Reading to Your Kids: Challenge Your Assumptions!
Even before she was born, I imagined snuggling close with my
daughter, Katie, and reading to her. I just knew that she would
love books, and she would become an avid reader like her dear
ol' Mom. Her bookshelves were stocked with the best of the best
- from One Fish, Two Fish to The Chronicles of
Narnia and everything in between. But it was not to be.
Katie liked to snuggle, all right. Up to a point. But almost
from the moment of birth, my girl was filled with a restless
energy that made sitting still seem almost painful. She had to
be doing something. Even before she could talk, her eloquent
eyes learned to say "I'm bored!" She would tolerate the first
few pages of a story book, but after a few pages she would begin
to wriggle and squirm. She would give me an apologetic look ("I
love you, but this is boring me to tears!") and slip down onto
the floor in search of things to do.
The first word Katie learned to read was "exit." Not from the
bright red lighted Exit signs at all our favorite restaurants,
but from the Microsoft Windows menu options File > Exit.
Yes, by the time she was a year old, Katie loved to play with
our computers and we made sure she knew how to turn them off
properly. She learned the word "milk" from playing with her
Magnadoodle. She learned "stop" from stop signs along the road.
But I can't remember her learning many words from reading books,
or from being read to, although I swear I tried.
When Katie got to Kindergarten, she knew her alphabet and could
form most of the letters competently. But curl up in the
classroom reading center with a good book? She'd rather not,
thanks. I'm still not sure how the kid learned to read. But
halfway through Kindergarten, a light went on and she was able
to read just about anything you put in front of her. One week
she couldn't read the simplest primer, the next week she could
read passages from the newspaper. But don't get me wrong, Katie
still didn't like to read, or choose to sit quietly and immerse
herself in a good story. I used to think you had to practice a
skill to develop it, but I'm convinced Katie just plucked
"reading" out of thin air and added it to her arsenal, without
ever investing the time or effort to perfect it.
When Katie was in third grade, she was required to pick a book
from the library each week and read it. That was torture for
her. She groaned over the silly fairy tales they studied, and
had trouble locating any book that could hold her interest long
enough to complete the assignment. I took her to the bookstore
and encouraged her to choose a book she might enjoy. She wanted
a book on Helen Keller. It was longer than most she'd read to
date, and had no pictures. The vocabulary was challenging, but
she dove into it and asked questions when she needed help. And
suddenly, a light went on in my head.
I'll just confess it straight out. I had always assumed that
little girls (I was one, after all) liked fairy tales and other
fiction. Men, on the other hand (at least my Dad, my husband,
and most of the men I knew) preferred the "real world" stuff
like Popular Mechanics or the newspaper. And this
realization hit me like a two by four: Had anyone ever asked a
small child what subjects interested him or her? Or had we all
Turns out that Katie liked biographies and historical fiction.
Or, as she put it, "stories about real people and real
adventures, or things that might have really happened." So I
said "Honey, ask the librarian to show you where the biographies
are." Katie's reply almost stopped my heart: "We don't have
those in our school."
Well of course not. "Katie, go ask the librarian to show you
where they are. Trust me, you have them. They're probably
stashed over in the sixth graders' section of the library,
because they think you guys wouldn't be interested." She came
home the next day, beaming from ear to ear and armed with a few
books that actually captivated her interest. Over the next
couple of years, she has branched out and tried new things - she
even read Jane Eyre twice. She has begged me to get her the next
couple of books in the Left Behind series. But the real
life dramas, particularly the one she's living, not just reading
about, are what hold her interest best.
Katie is still not the avid reader I'd dreamed she would be. But
she's darned good at it. In fifth grade, she tested two and a
half grades higher in reading, and has made perfect reading
scores on statewide tests. But she'd rather be playing
My son, William, is all boy. He loves trucks, Hot Wheels cars,
his Little Tikes workbench with its peg board full of realistic
plastic tools - if it does something, makes a nice resounding
crash, or can be dismantled for further study, he likes it even
better. He has developed a prodigious (if offbeat) vocabulary
from watching a vast array of kids' movies on video. At four, he
loves to play Diddy Kong Racing and Mario on Nintendo 64, and
can use a Mac or PC with amazing skill. He tried to sign himself
up for an account on a favorite Web site the other night, and
would have succeeded had he been able to repeat the password
twice - displayed only as a row of asterisks - to confirm it.
I used to think getting William to read would be a challenge, as
it was with Katie. Don't most little boys hate to read? I
started my campaign to instill a love of books in him from
birth, putting soft cloth-bound books in the crib with him. I
read to him often, but we never established a nightly ritual of
reading. It hadn't worked all that well with his big sister, so
I suppose I assumed (again!) that it wouldn't work all that well
with my little boy. Sometimes we sang and danced to his favorite
lullabies, like "Waltzing with Bears." Sometimes we talked
softly, making lots of eye contact. Sometimes we just snuggled.
But from the time he could reach for a toy, you could tell that
books were special to William. He reached out for the books I
left in his crib, and I would often find him balancing them on
his feet or flipping pages to see the colorful pictures.
As time went by, William would drag a book downstairs to be read
almost as often as he brought his toys downstairs to play.
Sometimes he brought two or three books at a time. He would
climb up in my lap, snuggle in, and insist that I read to him. I
was surprised to see how well a good book could compete with a
brightly-colored, hyperactive animated video for my son's
attention. (This is a kid who had all the lines from the movie
Toy Story memorized by the age of 2 and, casting all of us in
supporting roles, acted them out with all the drama and emotion
of a veteran Broadway star.) He'll climb up in my lap and beg me
to read to him, even if Buzz Lightyear's pleading with him to
help save the Galaxy!
Fantasy and fairy tales are fine by William. Imaginary worlds
intermingle with the day-to-day reality, reminding those of us
around him what it means to be a child. It's too early to tell
whether William will be an excellent reader like his sister,
Katie. But he enjoys it more. Maybe he'll spend a lifetime
practicing. He recognizes all his letters and numbers, can read
his name, and has started showing a real interest in the words
(not just the stories). I wonder, when he gets to Kindergarten,
will he search out Grimm's Fairy Tales or the biography
of Neil Armstrong? Or, maybe he'll prefer basketball by then,