My son is only 26 months old, but he’s beginning to learn at the speed of light (from my perspective). After twenty minutes of a Sesame Street “two” episode, for example, he knows he has two hands, two eyes, two feet, and that there are two apples, two spoons, and two bowls on the table. He learned circles just as fast and loves finding circles everywhere we go. “Look, Mommy! Circles!” is a frequent comment.
Because he’s so ready to learn, I’ve been pondering how to introduce him to the world of letters, the world of reading, and a pre-preschool world of him and me. I know he’s not ready to learn to read, but what can I do now to help him be ready in another year or two?
I decided to seek out some books that might help. While I checked out dozens of books, I only read two in the past few weeks. Growing a Reader from Birth by Diane McGuinness was fascinating, but I was disappointed that the majority of the book focused on baby language learning rather than learning to read (as the title would suggest). The ABCs of Literacy by Cynthia Dollins, on the other hand, was just what I was looking for, and I’ve even ordered my own copy I loved it so much. Both books were geared toward parents and childcare givers, and the second is one every parent of a toddler should read.
Growing a Reader from Birth
I admit that I started the first book because it had a pretty cover. Besides, I loved the premise of the title: Growing a Reader from Birth. It reminded me that learning to read and loving to read are a process. One does not suddenly, at age six, sit down in a classroom, learn the letters, and become a reader. Since I (obviously) love to read and my son, already, follows me around the house with his own books, I’m hoping that he eventually becomes a reader too. In fact, because he enjoys books so much, even “reading” them to himself, I would consider him a reader already (or at least a lover of books, which is a great start).
But I should have considered the subtitle: Your Child’s Path from Language to Literacy. To my surprise, Diane McGuinness does not focus on reading. In fact, the first 200 pages are about language: how babies and toddlers learn language, parental impact on language development, the do’s and don’t’s for talking to your children in order to help them learn language best. Did you know that newborns hear sound differently than older children? The “motherese” that is higher pitched than normal speech and that covers greater range is the type of language newborns physically need to hear. I find it fascinating that we instinctively speak in a high range when talking to babies. (Note that baby talk is not necessary and is detrimental; just the higher range of speaking is necessary).
I also learned why my son thinks his name is “Baby.” Since that was the name I repeated to him often in his first year (how could I resist? This adorable little baby was waking up and I loved him and found him cuddly), that was the first word he learned. I found that discussion fascinating, since it’s normally the their own name the child learns first. Let this be a lesson to you: if you call your newborn “Baby” all the time, he will call himself “Baby” at age two.
Further, I was fascinated to read the studies of interaction between children and their mothers. When mothers spoke with a lower vocabulary (600 words) to their one-year-old children, the same children at age 3 had a lower IQ. On the other hand, when mothers spoke with a normal adult vocabulary (or at least 1500 words) to their one-year-olds, their children knew a lot more by age 3. This should be a given, but for me, it really made me reconsider how I talk to my son: Why do I say “Choo choo” instead of train or locomotive? Why don’t I explain things when I say the word? How can I explain the world to him?
All of these language concepts do relate to literacy: a child has to understand certain things about the world and have a vocabulary before reading makes sense. This was the most valuable part of Growing a Reader. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed by the subsequent discussion (about 50 pages) about teaching a child to read. It was a rant about the failings of the modern educational teaching method. McGuinness explained how bad schools are, how they won’t teach your child to read properly, and how we should demand better teaching. But she failed to explain to parents what we should be doing, beyond insisting that teachers use a phonics system. It was disappointing, because so much of the book built up to the learning to read moment: she failed to deliver.
Throughout the book, McGuinness also had some odd ideas about reading. She does not like picture books, believing they teach a child to look for context clues rather than focus on the words. She does not expect kids to learn to read before going to school. Now, in subsequent reading (Dollins’ book), I learned that children are not normally physically ready to learn to read until age six (that is, they are not physically able to remember so many letter-phonic combinations or keep such information as plot in order) but McGuinness never address that: she focused on language learning almost to the exclusion of reading learning.
I enjoyed McGuinness’s book for the insights in to my own communication with my son, but I do wonder what her qualifications are: the cover says “PhD” but what does that really mean these days?
The ABCs of Literacy
Cynthia Dollins, EdD, elementary classroom teacher for twenty years and lecturer in child and adolescent literature and writing and reading methods (from back cover), perfectly captured what I was looking for in nurturing my young son’s reading habits. I do not often buy myself new books (to be accurate: this is first time since last February), but I have already ordered a copy of this book for myself. It is that good.
If you have a toddler and you want your “read-aloud” moments to help him learn, to increase his literacy, and to be fun, The ABCs of Literacy is the book you must have.
Part A focuses on the “whys” to reading aloud to toddlers: it’s a bonding time between parent and child, it helps them learn about the world, it helps them learn how printed reading works, and it teaches them vocabulary and phonemic awareness. Now, she’s preaching to the choir here, but I loved being justified in my reading! What this section did do for me was encourage me to turn off the TV more often, since it does not help with any of the above things at all (even for vocabulary and phonemic awareness, the effect is minimal). I know I mentioned above that my son learned “two” from Sesame Street, so it’s not a waste of time all the time, but still: I should interact with him more. I’ve begun a new unofficial project, called “keep lots of books in the family room.” Now, when my son says “watch! Watch” I say, which book would you like to read next? It’s been lots of fun because we’re reading books in the middle of the day. I think he remembers the books better, especially when we’re acting out The Cat in the Hat, for example (he likes to hop holding books, like the Cat in the Hat does).
The other sections are incredible comprehensive: she covers the issues of which books to choose (what makes a picture book “quality” literature), the best methods for reading books out loud, and other ways to promote literacy. Now, some people may balk about the “quality” literature comment: surely, we want reading to be fun. Dollins discusses this as follows:
“Most of us remember books from our childhood that we wanted to read again and again. These books resonated with us for some reason and stayed with us into adulthood, evoking positive memories. Surely we can point to many of the books considered classics and understand why they have been so disginated. They may contain a universal theme that is uniquely human to all of us, or they may tug at our heart or emotions. The author’s words may be so carefully chosen that we find ourselves quoting them in conversation to make a point. Picture books, too, distinguish themselves through the feelings they evoke and the themes they hold. They also contain exemplary use of language …. Books from our childhood remain with us because of our reaction to them, the reaction that made us laugh, cry, feel deeply, or just think.” (page 51).
It’s a long quote, but I want to share it because it resonated with me so strongly. You probably know that I’m a big fan of classic literature by now. And I think she perfectly captures why classics are classics. She’s talking about picture books, but I think it extends to all classics. I just love them for the universality of it all!
Here’s an example from our own reading. While there is a place for the Little Golden Book Thomas and the Big Big Bridge (and my son and I read it at least once a day), it’s obvious that the writing, illustrations, and story are not as engaging, thoughtful, and able to teach concepts and vocabulary as even The Little Engine that Could. Can anyone forget “I think I can! I think I can!”
Dollins’ book ends with an 80-page (yes, 80) annotated listing some books that she considers classic, well-written, and thoughtful and that teach vocabulary or phonetics or concepts. They all are fun for her and for her own children. I look forward to seeking out of some of those books. While not every picture book will work for everyone else, I’m eager to give her list a try. I really trust her concepts and this list gets me excited for years or reading with my son!
Have I convinced you to read this book yet? I seriously think it is awesome.
I have been reading a textbook about the history of children’s literature and reading the historical literature mentioned in it. I intend to do that for myself, but after reading Robinson Crusoe aloud to my son (and taking three months to do so), I came to the belated conclusion that learning the history of children’s literature is for me, not for him. I’m still tracking it and working on it. But I also need a project that is for the two of us!
My newest project is this. I’d like to read 1,000 different books with him before his fifth birthday. I started keeping track December 12, 2009. In tracking this list, I won’t count a book twice. Any book counts: picture books, board books, wordless books, audiobooks (the ones for kids), chapter books, adult books I read aloud to him (if I dare try that again). But I’m only counting a book if I read it to him (not my husband) and only if I’ve read him the entire thing or most of it (no skipping pages). I’m a bit torn on this last point. For example, we read Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go almost every day, but we have yet to read every single page in one sitting, because it is so long. I may count that one anyway, since we’ve read the book so many times in pieces. I’m hoping that in the next two and half years we’ll get through it.
The purpose of this is to introduce my son to great literature and fun literature. I also want to make reading with him priority, not just a dread before bed (because he wants to read for a long time and I’m always exhausted and ready to move on with my night). Of course, many of the books we read are repeats: no day goes by without five readings of The Red Caboose. But I think finding new favorites is important too, and I’m looking forward to find them. I’m going to adopt the reading lists from The ABCs of Literacy as my own, I’m going to continue seeking out age-appropriate Caldecott winners, and I’m going to browse the library more frequently.
As for this site, every 100 books, I’ll post about his and my favorites. I think that will be a fun way to round out this project and give myself a sense of accountability to you. Now I just need to make a project button…
A question for parents to toddlers: Do you do reading projects with your toddler? How do you choose your next book(s)?