I really wanted to write a post for World Literacy Day and then we ended up spending the afternoon reading through a huge pile of books and it occurred to me that that was a far more appropriate way to spend any day, especially World Literacy Day. I am all for literacy… and placing a real live book in the hands of every child. But I think the world has become a little obsessed with reading. Gasp… I hear a gasp. Now I am no educational expert, and I have a relatively small number of students in my school, but hear me out:
- The Myth of a Literate Society:
- Reading and Literacy Are Just Not the Same Thing:
- Reading is a Skill:
- Children Should be Playing:
- When Folk Insist That Their Children Read:
- Don’t be Misled by the Avid Reader:
- The Myth that if they Don’t Read they Won’t Read:
- A Shared Experience is a Memorable Experience:
We claim to live in a world of such advanced education and everyone is dashing to get ahead. Little children have less and less play time all in the name of learning how to read. How many times do I hear the lament: “If only my child would read…” When I went to school, it was to learn to read, now if your child hasn’t done two years of preschool and sitting at a desk, they are on the back foot, behind before they begin, in fact.
But for all the advancement if you look at many modern picture books written for a preschooler and compare it to say, anything by Beatrix Potter, our children will understand and get both – but there is no literary comparison. It turns out in the era when people were not so busy with flash cards, or “how to read apps,” children and the ordinary adults that read aloud to those children had a far greater vocabulary and dare I say a closer affinity to the true meaning of literacy.
Not all my children are good readers, but they are all literate, in the sense that they have heard and internalised hundreds of great books. I am really not afraid to say it out-loud, horrors of horrors, we homeschool and not all my children are good readers. We haven’t struggled over reading, we haven’t ever said – this child is a good reader or that one is an appalling reader, but for some readers it takes a while for their decoding skills to catch up to their listening skills.
There are many situations where my slower readers would have been labeled and they would definitely have been placed in a remedial class in a school, but in the learning environment they are in, they are oblivious to labels, blissfully unaware that there is an age by which reading “has to be mastered.” The point is there is no reason, in this day and age, for the child that takes longer to learn to read to be necessarily illiterate. And there is no reason for the child, who takes longer to actually read, not to love books.
I cannot tell you how often I receive requests from parents asking me how to speed up their children on their educational journey. Their child is way to advanced for their age, everything “age appropriate is totally dull” and what activities can they give their children to get ahead. My answer is always the same: let them make mud-pies. I firmly believe that children should be playing, and that the “academically advanced child” probably needs to get outdoors and needs to play even more than most.
Children that are truly advanced in their thinking should be spread wider and opportunities for them to explore the world should abound. Honestly, reading is a skill and is all about being able to decode what is written on the page. The child that teaches itself to read at age three is no more brilliant than the twelve year old, who quietly progresses from sounding out words to fluency without anybody noticing. These children might have different reading skills, but that doesn’t make one brighter than the other. And certainly, there is no reason on earth why one of these children should end up more literate than the other, or why one of them should be read to more or less than others.
All sorts of developmental things have to happen in a child’s life before a child can read. If a student is three or thirteen reading is still a skill. I am sure that somewhere there is good research that says it is more important for the young child to play outdoors, to run and jump and leap than it is to spend hours sounding out words in easy readers. When a friend of mine told me that her child was repeating grade 1 and wasn’t allowed to do any extra-murals because her reading was behind, and she had to stay in for extra seat work. I could have wept on the spot. That child is unlikely to grow up with a passion for books. When reading sounds much more like a punishment than a privilege you cannot possibly expect to be encouraging a love of reading. And you have to notice that passing tests, getting a certain grade and ticking boxes on a developmental chart have become far more important than actual literacy and a love of reading.
It is quite common practice to read excellent books to a child until they start to learn to read and then they have to read mindless books. Beginner readers are very often, nothing short of dull. And forever after, these young readers are left to their own reading devices. May I encourage you that in order to keep them excited and interested in reading you have to continue to read to them – good books, excellent books, exciting books, books way above their reading level. Don’t be impatient with your reluctant readers, don’t rush your beginner readers. I am all for kids doing hard work and there are times when learning to read is just that. But in the name of literacy, if your children need to work give them chores to do, and then settle down and read to them.
How on earth do you force a child to read – I have no idea, the child that doesn’t want to read simply doesn’t look at the words. However you can not prevent a child from being hooked by a good story and listening away for hours. A good book is a good book for any age and telling a child to read a book because it is a good one is the most effective way of ensuring a child will never ever read it. However, when I have suggested sitting down and reading the same book to the same child I have rarely been turned down. And when I have been turned down, there is nothing to stop you sitting next to the “lego construction” of the day and simply beginning. I have found that even the most intense lego architect will slow their construction rate for a superb book.
If you have never read to your children, or you fear your reading skills are not up to scratch, or you just can’t face reading a five hundred page book out loud. I could allay your fears and say: your skills are fine or just read a chapter at a time. If you still aren’t convinced welcome to the world of audible books. So many books are available online for free, borrow an audible book from the library and listen together. Buy a classic, with a great reader, from audible books every other month and listen to it together. Your life will be richer for it. And you will be doing heaps for your family’s literacy.
The child that flies through thousands of books isn’t necessarily more literate than the child who is reading one good book over the Summer. This is my problem with reading programs that reward children for reading a number of books. The child may indeed wind their way through series after series of book. But that doesn’t mean they are more literate than the child who has plodded through one great classic. One has to ask, who has used their imagination more who has spent more time in deep contemplation. Let’s face it there are plenty of series aimed at the reluctant reader, packed with every trick to entice them to read. It is the same story again and again with a different cover on it. I have found that reading a variety of good books to my kids and smothering them in rich language and ideas does more for their overall literacy than making them sit and read through a beginner reader series and ticking off the chapters on a chart.
Reading requires practice. “When you read to your child you remove their impetus to read for themselves.” This could not be further from the truth. When your children are in the habit of listening to good books being read to them, the rich sounds of good language, those are the books that they will seek out to read for themselves eventually. Do not discount the reading your children are doing, little as it may be, even my children that were slowest to pick up a book were reading heaps: they read slogans, they read labels, they read shopping lists, they read instructions, they read comics, they read and read and read, but they may not be reading the books on their school reading list. Honestly I don’t really care what they read, as long as they have opportunities to read.
I have one child who is obsessed with reading food labels and another who can’t wait for the weekly newspaper to be dropped off because they pour over the “specials” pages from the hardware store. Whatever they are reading, they are reading and that’s fabulous, but not necessarily making them more literate. Similarly, the child who reads thirty thousand easy readers about fairies, that aren’t exactly edifying but getting gold stars because they are reading books, aren’t necessarily becoming more literate. I feel that by reading aloud to them I am covering their literary skills in a way that most children aren’t getting because they are not being read too. I have found that once our kids reading skills catch up with their listening skills they will start by reading books they have loved having read to them and they will follow up with good books because that is what they are used to.
And the se7en + 1th thing…
Oh the theory is that it would be so much easier if our kids did all their own reading. Easier isn’t always better. I don’t want to foster a world where “they read their books and I read mine.” There is a lot to be said for the shared experience and a great way to live alongside your kids and to create memorable memories, is to share a good read with them. My kids are perfectly capable of reading many of the books we read together as a family but a lot of the joy is the collective experience of a good book. Don’t wish all the good books on your kids, share them with them, books take us out of our daily grind, out of our small world of dishes and laundry. With books we are able to connect on a multitude of levels. Our kids can spot a stack of sticks and immediately everyone of us will be snapped straight back to the very rainy night that we sat and read about Eeyore’s house together. Heaps of experiences like that create a shared memory. Heaps of good books, if your children read them or you do, create a family culture that ties you together.
It turns out that while the ability to read is life-changing and there is no denying that reading can raise folks life experience enormously, there is a whole lot more to literacy than being able to read and write. Many a child is turned away from reading because they see it as yet another “test they have to pass” or “yet more homework that has to be completed.” It is up to us to turn literacy into something much richer for our children than just another box to check on the list of things to do for the day. Literacy is all about filling minds with rich words and language and giving our children a cultural and family heritage, a pride in who they are and where they come from. Yes, I am all for literacy and placing a book into every child’s hands and then reading it to them.