I am a father of three, and a long-time English teacher in New York. I have seen the benefits of early reading. The ease with which early readers adjust to school and the distinct advantage an early reader has at all levels of education are clear.
One of the blessings (and curses) of parenthood is knowing that the habits we instill in our children at an early age will percolate through adolescence and into adulthood. Children will be poised to deal with the challenges presented in any educational system.
Sharing a book is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways parents can teach the kind of reading habits a child will need to be an early reader and lifelong lover of the written word. It is never too early to begin reading aloud.
Here are a few of the read-aloud practices that have been most effective with my own kids at home. Most of these strategies are geared toward emerging readers, but the strategies can be adjusted to meet the needs of readers at all levels.
Question! Question! Question!
Questions are the catalyst to curiosity, discovery, creativity, and inquiry. Questions are the basis for knowledge acquisition and the key to becoming self-reflective and introspective. Modeling the kind of questions a reader should ask is the key to developing the kind of reader who will better understand what they are reading.
Start with easy questions and move to more and more difficult questions as becomes more familiar with the book. Questions about colors, numbers, letters and words work well for younger children.
Questions about ideas, themes, allusions, structure, and the author’s craft work better for older kids. The answer to the question is never as important as the asking of the question itself – modeling the kind of questions that propel a reader through a text is the key idea here.
The power of repetition
While reading a book again and again may seem a fruitless task to experienced readers, it is an essential task for young ones. The repetition of words, phrases, pictures, and moral lessons builds fluency, word recognition skills, and overall awareness. Repeat readings are vital if you are going to get the most out of your time together
Picture books are meant to be read many times. Take advantage of these books, which are designed to build young readers’ confidence. After 10 or 15 times through “Goodnight Moon” my daughter, Ellie, was able to finish reading most of the sentences.
Although she is not technically reading, it is more rote memorization, Ellie is practicing and learning at her own pace in a low-stress environment. This is huge for an emergent reader. With repetition, her brain begins to connect the letters on the page and the sounds of our voices as we read aloud.
Picture/ letter hunt “I’ll bet you can’t find . . .”
My kids and I love Dr. Seuss’ classic, “Wacky Wednesday.” The protagonist wakes up one morning to find that everything is all mixed up. Shoes are on walls, leaves on trees have changed colors, houses are missing front doors and traffic lights have reversed, red for go and green for stop! My kids love finding all of the wacky things wrong on each page.
This idea of hunting for things on the page can be applied to all books. Kids love to go on treasure hunts, and we can use this sense of innate curiosity to lift the level of their reading and get them utilizing good reading habits.
When reading aloud to emergent readers, stop occasionally and design a treasure hunt. You can tailor this activity to meet the needs of your child’s developmental level. Does the child need work with letter recognition? Hunt for specific letters. Is the child working on learning body parts? Hunt for body parts (finding the armpits is Ellie’s favorite!). Is the child learning colors, sight words, punctuation? Hunt for those. Don’t spend too long hunting, though. You don’t want to lose the flow of the narrative.
Creating character voices
Reading aloud takes time and practice, just like anything else. Whatever your experience level, I believe we can all build this skill if we become mindful of the kinds of things that proficient readers do while they read.
Great readers use inflection so that each of the characters’ voices in the story sounds unique. By giving each character a distinct voice the listener can hear their thoughts and feelings and piece together the action of the story.
Look for spots in the text where the writer has made words bigger or smaller so that you can model a softer or LOUDER voice. Any of the Mo Willems’ books are fantastic for practicing. I tend to go over-the-top with my voices, but it makes the reading fun for me as well.
Giving young readers the power to choose what they read is a game-changing tactic that is easy to implement. When readers at any level are able to choose what they read, the act of reading seems to take on a whole new level of focus and responsibility. We gain a sense of control over what we read and learn.
Depending on how much time we have, and what kind of mood she is in, I will let Ellie pick 2, 3, 4 or sometimes 5 books per night. Ellie can also choose the order of books. Choosing all of the books before we read also sets a finishing time, otherwise, we might be reading all night!
Use the book’s central characters to reinforce positive behavior, empathy, and social acceptance
“The Cat in the Hat” has always been a favorite in my house.
Dr. Seuss opens with pictures of his famous cat looking in through a window on both the inside front and back covers of the book. The pages are easy to skip over since there are no words on them, but I use them strategically to make the protagonist ‘talk’ to my kids.
The cat becomes a kind of mentor, a voice of reason in a world full of blathering adults who tower above, always saying “No!” and “You can’t!” stomping their feet and waving their hands around excitedly all day. The Cat has influence in our house. I use my Cat voice in conversations with Ellie outside of our reading, and she can tell the Cat things she might not share with me.
This idea of giving the character a ‘life’ outside of the text, has been a massive help to our household. Let’s face it, kids get sick of hearing us drone on and on with the same tired lines — Pick up after yourself, Finish eating your breakfast, Go outside and play, You have to share your toys, Stop fighting with your sister.
All of these parent-isms take on new and fresh meaning when they are delivered by one of your child’s favorite protagonists, and all of these characters can come back every night to check up on them!
Let the child hold, and read the book
Allowing the reader to hold the book makes the reading experience more personal and engaging. Bring the book in close and let the young reader trace the outline of a character or put their finger underneath a letter they know. Let them point and let them touch.
Allow them to turn the page when you have said the final word on that page. She will listen and watch for that last word on the page, and learn to track the words and focus on the tone and sound of your voice.
“I read the book tonight, Daddy!” Ellie says, even though she wasn’t really reading it on her own
She is not going to be able to read the way my 8 and 10-year-old children would, but the fact that she is willing to try makes me very happy! Embrace this opportunity with your young readers at home, for this is their first venture into independent reading territory!
When I hand the book to Ellie I become an acute listener, hanging on her every word. I know how I react is feedback for her. Is she saying the right words with the correct inflection in her voice? Is the story interesting to her audience? I try not to get in the way too much here.
It does not matter if she gets the words wrong or skips pages. The fact that Ellie is going through the process is the important part. I let her read and read and read until she closes the book and I tell her how much I loved her reading and how much I loved the story. Emergent readers need to build confidence and allowing them to read in a stress-free, low-risk environment builds the confidence they will need for school.
Ditch the Cell Phone
The reading environment you create for your child is almost as important as the reading itself. Remember that the reading is the center point, the focal point. The reader needs to know that there will be nothing to interfere with the reading during those 10 or 20 minutes.
The read-aloud is a sacred time in my house and one that we take very seriously. TVs are shut down. Electronics of any kind are turned off and put away. Cell phones are out of the room and out of earshot. Other family members may join the read aloud, but only if they are going to take it seriously and not interrupt for other things.
Some days, sadly, our read-aloud time ends up being the only 20-30 minutes of the entire day without the hum of the hypnotic screen. It is an oasis of peace, quiet, thought, and reflection. It is a time of sharing, closeness, physical contact, face-to-face smiles, and eyes on each other.
It’s a time I have come to cherish.
In our busy worlds of part-time jobs, overtime, shopping after work, music lessons, dance classes, pick-ups, and drop-offs, it’s nice to know that the read aloud is waiting for us at the end of the day. I’ve made it a priority.
Maybe you can, too.