Two Books on Literacy (Growing a Reader from Birth and The ABCs of Literacy)

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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.

Children’s Projects

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)?

Reviewed on January 7, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • That is a GREAT goal, one of the best reading goals I’ve heard in ages! I love it!

    For us (and myboys are a little older) it’s been lots of fun over the last year to have the boys have challenges they can participate in. We found this wonderful list online with classic books broken down by age groups (K-3,4-6,7-8,9-12), and have been letting the boys cross the books off when they read them. Then, when they finish one of the age group lists (Laurence is the last one on K-3, and is ALMOST done with it) we take them down to get a big prize – they each got to pick out several books at Barnes and Nobles. The prize kind of gets them excited at the beginning, and then later, they just like to be able to check off that they finished something – it kind of helps them feel like they’re accomplishing something, you know? The list is fun, too, because it has a little of everything, with no distinction between ‘boy’ books and ‘girl’ books or any other categories – so Morrigan, for instance, recently read Heidi, then The Dark is Rising – so they get exposed to a lot of different kinds of reading, even if it’s not what they’d get in a more scattershot approach. Anyway, don’t know how well it would work for a toddler (although the collection of picture books in the K-3 list is GREAT!), but more generally, kids like to feel like they’re accomplishing something, not like their parents are accomplishing something – they like to be involved, you know? And it’s good to help them connect their self esteem with something that is, for them, hard work :).

  • What a fantastic goal! I have to say, most of my early childhood memories revolve around food; but the very few that don’t are all about the times when my mum and dad would read to me. We read Narnia when I was three, and those books remain a tremendous influence on my thinking and writing.

  • What a good mom you are! If your son doesn’t turn into a life long avid reader it will be through no fault of your own. I still remember a good many of the books I loved when young including The Little Train that Could, all the Pooh stories, Dr. Seuss, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Looking forward to hearing what new and old treasures catch your son’s imagination.

  • Jason and I never read any books about how to teach our kids to be readers. When they were infants, we would read them to sleep each night while we fed them, from longer, adult books, just for the rhythm of the language. Later, when they could pay attention, a story became part of the bedtime routine. But what really made a difference was the fact that they saw me and Jason reading all the time. I remember once when Ambrose had barely turned 3 and he saw me reading Harry Potter. He went over to some board books, came to sit beside me, and spent an hour “reading.” The book was upside down, and he didn’t really turn pages or anything, but just enjoyed staring at the book the way Mom did. I think no matter what you do to get your child to read, the primary reason they will become a reader is seeing the adults around them read.

  • I don’t even have kids, Rebecca, and you have practically convinced ME to read your second selection! It sounds like it was really solid and provided you with concrete ideas about how to experience books with your son – super valuable! I love your 1,000 books goal.

  • Oh.My.
    This is a wonderful project — I don’t have kids of my own but when I visit my nieces and nephew they love it when I read them stories (and I love it just as much – my niece (3) told me that I was a very good reader).
    Do you find it a challenge to find books that interest your son? I sometimes find that the children’s book section in the stores are slightly more geared to girls (outside of the branded character tie-in books).

  • I enjoyed your seeing your reviews of the literacy books. As someone who deals primarily with reading and learning problems on a professional basis, it is nice to see books about what parents can do to prepare their children for formal education. The process starts with being read to for fun, followed by learning to read, and then reading to learn. But, I encourage parents to continue the first stage throughout the rest of the stages. This is especially important if children struggle with the latter two stages. They often lose interest, hate reading, and give up trying! This is the problem that I face!
    Your site is great! I have 2 grandchildren, and I am always looking for books. keep up the good work!

  • Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook and Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt are good books for kids titles. For you, I’d recommend The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise – the first chapter or so is about preschoolers and preparing them for reading readiness to get them reading by age 4. All four of my kids were reading by four, and it is true that “reading is easy,” when approached the right way.
    For what it’s worth.
    Enjoy your time with your son!

  • I don’t have any reading goals when it comes to my kids. I’m a reader and I want them to feel as passionate about reading as I do, so I usually read to them everyday and they also read to themselves. Since there’s so many kids in my home, we have a book club and discuss what we’re reading. My youngest is 4 and right now we’re reading two different versions of Little Red Riding Hood. We read my favorite version then his and talk about both. Until we wants to read something different, Little Red Riding Hood is what we’ll read.

    Because I love children’s books, I pick books I love to share with the kids and let them pick out what interests them. Often we don’t like the same books but it’s great to spend time talking about books.

  • Jason, that sounds like an awesome project! I don’t think my son cares if I’m working on list — he just likes to read at this point! And that makes me happy.

    Jenny, oh I hope my son doesn’t remember only my food. I feel like a boring cook! Fun about Narnia — I remember my mother reading those to me too, but I was older than three.

    Stefanie, I haven’t found Harold and the Purple Crayon yet! Sounds like one I need to look up!

    Amanda, I know reading books about teaching kids to read is not necessary, but I started wondering how kids learn to read, so it was pure curiousity! I think you’re right: the more he sees me read, the more he loves it too. He does the same thing: I was reading him some poetry the other day and he said “No,” got his own book and said that the book I was reading from was “Mommy’s book” and he read his own sitting next to me. I thought it was cute 🙂

    Emily, yes, I loved the book! Especially since it had so much emphasis on together reading.

    Suzanne, well, I never go in bookstores. I did in December to get Christmas presents and was horribly disappointed. They have far less selection than libraries and! So I do my research online and order books if I’m going to buy them. But more often than not I just get library books. Haven’t had problems finding books for my son. (He loves trains and cars and anything that moves right now and there are lots of books about those things.)

    Gary, the thing I loved about the second book was the emphasis that all the stages go together! Reading to learn to read and to learn ARE fun. So yes, I especially want my son to recognize that reading is fun, and so far, so good!

    Susan, thanks for the book recommendations! I love book idea lists!

    Vasilly, I love the idea of family book clubs! I can’t wait until my son can discuss things with me! But it’s fun to read aloud to him too, even if it is The Little Red Caboose five times a day.

  • For a variety of reasons, millions of children struggle to learn to read. Research shows that if by third grade they still struggle, they are likely to continue to struggle throughout their school years. They do not read to learn, and thus school becomes a difficult challenge.
    As adults, many of us think of reading as an effortless, enjoyable activity. We’re fluid readers. We don’t worry about decoding words. We integrate a wide variety of skills into an efficient, automatic process.
    Each child is relatively unique in his/her strengths and weaknesses in particular areas (e.g., sight vocabulary, decoding, receptive and expressive vocabulary, motivation). So, if they do struggle, problems need to be identified early and actions need to be implemented to provide the programs needed to meet their specific needs.

  • You’re welcome, Rebecca. You seem to be doing a lot to get your son off to a great start. I’m a Clinical-Child Psychologist and a School Psychologist, and I tell parents (and practice this with my grandchildren) to take cues from their children. I also think that we tend to push reading too soon. I would rather take it slowly than have a child experience difficulty with reading-related tasks and become frustrated. Over time, this can adversely affect a child’s motivation to read. On the other hand, I think we can do more to expand children’s quantitative thinking at earlier ages. You indicated your son’s fascination with the concept of “two”. There are a lot of little games you can play to capitalize on his growing quantitative awareness. And, judging from all the “stats” you presented in you year-end review, I suspect that there already may be some modeling involved!

  • Hi Rebecca, I found your review because I’ve just finished Growing a Reader from Birth and I wanted to see some other perspectives on it. Great review! I really had some problems with this book, but I can see better now where it might be useful — as you say, it can offer insights into communication between parent or caregiver and child. I’ll let you know when I’ve posted my review, if you’re interested.

    I’m also really interested in finding the second book you mentioned, so thank you.

  • Kiirstin, you are not the only one to question McGuinness’s approach. As with most books of this nature, parents need to read with a critical eye. Mastering the alphabetic code is essential, but becoming a good reader goes well beyond this. Good readers develop a number of skills that make reading an automatic process. This helps them to become fluent readers who comprehend what they read. As many have attested, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching reading or remediating reading disabilities. For example, see today’s post about a popular reading program and yesterday’s post on one parent’s approach to teaching her child to read on my website:

  • Thank you for this post! I bookmarked it a long time ago and just came back to it now. My daughter is 23 months old, and I, too, have been looking for books to help me help her to read. She already loves books, but I would like some additional guidance. I’ll definitely be looking up both of these selections. Also, I would love to read an update about your 1000 books project. (Though maybe I missed it, because I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a while.)

    • Jessica » I was busy with Cybils for a while this fall so I haven’t posted on the 1000 Books project! We’ve actually surpassed 1000 different books since the day I started counting. It’s amazing how quickly he fell in love with the regular huge bag of new library books to try out. He loves rereading too! He’s just a great reader, so I think reading aloud was a good thing for us 🙂

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