What are you going to learn when you go to school? Ask any group of 5-year-olds: They'll tell you they're going to learn to read.
Learning to read is exciting--one of the real adventures of childhood--and most children come to school anxious to master the skills necessary to make them readers. But learning to read is just part of a long process of communication that begins at birth.
Indeed, children have been getting messages (mostly from parents) about themselves as learners and readers long before they sit in a classroom. And these messages often are crucial in determining how successful students will be with the Great Reading Adventure. (There are, of course, no guarantees that if a parent does everything "right," a child will learn easily. And there are some delightful learners whose parents did almost everything "wrong.")
There are, however, two basic sets of messages parents can give to make it more likely their children will be successful readers:
* Messages which help children develop positive self-concepts.
Self-concept may seem like an odd place to begin laying the foundation for successful reading achievement, but time and again research has shown that children who view themselves as capable individuals generally and good learners specifically, do better in school than their peers who have less positive feelings about themselves.
Put another way, a good self-concept is a necessary part of a success cycle in which children see themselves as capable learners and thus do well at academic tasks. This success reinforces their positive self-concept and allows them to expect more successful experiences in the future.
Parents can help to encourage this success cycle by communicating to their children in various ways that they know their children can succeed and, in fact, expect that they will. Parents need to replace messages like "you never finish anything you start" or "you know that's too hard for you" with messages like "you are a really good learner" or "this is hard, but I'll bet it would be fun to try it."
And although most of us are aware of the need to praise our children, many parents and teachers give very general praise -- "pretty picture" or "nice job." More specific praise -- "I like the way you used so many colors in that picture" or "It's great that you picked up every toy and put it where it belongs -- is apt to be more effective.
And, of course, parental attention in the form of hugs, kisses, smiles and the host of other ways that parents communicate love and acceptance to children all serve to reinforce a child's self-image.
With a positive self-image, children are more able to take the risk of learning -- and sometimes failing in the process -- because they have a "large stack of chips," as some educators put it. Children with only a few chips cannot afford to lose any and suffer with each loss. Learning to read is risky.
* Messages which communicate information about reading itself:
* Reading is an active process.
* Reading is a vehicle for personal growth.
* Reading is valuable.
When I tell parents that reading is an active process, I am met often with blank stares, for reading is used by many parents to calm kids down as a pre-sleep activity. The bedtime story may be the primary association a child has with books.
Reading does, or should, however, require an active brain -- even a dialogue between the author and reader. Parents who ask their children "What do you think will happen next?" or "Do you remember what the little boy in the story did yesterday?" encourage this active involvement with the story.
Picture books, too, are great for keeping children involved. Richard Scarry books, for instance, have such detailed pictures that every encounter with the book can provide new visual treats the child never noticed before. For some children, Scarry books are too cluttered; they prefer the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Whatever the preschooler's preference in picture books, "reading the pictures" is a way to promote active involvement.
Also, there is a group of picture books in which the pictures alone tell the story; no words are necessary. Books like Topsy-Turvies: Pictures to Stretch the Imagination by Mitsumasa Anno, Creepy Castle by John Goodall or Changes, Changes by Pat Hutchins allow the child to tell the story. Parents can encourage their children to "read" these books aloud or the child may prefer to have the parent tell the story.
Active involvement also is encouraged in tactile books, of which Pat the Bunny is one of the more familiar examples. Among others: Eric Carle books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Busy Bee, which give children holes to poke their fingers into, moving parts to manipulate and surprises on every page; pop-up picture books; scratch-and-sniff books, which allow children to actually experience different smells.
The next message -- that reading is a vehicle for personal growth -- is one which parents need to give by helping children select the books appropriate for them not only in terms of their age but in terms of their own personal development.
One child may react with delight to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are while another may cringe in terror. A book like Bears by Ruth Knauss may prove enchanting for a child at 3 and may be boring for that same child at 4.
Many themes of young children's books focus on the fears, problems and emotions of the preschooler. This is evident from the titles alone of books such as Leo the Late BLoomer, Milton the Early Riser (both by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego), No Bath Tonight (Jane Yolen) or Who's Afraid of the Dark? (Muriel Starek). If your child is having a problem, chances are that you can find the topic treated in a children's book. And often discussing a story is a less threatening way for children to deal with their concerns.
In addition to providing growth experiences through universal themes, books also can provide for language growth. It is obvious that children may meet new words and concepts in books; less obvious is the delight that young children take in the rhythm, repetition and sounds of the language.
Stories like Don't Forget the Bacon (Pat Hutchins), or Drummer Hoff (Barbara Emberly) have the repetition children love. But for delightful sounds alone -- and creativity with the language -- it is hard to beat the Dr. Seuss books.
Finally, personal growth often is enhanced through the fantasy, magic and just plain fun to be found in good children's books. A young child's world is one in which magical things happen all the time, and the line between fantasy and reality may be indistinct. Children need fairy tales, claims Viennese child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, to explore with their imaginations the universal questions and fears of childhood.
And let's not forget in our quest to make readers out of our children that we need to let them see that reading is fun. The stories in the Babar series or Curious George books or A is for Alligator by Maurice Sendak are just plain funny.
The final message -- that reading is valuable -- may in the long run be the most important one we give.
And we give that message, not by telling them, but by demonstrating the value of reading to our children by spending time or money or energy (or all three) on it.
Children who never see their parents spending time reading must surely question its value. Parents who spend money on "Star Wars" action figures, but not on a "Star Wars" book give their child a strong message about the worth of books. A celebration -- birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah -- loaded with presents for children and not one book says something to them about what we expect them to enjoy. A child who watches TV and goes to the movies but has never been to a library has missed something valuable indeed.
If we want to raise a generation of children who not only can, but do read, we need to start by examining the early messages we give to children about themselves and about reading.
The good news for parents is that the process is fun. Interacting in positive ways with children always is.