Anytime we go to bookstores, Liliana and I both make big stacks of books that we want to read. We sit on the floor and go through them - sometimes together and sometimes apart. Inevitably, we end up with more kids around us than when we started. And this makes it so much fun.
Of course, this post applies to any caregiver - grandparents, babysitters, aunts, uncles - basically any adult who can read, who will be looking after your child and in your house.
You guys, this is super sweet. As in, if Liliana wanted to do this for me in 20 years, I would cry but also I would really appreciate it.
Last week, as Liliana and I were recording books together we were talking about who else could record books for her. She loves to hear all kinds of readers - grandparents, babysitters, ladies at the library, poets on the subway. All storytellers.
And then this other thought has been swimming around in my head for awhile - some of the books that I read to Liliana (and plan to read) are ones that I loved as a child. I bet I'm not alone in this.
We read the books we like to our kids - and we should. And our parents likely did the same. So, this is how you get multiple generations reading Caps for Sale or Charlotte's Web. Because we liked it as kids, so of course our kids will like it too.
So here's the idea...instead of a Mother's Day card,
Send your mom a book.
A book she might have read to you as a kid, a book she read to you that you loved so much that you read it to your kids.
Maybe it's a book that you love so much you want HER to read it to your kids.
Or, a book that she showed you and it enlightened you, inspired you, made you want to keep reading - helped to make you into the person you are today.
And inside, inscribe it with a thank you note.
Happy (early) Mother's Day!
The Rhythm of Life
Recently, when I asked my friends what their favorite reading material was - I got varied responses. Some answered with their favorite childhood book, others answered with adult classics and others responded with what they loved reading to their own kids.
But only two people referenced poetry. And they both called on Shel Silverstein.
And that's because, most people don't like poetry. That includes me. Usually.
One of my friend's reference to Shel Silverstein brought up a memory from so long ago, it was one of those spontaneous remembrances that I have to share. The rawness, the embarrassment, the difficulty with poetry.
In 6th grade, our school had a big musical production. Everyone could try out. I decided, against my better judgment and my own nerves, to give it a go. I chose a Shel Silverstein poem to use and practiced it over and over. And over. And over again. I practiced it in my head. I practiced in front of a mirror. I practiced on the bus.
I do remember this, I had my own copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends. I'm not sure why, but I did. And, I still have that copy. It's sitting next to me right now. The spine of the book is so worn from practicing the poem for this audition, that my copy opens right to page 59.
To a poem called Sick.
I remember being very nervous at the audition, but having a very inviting and trustworthy teacher, Mrs. Von Trebra, at the helm making it okay to try out. In front of everyone. With poetry.
The good news is - I made it through the experience. The bad news - I was so nervous, that I'm pretty sure I read with absolutely no fluency. I just read it out of my head. It had no feeling. I focused on one point on the wall and just got it out.
I felt like I read poetry wrong. I didn't do it justice. And that made me hate it.
But, here's the real poetry. I did it. I went on to not star in the 6th grade production. I had a very small role (incidentally, a role that required me to stare blankly ahead while I delivered my lines) and my mom made the flapper dresses for one of the musical numbers. But still, I made myself experience life.
Even now, I still remember what it felt like to try out in front of everyone. To feel like I didn't "read it right". And, that's how a lot of people feel about poetry - that they can't read it right, understand it or pick good poetry to begin with. And so, many of us don't read it at all. Not to ourselves and definitely not to our kids.
Now, fast forward to when I was at Northwestern and taking a class on teaching writing to kids. A big part of the class was doing a lot of our own writing and eventually, we hit upon a poetry unit. Not my favorite.
Our professor assigned each of us to bring in poetry from our lives for the next class.
The day we were all supposed to bring in our poetry, we went around the room and shared what we brought in. Most people brought in a poem they liked, or a poem that represented their current moment in the universe, or a poem they aspired to in life.
Public speaking was not always fun for me and sharing even just in class is a public speaking event. Now, it doesn't bother me. But 10 years ago, it was always an act of making the private me, public. So, I was nervous to share my poetry. It didn't help that I brought in something totally, and completely different than everyone else. I was putting myself on the line in a big way.
I had a binder shoved full of paper as my poetry. And that paper had baseball stats on it. Yep.
With highlighter marks, to-do lists, circles of important stats. Every year, I was on a fantasy baseball team. And I usually did pretty well at it - or at least, it was something I was very confident in doing in my own real life aside from school and teaching. To become good at fantasy baseball, I managed my team by checking stats, trends and following specific players and their match-ups. I printed it all out, put it in a binder and usually had this binder on my desk. Oftentimes, that binder turned into where I'd write my to-do list, or messages from voicemail or stick a post-it note a student had given me during the teaching day.
That binder was my poetry.
It was the poetry of my life. The idiosyncrasies that I experienced, the observations I made, and the actions that I took. The binder was my rhythm. If writing is one way to express and share observations in life, poetry is just another form of that. You could look through that binder and observe my life happening. Poetry in motion. Living poetry.
I'm still not in love with poetry. Sharing that binder made me more confident in myself, and it took awhile before I happened onto poetry that I loved. But, I still don't like all poetry and some of it is still really hard for me to grasp. I remind myself that songs are poetry too. And, I try a new poem or poet every once in awhile. Just to be sure.
After all, poetry is the rhythm of experiencing life.
And here's a bonus, from my personal collection. In one of our apartments, I was convinced our upstairs neighbors were bowling every night. Or, they had so much stuff, they had to move their furniture around like one of those sliding puzzles so they could move, one square at a time. In any case, I got riled up enough one night, I wrote this haiku:
A quiet night's sleep
Is what everybody needs
Be light on your feet!
I never delivered it. But I keep the original draft in my desk drawer, to remind myself that not all poetry is bad. It can be a great outlet too.
This will be a series looking into why we read to our kids, best practices for doing it and training in how to do it best at home.
Ages: 6-11: "Have characters that look like me"
Ages 12-17: "Have parents who help them find books and encourage reading for fun in specific ways"
Just the other day I had a conversation about reading with a good friend who is also a parent. We were talking about how there is so much to do with kids and so much pressure and the question came up.
Do I really have to read to my kid for 30 minutes everyday?
I said, not exactly. That's not exactly the way to look at it.
Wait, what? Why not? The pediatrician and teachers told me I had to.
One main reason is because it makes reading seem like a chore. It can be much more creative than that. And oftentimes, there are a few instructions missing when teachers, doctors and librarians ask parents to read to their kids for 30 minutes.
When teachers and pediatricians ask parents to read at home, it's because they want kids to be supported in literacy in all places in their lives. Being able to read is so important. It's a life skill. And we all know that. Just reading 30 minutes every day without much training actually shows very mixed results, especially for the younger set. So, what are we to do?
There are research-based ways to go about it and the Reading Workshop model is supported by mounds of research. It was first proposed as a reading model in Nancy Atwell's book, In the Middle. I've gone through this book forward and backward while teaching, so you don't need to. There are five components to Reading Workshop and since 1987, when Atwell's book was first published, the research has supported each component. They are uncomplicated - read everyday, have authentic choice options, respond to books, have a community of readers and have routines around reading.
I will delve into the areas in more depth in future posts, but the one I want to focus on today is having access to authentic choices in reading. Ideally, teachers would evaluate what each student is interested in by experiencing life with together, listen to the questions the student has and then develop a set of reading texts that would support the student in reading.
But, it's just not possible for teachers to do this with all of their students, all of the time.
That's where you come in. You can go experience life with your kid. And then building reading from there.
Here's an example. My daughter was really interested in doing a butterfly kit last year. So, we did one. I bought a bunch of books ahead of time that showed us how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Some had great pictures, some were only pictures, some were way above her reading level but made good read alouds for us, and some were only somewhat related to gardening.
When we got the stack of books, guess what happened? She wanted to go outside and find butterflies. Perfect idea. So we did that. And when we got back inside, Liliana looked at me and was obviously disappointed. There were no books about ladybugs!
What?! Of course not! We were doing something related to butterflies! We were both frustrated.
Had I done an outside garden walk first - had we lived first, I would have known. I would have heard her questions. I could have better tied butterflies into ladybugs and gardens and showed all of them were related to helping gardens grow. Instead, I was scrambling to find books about ladybugs (good or bad).
I had made the mistake.
I tried a cold open to reading and learning. I counted on the subject being interesting enough, with a hook (the butterfly kit) to get her interested, but ignored that she might have tangential interests that were still pertinent.
I should have warmed her up. Taken her outside, to the farmer's market, the botanical gardens, a museum, or watched a video and listened to her questions. This is true for bigger kids too. It's always better to base your reading with them on something they have real questions about or a real interest in.
It's actually a form of reading comprehension. And, it's good child psychology. Your child is in a zone of proximal development. Your child is ready to learn and understand, with your help.
Text to self connections are one of the first ways we teach readers to understand what they are reading. And, it's one that sticks with every good reader. That's why when kids get older, they want to see characters in books that look like them and act like them too. They are making those same text-to-self connections. They are asking questions while they read - is this believable? Would I do this?
So, I contend to make your reading successful with your readers at home, you need to warm them up. To foster a love of reading, foster a love of living. Listen to what your child is talking about, what gets them speaking up and speaking fast, what lights their eyes up. Then, base your reading time with them on their interests and their questions. Surround them with authentic reading choices.
And yes, experiencing life with them, should absolutely count for your 30 minutes.
Practical Tips: Reading with Big Kids
Here are a few practical parenting tips to help you read out loud with your older kid.
1. Don't do it everyday. But do it more than once per week.
When you first get back to reading with your bigger kid, do it more than once per week. You'll obviously work around your schedule and your child's schedule, but start with 15-20 minutes twice per week.
Do it early in the morning or during downtime in the afternoon. Before bedtime might seem rushed or more stressful than other parts of the day. Try it early on a Saturday morning at breakfast to start the day or late Sunday afternoon to wrap up a busy weekend. Just try it!
2. Share the responsibility.
Moms do the bulk of reading with kids at home. Especially if you have boys, consider having Dad read out loud with your kids. Reading Dads are fantastic.
But also, consider other adults. Grandparents, babysitters, aunts and uncles can all be looped in here. They can read a whole book with your child or a chapter here and there. One caveat - someone needs to know the entire book so your kid can discuss consistently with the same person.
3. Audiobooks are your friends.
Audiobooks are a fantastic option, especially if you want to read with your child, but aren't yourself a great reader. Or you're tired.
A few tips with this one - still have the hard copy book so you can follow along. Listening to a book and also tracking the words has been shown to help with comprehension. Listen to the audiobook together so you can debrief together or you can stop and chat about something as you listen.
4. Make a homemade audiobook. Record yourself.
This is a more upfront time intensive option. In case you don't have time or your schedules don't line up at all, you can record yourself reading chapters of a book. Then, have your child listen to you reading the book, without you being there. You can set up each chapter like a track of music to listen to.
You're still reading the book so you can still discuss it later. And, when you record, you should still stop and ask questions (just pause after you do). It might feel weird at first, but it's a great feeling to know that you are still reading to your child even if you can't be there to do it in real-time.
You can record yourself on your phone or use a voice recorder. We use this one in our house. For more details on recording your own audiobooks and benefits, read through this literacy quick tip.
5. Present choices you like too.
For less pressure, pick a collection of short stories to read. This is a really great collection from Louis Sachar - Sideways Stories from Wayside School. It will be quick and is appropriate for end of 2nd-early 5th grade students.
If you both don't like the book or someone is really bored, abandon the book and choose another. It's okay and a good exercise in why you don't like a book or why you don't think it will get any better. If it's not worth your time and you're not enjoying it, don't read that book. Read one you like.
P.S. The companion post to this is What to Do with Big Kid Readers.
Surround Yourself with Books You Love
Having physical books at home allows children to become familiar with books. Reading books you find joyful to your kids, will make reading joyful.
It sounds so simple.
Growing up, there was a wall of books when I walked in our front door. I rarely went into this wall of books, but it was there. It was a floor to ceiling wall with books two rows deep on each shelf. That wall, in its existence, sent the message loud and clear, "Books are important to us. We take care of them and we show them proudly. We enjoy books."
Just reading any book aloud to your kids won't make them love to read. Or make them good readers.
Consider this scenario. Your child really wants to read a Dr. Seuss book before bedtime - but you hate reading through them. Do you think you're going to read it enthusiastically? Or impart a love of reading? Probably not.
So, don't read them.
Years ago, in the monumental report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, reading aloud took centerstage. Reading aloud was called the single most important activity for eventual success in reading. Children learn to listen and comprehend and they pick up uncommon vocabulary words. They hear the musicality and fluency of language. They learn to make connections and critically think.
So, read books that you're interested in. Be picky. You will encourage better reading habits. You will leave time for your kids to point at the pictures they like, or ask questions about the story. You will naturally make connections between the book you're reading and events in your lives instead of rushing through a book you disdain just to get to the end. You will ask what your kids think about the story and look back at beautiful illustrations. You will, because you will genuinely want to know. Read books you like to your kids.
Read joyfully and your kids will find reading joyful.
I found my favorite book of all time by browsing my local library's bookshelves. I found another favorite book by being bored in a bookstore while my Dad browsed for books. And I found one of my favorite storytellers by glancing at shelves at a small bookstore while on vacation. And now, I read both of these books each and every year, over again and watch out for books by Margaret Atwood as often as I remember to.
There are some things each of us do every week to zen out. And without them, we may fall apart...or explode. In any case, we can feel it when we don't do those things.
For me, it's going to a bookstore or library. Now, since this is my jam, I actually try to get to bookstores really, really frequently. I keep up with new books for friends with kids (and who are we kidding, myself), teacher friends, and clients.
But the real magic happens when I go with no agenda whatsoever.
The weight of the book lets me know it's real and it has something important to say. I might not like the book, I might love it - but either way, holding it in my hands compels me to open it and find out. And this is why I like going to physical places with physical books.
I can get lost in books. They make me think. They can make me feel good and bad, sometimes simultaneously or guilty for not reading enough of them. Books have heft and require me to spend more than 10 seconds on them - more time than I would if I were clicking around online.
Books require me to focus, to analyze, to connect, to escape and to reflect. Books make me feel life.
Many times I speak to parents and teachers alike who complain about the amount of time they don't spend on reading. They want to spend more time but don't know how to fit it in with their already busy, chore-filled, obligation heavy schedule.
Reading feels guilty - because "I could be doing something else that's productive," I hear.
I hear it over and over from busy parents. But what I hear in the subtext is, I really want to read. I want to make that time and I don't want to feel guilty. How do I do that?
What to do with Big-Kid Readers
I went to a play a few weeks ago. By myself.
It was a play with dark content. I had wanted to see it because I liked the actors who were in it and thought the story sounded interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining. So, I went.
I was one of the only people there by myself. I didn't think it would be a big deal and it wasn't...
Until it was.
As I was leaving the theatre, I saw pairs of people around me discussing the play. I could overhear snippets of conversation - "I didn't buy the love story part..." - "I liked the set design - that made it more believable as a story..." - they were all debriefing the play.
I so badly wanted to jump into anyone's conversation - I needed to discuss and debrief too!
Alas, no one I knew could debrief with me because I didn't share the experience. Even now, as I reflect, there is still a void. I couldn't fully analyze the material and therefore couldn't come to appreciate the play as much. I realized, it's part of why you don't see people going to the movies on their own very often. Part of the value is being able to share the experience and then talk about it afterward.
Reading is no different.
We read out loud to our kids from birth on. Sometimes before. But something happens when kids get a bit older and it seems like.....we suddenly stop. At first, it might seem like a fantastic adventure into independence. We're proud of our kids when they can read on their own - and they want to. After all, isn't this exactly what we've wanted?
Hooray, we cheer! And, we savor those few stolen moments on our own - now not having to shoulder reading every night to our kids. Or when our kids aren't tired for bedtime, but can sit and read their own book triumphantly, it feels awesome.
But, we miss things too. Our kids, who we know so well when they are young, start to become a little strange to us. We might miss what their favorite book is, because we're not reading it together night after night. Or, we don't know what they are reading because we haven't read the book at all - so there is no dynamic way to talk about it together.
There is a part of them we stop knowing when we stop reading with them.
But of course, this is part of growing up. Right? Yes, it is. But we can and should hold on longer.
Let me make my case based on research.
The reason for reading aloud to our kids when they are little are many. It helps build confidence and motivates young ones to want to grow up and be able to read on their own. But, it's also to support a love of reading, to build a reading community at home and to be able to allow you to spot any gaps in your child's understandings as they read. When you read and think aloud with your kids, you are showing them how good readers ask questions about what they are reading. You are exposing them to vocabulary and explaining new words.
You are helping them to understand. And you are showing them that reading is important and enjoyable. You are giving them someone to talk about the book with - you have a book club of two.
None of this changes when they learn to read on their own.
As Nancie Atwell, a prominent reading researcher, notes about middle school students, "Everyone is enthralled by good read-aloud...it becomes a bridge for kids, taking them into territories they might never have explored because they don't yet have schemas for a genre, subject, author or period...And they provide a communal reading experience in which we enter and love a book together."
She follows this up with mentioning that she only reads literatures she, herself likes. I am a big proponent of this - Read joyfully. Together.
In a recently published study, researchers compared comprehension levels of students after they have read through passages silently, on their own to valid comparisons from kids in 1960. The findings reported were a little startling. Kids in 2nd grade comprehended more or less on the same level as their counterparts in 1960. After 2nd grade, the growth curve for kids now is less than that of the kids in 1960. In other words, our kids now are not doing as well as kids who were in school in 1960 when it comes to reading comprehension.
The present research adds to evidence suggesting that the silent reading efficiency of U.S. students, especially older students, is declining, stagnant, or at least inadequate to meet the current literacy challenges faced in schools and the workplace.
And we've known this. In 2000, the National Reading Panel concluded that there was not enough evidence to support sustained silent reading as a practice on its own in classrooms to effectively increase comprehension. This would extend to its use at home, too.
The add-on conclusion to this is that it can be difficult to gauge comprehension when kids engage in silent reading. Teachers know this and they use silent reading time to conference with kids, check-in and track progress. Teachers ask their students to keep reading journals and reflect on their reading. Silent reading in school is not usually just silent reading - it's packed with extras.
There is usually a class read-aloud in your child's classroom all the way up to 8th grade and sometimes into high school. Sharing books allows for discussing together - and for evaluating comprehension. Reading aloud allows teachers the opportunity to model good fluency, explain vocabulary, ask questions and have a shared, bonding experience with their students.
This is not to say that silent reading is not at all useful. It is. It allows for choice, a little experimentation and independence in reading. Those are all important for motivation - a key component in creating happy readers.
But having stories read out loud to kids, is still one of the best evidence-based ways to teach good reading habits to kids. Even as they get bigger.
P.S. This is not a stand-alone post. There is a companion post with suggestions on how to do great reading with your older kids at home so that it's not overly burdensome and enjoyable for you both.
I mentioned a couple studies above that you might be interested in reading more fully. If you are, here are downloadable pdf files for the studies.
Alexandra N. Spichtig, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Christian Vorstius, Jeffrey P. Pascoe, P. David Pearson, Ralph Radach (2016). The Decline of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Efficiency in the United States: A Comparison of Current Data With Performance in 1960. Reading Research Quarterly, 51(2), 239–259.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.