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3 ingredients for spreading the joy of reading with your child

Reading together can be done in a myriad of contexts.  In the very early years when infants are not even looking at words– they can still share your love for books. Merely by being physically present as you do things, they observe your interests and what you value. The way you make clear your value system is with your attention. When you’re giving your child physical closeness, face-to-face expressions, and your voice– you’re showing them that they are important and what you are doing together is important.

There are three ingredients of early reading that also help you bond with your children in a way no one else can:

  1. Face to face communication (not just your voice, which they’ve heard since before their birth), but your facial expressions convey much information about the story. Make sure you can see each other’s eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. Vary the vocal expression in your voice to mimic characters, environmental noises, and story tension.
  2. Physical closeness, so they can hear the vibrations of your voice if you’re talking or feel the tenseness or relaxation in your body. Your posture, gestures, and motion help to convey your emotions beyond what is written in the text. 
  3. Your actions, which they can observe as you perform and respond to the story. You can model story elements and actions. Some children enjoy acting out different character parts.

When these three ingredients are combined with reading, the bonds between parent and children grow stronger, even if the child is not consistently being read to. This is one reason to see storytellers perform, to give you ideas on how to dramatize a story.

At a young age, I fell in love with reading through observing my mother’s love for reading.  One of my earliest memories was when mom was sitting on a stool and reading a mystery novel.  She held me on her lap as she was reading and I wasn’t really paying attention to the book because it wasn’t a picture book. I was just happy to be together and quiet in the sunlit room.  It wasn’t a kids book but my mom was focused on the book. I didn’t even understand what reading was, I might have been a baby, but the seeds for my own reading was planted then.  The intimacy of being in close proximity to my favorite person and seeing her joy from her book signaled to me that books were rewarding.  Sharing her reading time with me imparted a sense of respect for the joy that books could bring. I was seeing her love reading and I knew, subconsciously, that I would be a reader too.


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Take a Story Walk, eh?

Storywalk Cards from Norfolk Public Library

Storywalk Cards have a velcro back and can be attached to stakes.

One great way to learn how to read is from picking text out of the environment.   Literacy rich environments encourage children to make meaning from printed words around them.  Recently, we attended the local Library Showcase and learned about StoryWalks.  StoryWalks are a fun way to bring books to life by exploring a storybook world in a real space.  These “StoryWalks” feature popular children’s storybooks separated into glossy pages to be found throughout a physical space. You  read a page, then walk and read some more. This encourages literacy exploration, and children learn how to seek out text in the environment. You might also end up reading road signs, public notices, or other print encountered by happenstance.

Storywalk Bag

Your StoryWalk will arrive in a neat bag, and you can either velcro them to walls or attach them to stakes.

As you walk around,  ask children to point out similar features matching the book to your physical location. “Do you see a pine tree that he could be hiding in?” “Could this be the hunny tree from the Hundred Acre Wood?” “Did you hear that bird, sounded like he was giving us a clue?”  Adults can also help children decode the words at each marker, or ask about the plot. “What do you think will happen next?”  Point to the words and let them fill in words you think they might know. “Corduroy waited for…– let’s sound it out– what letter is this and what does it sound like?”   Pretend to be looking for clues to the next part of the story. Remember to use your stage voice when reading aloud.

You can find more resources to download StoryWalks here:

  • http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/storywalk
  • https://www.kellogghubbard.org/storywalk
  • https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/0f622b_fa5c4096972d49a9ae03dd3dd01cff00.pdf   – There’s also a guide on making your own story walks here.

Children 3 and up will enjoy this activity, but we think the whole family can join in. Once children learn to recognize words in their environment, you might find going out even more fun. On a recent trip to the supermarket, a five-year-old was pointing at all the signs that she could suddenly read.  It is empowering when young children realize that people can get information from print in the environment.

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The funny expressions are memorable

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What’s your line, anyway?  As parents, we might approach reading together as a solemn task. We may focus intently on the words on the page. Realize, however, that the words are merely a lubricant for conversational practice. What your children will remember is the unique expressions we share as we communicate. When we make a funny face, stick out a tongue, or express surprise “Whoa– what?” we are conveying our style and mannerisms in an intimate way. It’s these habits that make conversation interesting.  Saying “That’s a stinky mess, isn’t it?-eww!” while we hold our nose, will make the story memorable.  Kids relish learning your unique sayings, and you may find them not just laughing. but giggling to try it.  So next time you read, think about how you can glam it up some unique-to-you gestures and expressions.  It will be a special shared joke for that particular book.

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Make reading interesting

Although reading every night can seem daunting, there are parents who do read to their child every night. The important thing is to spend time talking with each other. As a parent, it is hard to talk at any great length about many of the stories we read to very young children. In my study, parents averaged 15 minutes to a reading session– and that’s in the best case scenario. How can we extend the “interesting discussion” time? One method is to be choosy about what you read. Not all reading material is created equal. Although experts encourage you to follow a kids interest, there’s got to be a balance with what the parent finds interesting. This brings up the rationale that whatever you read together should be interesting to you as a pair. The reading subject matter doesn’t have to cater to either interest all the time.

After a few days of the same story, it can help to introduce a new book, magazine article or even instruction manual. Pick material you are especially interested in (e.g. a short article from the New York Times or even Science Fiction). Although the kid may fuss if they don’t get their way, you can make a “deal” that you read some of it to see if its interesting so you can talk about it. You may not even have to start at the beginning, and you might even choose to skip the boring parts (as recommended by The Princess Bride) This gives children a window into what ideas adults find interesting, and helps prepare them for adult conversations. Anything is valid– like sports, news, novels, dramas that you are reading. If you mix it up, kids might end up learning new ideas, new vocabulary, and picking up on turns of phrase that usually don’t get represented in children’s books. Its interesting to realize that a lot writing in the English language is metaphorical and idiomatic! E.g. “his face fell when he heard the news” or “it fell on deaf ears”– and reading them with a young child often makes an interesting discussion. A child who learns to master these phrases can sound quite impressive.

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How we share tinkering

A recent commenter wrote that parenting requires time to reflect and share. Many parents do not have time to enjoy teaching their children, thinking that teaching is something pedantic and rigorous. I have a different notion of teaching as a much broader concept of sharing.

Anytime that a parent enjoys an experience is a powerful teaching experience for their children. If you’re a parent who likes sports and wants to read sports magazines or watch the Olympics with your child, go ahead and share that with your child. Sharing your passion for a topic is the most effective form of teaching.

In our case, we love building things and tinkering. One of our favorite activities is getting an old piece of hardware (usually an old printer) and opening it up to see the gears and rollers work. This actually doesn’t take much time, money, and can be so much fun! What kind of things do you like to share with your children?

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Suprising Perceptions on Parenting and Literacy

I recently attended a community engagement event hosted by the City Department of Human Service. It was a presentation to parents about storytelling. The purpose was to educate parents about the importance of storytelling to one’s children. There were only 6 people in attendance, two with children. I was surprised at how few people there were. At least there were six, I thought.
As we practiced telling stories, I heard some parents complain about not having time to tell stories to their children daily. We’re not talking about reading here, we’re talking about TALKING. The parents in general seemed well educated. I was then astounded that these parents didn’t seem to feel that talking to their children and telling stories was something that they should do often.
Then the jawdropper… One parent, with 3 academic degrees, said, “I don’t want to teach her how to read, she can learn it in school. I’m not qualified to do that. She should just be playing now.” Her child was maybe 3 years old. She was not convinced that teaching her child to read early, or working on early literacy skills was important. She thought it would take time away from play. Looking at the statistics on literacy from the Education statistics from the US Government, it seems that 97% of all children show up in Kindergarten without any idea what literacy is.
I do not have any peers who did not know how to read a single word when they started kindergarten. Maybe some perceptions that can be changed are:
Why not think of reading as play? Why do parents feel they cannot teach their children? Why should parents trust schools to teach the MOST IMPORTANT SKILL, which teaches your child to become an independent thinker? Anyone else think that family (parents) are the best able to teach their children reading AND storytelling?


The use of touch in storytelling

We might say that someone has given the story “the right touch” by including different details. To touch someone with a story is to move them emotionally, to make the details so salient and visceral that the listener responds by changing their mind or feeling a particular emotion. Touch is the way to reach people, but it is also the way we act on our world. A NYT article about the merger of touchscreens with books describes some of the ways that touch could be used in novel reading experiences for encouraging children to read more. Again, the critique of a story is usually a critique of the aesthetics, rather than the merit of the educational merit or the underlying narrative. (Perhaps due to the lack of narratology understood by the general populace.) A few apps can circumvent bad stories by making the aesthetics nice, such as co-branding with well established stories.
However, there is nothing to prevent a good story from being told badly on these new platforms (as cited by the author on the lack of good Android storybooks out there). Some quotes from the article ring true regarding meaningful interactivity: “I’ll let literacy specialists and parents debate the pedagogical merits of this approach, but my immediate impression was that it probably couldn’t hurt.” and “Cars 2 is more entertainment (and, arguably, media branding) than children’s literature” What do we want children to be touched by? Is there such a thing as meaningful interactivity? What ideas do we think they should respond to? Do we want advertising to cause them emotion? Will they end up being consumers, reactive to every new product or movie on the market? Do we want them to judge only the surface/aesthetic qualities of the book, or do we want them to be deep thinkers who can understand different facets of a story. Could animations be used to help them develop their thinking? I think so. One of my favorite “stories” is “That’s about the size of it,” an old Sesame Street Animation. I recommend you check it out here and reflect on the different levels of meaning and creativity represented in this touching story about the relative size of things.

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The element of surprise

One of my favorite books are the Griffin & Sabine Books, by Nick Bantock. The stories are told through interacting with the physical transformation of opening notes, pulling out letters, and flipping postcards. There’s an element of surprise when the story is literally “unfolded” by these simple ordinary actions. The story integrates the use and feel of paper as a medium, with the act of revealing the story. All the artwork is aesthetically poignant, signifying the different communication styles between two people who were fated to meet.  For those of you who have never experienced reading these physical interactive books with your child, the delight of pulling out and reading someone’s mail vicariously brings a special joy and surprise to both parent and child. Its an opportunity for the child to practice dexterity, and also get an understanding of the “back-and-forth” nature of communication. They will also come to appreciate the mystery of opening a letter and the formal aspect communication available in the olden days.

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Digital Age Learning

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop is devoted to accelerating children’s learning in a rapidly changing world.

I was recently reading their “iLearn II: An Analysis of the Education Category on Apple’s App Store” and came across some very interesting findings related to the fact that apps are an important and growing medium for providing educational content to children. More than 80% of the top Education apps on the iTunes store target children. However (speaking from experience) the educational value of the grand majority of apps are zilch, zero, nada! At best, the apps I have downloaded have entertained and distracted my child… but effective learning? One of the main recommendations from this report was:

Academia needs to address the rapidly growing app market by setting a research agenda regarding digital age learning. Developers and researchers should work together toward the design of effective, high-quality products.

Well, guess what: I know a group at MIT who are doing just that! Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts as we set forth on a journey to bring active-engagement learning to young digital natives across the world!


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More than just a story

Stories are more than just a way to transfer information. Stories are a way for people to understand each other, to share facets of themselves with each other. In storytelling, a lot is communicated in the background channel, such as personality, character, disposition, and emotion.  You learn more about the person from listening to them than just what they say.  On the other side, they learn a lot about who you are from the way you listen.  One of my favorite stories is a short story I read about an adult son who talked to his aging father about music. The father said he had once had the chance to play in a jazz band professionally. The opportunity to follow a dream was offered to this father, who had always been a conservative, responsible parent to his son. His father said that he had gotten that chance to work two jobs (playing in a band by night). In the end he was offered the chance to go on the road, and he chose to stay home. For the son, this was a momentous discovery about the man he had known all his life. The storytelling had added a new facet to his appreciation for his father. He now knew what self-sacrifice his father had made to be the man that he was, and also that his father had talent and once had opportunities to become a professional musician, was an acknowledgement of his father as more than a father. The son now understood why the father had been so supportive of his son’s explorations into art.

So more than just a story, the act of storytelling (and story listening) builds rapport between the people involved.

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