing off what she knows better than mommy.
  8. Let imitation be flattery:  When your child talks, don’t correct their language, but do repeat, like a parenting parrot, what they say much of the time by subtly filling in their intentions. For example: “Mom, park today.” becomes, in your words, “You went to the park today?” Fill in and translate emotions for them as well (“Were you sad about that?  You seem sad. You were sad at the park today.”) I’ve used repetition consistently since Maya started speaking until now (she is 3 and a half). While it seemed strange at first to repeat nearly everything she said in a conversational tone, after a little while it felt perfectly natural, and the impact on her vocabulary and grammar is obvious. This modeling of course works the way ’round as well, so let your child catch you reading. Obviously, it’s more difficult to raise a reader if you are not reading books, with interest, yourself. In this age of the digital, young children won’t connect your time in front of a laptop with reading a book. Making sure that books are a feature of your own free time when possible (including reading aloud from recipe books when you cook together!) will bring home the message that books and reading are a life-long pleasure, and a key to life in the larger world.

What’s missing from this list? I don’t think (and research agrees) that pushing academic-style phonics lessons on children is a good idea, unless the child repeatedly asks for more information about learning to read without parental prompting. Fostering a sense of self-directed intellectual curiosity is the point, and that can be stifled by pressure to learn.

While a few very young children do pick up reading easily on their own, and that’s fine, the goal of all this is to ensure that reading is exciting, pleasurable and a point of connection for parents and kids. Stay tuned for my next post on dazzling adventure stories for young children!

Do you have tips for me? I’d love to hear them!

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