To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

I want to talk about raising a literate child. I can do that because, since the definition of "expert" is "parent of one child", I am an expert. Disclaimer: You can't make your kid be literate any more than you can make him or her anything else. People are who they are from the get-go. But you can influence a kid to go the way you want. You might as well try, since you'll pretty definitely influence him or her to go the way you don't want. I've read that "the footsteps your kids follow in are the ones you thought you'd covered up".

Anyway, back to the literate child. Before I became pregnant with F, I was listening to the radio one day - and I can tell you exactly where in Memphis I was driving at the time - and I heard someone authoritative talk about the importance of reading Mother Goose rhymes to babies. The cadences and the rhymes point out the way the language is put together. That made a lot of sense to me. When F came along, we acquired a big green Mother Goose book. Maybe my mom gave it to us? It has lots of big colorful pictures and lots and lots of nursery rhymes. I held F on my lap and read them to her. When she was big enough to turn the pages, I'd read all of the poems on one page and she'd study the picture for a while, then she'd turn the page and I'd read the poems on that page.

By the way, on that studying the picture thing: I and my sibs were read to quite a bit, and I can run across the Little Golden Books, which are still in print, and know what the pictures inside will look like even though I haven't cracked those things in decades.

F had short books when she was a toddler. We belonged to a book club, maybe associated with "Parents" magazine, and we got lots of little short books from them. R or I read one or two of them to her every night before bed.

At age 4 I thought it was time to start reading chapter books to her, a chapter a night. I took inspiration from Dick Estelle, the Radio Reader - anyone remember him? I thought if he could do it I could. We started with The Hobbit. I paraphrased just a bit as needed for clarity and when the story might bog down from a 4-yr-old's perspective (in Mirkwood, and after they found the dragon) but other than that we read that sucker straight through. After that it was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That one really motivated F to learn to read. She wouldn't let me stop after one chapter. I had to keep reading every evening as long as I could. I remember once croaking, "I have to stop now," and she said, "Oh, no, Mommy, I have to find out what's happening to Edmund and the White Witch!" and she took the book from me and tried to force meaning from it.

After that we skipped over to The Magician's Nephew, and then we left Narnia and read some other things. We did Ramona the Pest right before she started kindergarten, and The Door in the Wall (terrific story) and then we started the Little House books. We read ALL of those, and there are quite a few. If you start with the first one, Little House in the Big Woods, and proceed chronologically, the reading difficulty progresses as Laura gets older. Sometimes when I was reading F her chapter, R would come in and sit and listen to the story. He enjoyed taking a turn doing the reading too, if I was busy or tired or just if he wanted to.

And let me interject - when you're doing this you don't just read every word on the page, one after the other, like a robot. You stop and ask questions: What do you think is going to happen next? Do you think it was a good idea for her to do that? What should she have done? Or if a scene has an incomplete description, ask the kid to fill in from her imagination. This encourages the child to pause and reflect while reading, and it's an excellent opportunity to get those little character-shaping lectures in that parents need to do. "See, all of this happened because she didn't tell her mommy the truth" - that kind of thing.

We read to F every night until she could read faster to herself. When she reached first grade, they sent her back to read to the kindergartners because they wanted those children to see that a small child like themselves really could read. She chose The Monster at the End of This Book and she read with great expression, because that's another thing: when you read to a kid, you have to do different voices for different people, and slow down dramatically, or sigh as you read, or whatever it takes to make the story real.

(Never stopped reading to her altogether, by the way - I remember reading a Katherine Anne Porter short story to her, for instance, probably close to the end of high school. And I took my inspiration there from The Princess Bride, the book, in which it's the father reading to the kid, and he tells the kid's mom that his father continued reading to his children into their teens.)

After that my boosting of F's literacy mostly consisted of suggesting books for her to read and talking with her about her reading material. I read virtually all of the books she had to read, from elementary school through high school. Some of the selections made me wonder: I was not the only parent horrified at The Giver for kids going into 5th grade; the boy watching his father kill the low-birth-weight twin even as he talked baby-talk to it was a bit much, we thought. And then in high school, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I had not read it before, and loved it. F hated it. But I read it identifying with the adult narrator, looking back at all of the sad, funny, scary, horrifying, infuriating events of her girlhood that made her into the person she became. F read it identifying with the little girl in the story, and if you read it that way it's pretty much unbearable.

I wrote here about forcing her to read Rider at the Gate, a book she didn't initially want to read and subsequently loved, and here about using Jane Eyre and The Good Earth to make a point about what makes a person a moral person. We talked about poetry, too.

This summer I inflicted A Yellow Raft in Blue Water on her. She read it all pretty much in one sitting, complained bitterly about how depressing it was (although she liked the parts about Rayona), and I'll bet anything she'll be taking it off the shelf again at some point even as she is asking herself why.


Mrs. Who said...

As a teacher, let me say 'thank you' for doing this. If all parents could read to their child like this, we wouldn't be having the educational problems we do today. I saw an article earlier about how cell phone usage is keeping adult caregivers (parents, babysitters, etc.) from interacting with the child and how it's hampering the development of language skills.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

There's a family in my neighborhood with a little toddler girl. I've seen her mom pushing her in the stroller, yak yak yak on the cell and the child just sitting there. It made me think of those days with my kid - "See the birdie?" and so forth. Kind of sad.