Saturday, January 26, 2008

Basic literacy support: Reading with children

When parents ask what they can do to help their children at home, my most common first response is "Read to and with them". While people are often looking for more complex answers there is no more fundamental way to support literacy. There are two related reasons for this:

First, time on task is important for success in anything. One of the most basic insights from literacy research in the 1960s and 1970s was the repeated observation by researchers like the late Dame Marie Clay in New Zealand and Richard Allington in the USA that struggling readers read less than successful readers. Less books and only about one third of the words. This doesn't seem too startling, but think about it. If a child is struggling with reading, how do they catch up with other children by doing less reading? The answer is that they don't! The gap gets wider.

Second, being read to and with an adult offers many opportunities for learning. Mem Fox talks about children needing to be read at least 1,000 books before the age of five to be successful readers. While we could quibble over the precise number, the principle is clear. Being read to teaches much about language (vocabulary, how language works at the sentence and text levels, the sounds and rhythms of language and so on, concepts of print and how it works), knowledge of the world and positive experiences with books.

The key is that reading should be enjoyable and the child needs to feel successful.

Over the next few posts I'll offer some basic advice (primarily for parents) about reading to, reading with and listening to children as they read. Much of this same advice can be found in my book written for with Lynne Munsie, titled Beyond Tokenism: Parents as partners in literacy. Note that this book is meant for teachers who want to help parents to support their children and was an outcome of our research on familiy literacy. It is not written for parents.

Reading to..

  • Read early - at least from birth (yes some parents even read when their child is in the womb).
  • Read often - at least daily.
  • Make it special - treat books as if they are precious, anticipate reading as if it's the most special time of the day and make the text an extension of a warm and loving relationship.
  • Choose books carefully - think about the things your children like, talk to other parents about books that kids like, consult lists like my list of 200 Great books.
  • If you can, read the book before you read it to your children - reading out loud is a performance.
  • Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone.
  • Be physically engaged - point to pictures (or parts of pictures) as you read, point to text devices and features.
  • Make connections as you read with other books, experiences, TV etc (don't overdo this) - "This is a bit like the story....", "This is a bit like Daddy doing.....", "This sounds like...".
  • Talk after you finish the book - again don't overdo it, it's all about response and reflection, it's not a comprehension test. "Did you like...?" "Don't you think this was like...?"
The above comments are written with parents of young preschool in mind, but the principles are pretty much the same for children of all ages. You can read to your children until at least 10-12 years of age. It will be less regular with older children and it is likely that you'll share the reading rather than just reading to them. But the basics are still read regularly and often > making it special > choosing books carefully and with your child in mind (or help them to choose) > reading as well as you can > being physically and emotionally engaged > making connections with other books and experiences > encouraging response.

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