Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Read to Your Bunny?

So just how much does what you read -- or how you read -- as a child predict or mold the kind of reader or writer or person you turn out to be?

I come from a family of compulsive readers. My grandmother used to come visit us with a suitcase just filled with romance novels. Her son, my father, reads in a similar way: mysteries, thrillers, Tarzan, and non-fiction -- constantly. My mother is a little choosier but has always gone to the library and come back with a huge armload. However, my parents hardly ever read to us when we were kids. Reading was a private thing, not a shared activity. In fact, it was more like smoking than anything else: a thing we did when we were bored or anxious or alone, not a warm, family thing at all.

I think about this because there's a lot of pressure on parents to read to their kids these days, and I'm not sure I'm one hundred percent behind it. That sounds like horrible heresy, doesn't it? But I wonder: if children's experience of reading is entirely connected to their parents, won't they reject it when they begin to move away from their families and forge their own identities? What if, for the next generation, books get all tainted with uncool mom-ness?

JRL and I do read to our kids. Since we're uptight we don't let them watch TV or play video games, and staring at the wall gets dull after a bit, so they read a lot on their own, too. But I want them to experience the feeling of discovering a great book on their own -- that power to escape dull family life.

Oh, well, I'm probably worrying for nothing: reading is inherently an internal thing, isn't it?

I love my mom, but I can't help but think that Harriet the Spy or The Secret Garden would have been less potent for me if I'd listened to them on her lap.


5 Red Pandas said...

I'm pretty sure that when they say "read to your kids" they mean before they learn to read themselves, and when they are still gaining fluency. From my own experiences in the classroom I can't help believing in the importance of being read to, AND having books around the house, along with the habit of reading being taught or modelled. When a parent reads to a child they are serving as a model for several things. Fluency, pronunciation, punctuation, etc.

When I was still teaching hs I worked with students that did not read at the 9th grade level, many of whom read at maybe a 3rd grade or 4th grade level. These kids had gotten lost in the system and managed to be passed on even though their literacy skills were not at a hs level. So part of my job was to actually read to them, while they read along. It sounds kind of crazy, but I soon learned that they needed a model to learn how to pronounce many words that aren't intuitive in English because of the way the language is written. I had a kid who I had to re-teach how to recognize long and short vowel sounds.

So, reading to your kids when they are at a "normal" literacy level is not that important, as long as they read on their own, but for kids who are behind, it's extremely important. I have a few students now who I know are behind, and need to catch up so I take any opportunity I have to sit with them and read to them, and have them read to me. I also bug them constantly about whether they're reading on their own, because I've seen the disastrous affects poor literacy has on overall school performance. This generally only works on kids who are receptive to your help and needling, but I'm not going to let those kids who listen to me slip up.

I grew up in a similar neighborhood to the ones my students do in Harlem and the Bronx, but my father read to me from a very young age, and that helped me tremendously in school. It certainly offset my mother's non-fluent English. He read kid's books, but he also read us Huck Finn chapter by chapter. We loved it.

Whew, long reply, but this is a subject that I see the consequences of on a daily basis.

SisterRye said...

I agree. I read to my daughter before she was literate, and a little bit after she started to read on her own. Now, she reads voraciously, and prefers to be left alone to do so (rolling her eyes and stomping her feet at any interruption).

Once in a while she laughs out loud and either reads to me, or asks me to read a passage back to her that she finds particularly amusing. We also read to each other when she's doing a writing project for school, to help nudge the creative process. She's 10 years old, but reads books recommended for 10th grade.

5 Red Pandas said...

Obviously I feel strongly about this, seeing so many students struggle with reading. So I just wanted to add that how much a child reads, or is read to on a daily basis is really important. Reading is like anything- comprehension and mastery comes with practice.

rmellis said...

I was mostly talking about what creates a passion for reading, and not developing the skills needed to read (different things, though of course they depend on each other). And Pandas -- you make a great point about reading aloud being especially helpful to kids who are still learning the language.

I find the acquisition of reading skills a fascinating subject, and one worthy of a big long post on its own.

Suffice it to say for now that while lots of kids learn to read early and on their own (some kids almost as if by magic), many more don't -- kids who were read to and those who were not. I believe there's no substitute for truly excellent reading instruction...

zoe said...

Rhian, I was in the same position as you as a child -- my parents read but not the stuff I read now. They also only really read on holiday, it wasn't a part of ordinary, everyday life. Despite that, I was an obsessive reader of anything and everything. However, my book choices were down to what was available in libraries until I met an amazing High School English teacher who gave me "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was 11. Then things really picked up speed.
These days in my job as a high school English teacher I always try to remember that honour; to be the one to introduce a person to life-changing books. It's one of the things that gives me the strength to go on with such a thankless task.
Maybe kids need reading mentors as well as reading teachers.

Matthew Tiffany said...

I've wondered the same thing. More than anything, I want to pass on a love of reading to my kids. I don't want it to be rejected, like vegetables and sleep and safety, when they reach the teenage years. Does this mean they need to have the dorky childhood I had? I don't know. My oldest (almost 4) chooses to look at books every night in bed, after we've tucked her in, so - so far, so good.