Yesterday, Diana wrote:
This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth. . . .But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit.
First of all, I found this rather surprising as I didn’t realize the policy was new. I think I remember being told by University of Virginia (of all places) pediatricians shortly after the birth of each of my children (I have fraternal twin boys and a younger daughter) that I should be reading to them. Of course, I didn’t really need to be told this since most of my teaching career up to that point had been spent mostly with students with lower literacy skills and so I was aware of what happens when children don’t get a strong start with reading. In any case, we started reading to our babies when they were a few weeks old.
Diane further wrote:
The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?
Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.
Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:
- Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
- Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
- Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
- Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.
I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.
My husband and I generally have found reading books to our children to be pleasurable–it’s a nice way to spend quiet time close to them, and our family and friends enjoy it for the same reason. I also love many children’s books, especially the artful ones. But, to be honest, I didn’t always feel like doing it at bed time or other times. Sometimes, it was a chore, not for them, but for us. I got really tired of reading Trucks, Trucks, Trucks and then even more tired of reading longer and denser books about trucks. You would not believe the number of books we read about trucks, some of them over and over and over and over again. And sometimes, we were just plain tired. But that was the routine at bedtime or a distraction on a long trip, and we knew that building background knowledge, vocabulary, providing those moments of closeness, and showing them that reading books was wonderful were helping them to positively grow and develop.
Now that our kids are older and can all read to themselves, we still read aloud to them sometimes (reading aloud a series together is especially fun) and it was dear to watch our oldests read to our youngest. But we also, well, compel them to read independently. At bedtime, our children have the choice of reading for up to an hour or going to right to sleep–those are pretty much the only choices at that time. One of our sons can really complain about this (speaking of reading as a chore), but once he gets started reading then he complains about having to stop to go to bed. Some summers, we have also done summer reading “initiatives” (can you tell I’m a teacher?) where our children earn money for each book they read, but the money can only be used to purchase more books.
I would take Diana’s “another” a step further (or lazier, maybe): play audio stories and books for your babies and children. My children heard so many great stories and books that way and it gave us a bit of a break. One of the best, both in terms of the storytelling and the subject matter (if you’re thinking about background knowledge or cultural literacy) is Jim Weiss (coincidentally from Charlottesville).
Just please don’t ask me to read any more books aloud about trucks.