Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reading to my kid

From The Globe and Mail:
Parents take note: Reading to your preschoolers before bedtime doesn't mean they are likely to learn much about letters, or even how to read words.

A new study shows that while storybook time has developmental benefits, preschool children pay very little attention to the printed words on a page.

"There are all kinds of parents who are reading to their children believing that it's going to help their children to learn how to read," said Mary Ann Evans, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph and co-author of the study.

"That's true to an extent in that reading to your children will help them develop an understanding of storyline. But it's not necessarily helping them to learn how to decode the words on the page."

(Read the study abstract.)

This doesn't surprise me.

I never thought the point of reading to kids was to teach them to read. The most one can hope to do is foster a life-long love of reading and books.

I do not read to Helena every day. When we do read together, it's usually not at bedtime. That's not something I ever anticipated saying in regards to a child of mine.

When she was crib-bound and a captive audience, I read her a short book every night, one of a handful of her obvious favourites. Now that she's a little older, more verbal, I've let her exercise choice. We have a bedtime story every night for about a week, then maybe two weeks off before she decides to again include a book in her nightly preparations. Still, every night as I tuck her in I ask her if she'd like a story. "Non, mama. Pas un histoire. Bonne nuit."

We do, however, read books together in the morning, or more usually after supper. She arranges cushions and blankets, on the floor in the hallway or on the sofa, and gathers her friends about her. (Elmo usually sits in my lap.) Then she ceremoniously hands me her book of choice. It's nursery rhymes and sing-along books as often as it is my old paperbacks of Winnie-the-Pooh (with black-and-white illustrations so faded and tiny as to be nonexistent).

"Read," she commands.

Of course, there's not much reading going on. She counts the ducks in the picture's wallpaper background. She names objects, hypothesizing about their relationships to one another. A picture of a squirrel in a park leads to some anecdote or other, and we talk about our days. But if there's ever a lull in our converstation, she taps her finger on the text and tells me, "Read."

I've relinquished the romantic image I've always held of mother and child reading together. I've also realized that my own reading experience has always been a solitary one. I ensure she has every opportunity to develop a relationship with books. If nothing else, I lead by example, with my nose in a book of my own any spare minute she grants me.

Lately, Helena has been noticing labels, from Halloween candy wrappers to the tags on her clothing. "C'est ecrit He-le-na," she suggests hopefully, and I rejoice. She knows! She knows that those regular scratchings encode some mystery for her to crack.

If you want to teach your kid to read, point at the letters, the study suggests.

Helena is very good at jigsaw puzzles, at spatial problems, pattern recognition. To my mind, written text falls into the same category of analysis. And the more data available, the clearer the pattern that emerges. Written words are part of our backdrop. Whether Helena grows up to love reading remains a question mark, but there's no doubt that she will learn to read, and, I suspect, soon.

The point of storytime, on the other hand, is not the words on the page — it's a huge exercise in communication and comprehension. It's forging a bond, if not between a girl and books, between mother and daughter.


Anonymous said...

I think the chances are good that Helena will value reading regardless of whether you read to her at bedtime. One thing my husband and I have observed up close is that every family has its own culture, its own sense of what is valuable. My older sister has a science family-- the games they play in the car revolve around numbers and equations, games like who can translate the outside temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius and back the quickest. All the kids are great at science. They could be great at whatever, but science is the family medium. I know plenty of families that primarily value sports and physical activities. And I realized a ways back that our family culture centers around the arts, with reading at its center. Of course the kids have their own unique personalities, and likes and dislikes, but I think that they come to themselves through the filter of what you (the parent) value. For better or worse. I like to think a love of the arts is a good thing, though maybe years from now when my kids are in therapy trying to rid themselves of me, they will disagree!

Diana said...

I read to my kids almost nonstop and it seems to me that as soon as they started being taught the alphabet in preschool, around age 4, they put it all together and took off running. I'll never forget the first time Katie pointed to a word and said, "That says 'on.'" Chills.

Then Joey must have been a little older because he read the words on a fast-food bag out of the blue one night.

Oh, it's fun.

Elizabeth said...

Interesting. I, too, was a mother who diligently read the bedtime stories to the children, and I felt at the time, reaped the rewards. As did the kids. They were always the earliest readers in their peer groups. And that, at the time anyway, translated to popularity, teacher favoritism and just a general sense of loving school.

At the same time, it didn't really translate to their high school years, this early reading equals good grades business that is. All but one of my children had very mediocre high school grades, but that, too, was a function of what was going on in the family at the time, I suppose.

I do believe that families emphasize what they value (duh!) and become passionate about all kinds of things, depending. I suppose (and I am really going out on a limb here, as you can tell) it's just good to be passionate about something, family-wise.

Gee, that was brilliant. As you can see, my early reading skills have definitely panned out in my adulthood.


Anonymous said...

This may sound repetitious, but my experience has been the same. We have read to our children every single night, even before they could talk. We read with them on weekends. We even read them things like ingredient lists when they ask about new foods, not to mention things like board game instructions and birthday cards and so on.
Our oldest son was reading before he hit kindergarten, and reading in two languages by the time he was finished kindergarten. Our youngest, while not as "advanced," loves books, and retains everything we read him - you should hear him talk about Anne of Green Gables! He writes his name, which is something some of his kindergarten classmates cannot do yet. He's now starting to read, one word at a time.
Studies, schmudies. Whether or not exposure to books does one thing or another, no one has ever said it's bad. Read to your children!

Suzanne said...

I read to my kids every day, but I don't think that the older one makes a connection between what I'm saying and what letters are on the page.

Sometimes I point to each word as I say it, pointing out punctuation as well as letters. Mostly, though, I just read. What I'm hoping to accomplish is instilling a love of reading that lasts longer than the young years. The close, quiet time with my kids is also something I savor in and of itself.

Isabella K said...

I didn't mean to suggest that anyone stop reading aloud on the basis of these study results. The study itself seems fairly objective in examining kids' attention to print.

What surprises me is the implication of the article that the object of reading to one's children is to teach them to read. I'm curious how many parents undertake storytime with that specific objective in mind. I am not surprised, of course, that all of you commenting here know better.

Julie said...

My son could not get enough of me reading to him. By 18 months or so he could sit through a whole Beatrix Potter book. We read constantly, because we both enjoyed it. But now he'd rather create comic books than read. My daughter, on the other hand, was never that interested in books -- until she learned to read on her own. Now she's the little bookworm. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Mom read me a bedtime story until I could read on my own and tuck myself in at night. After it stopped, the conversations around reading could have continued. In my case it didn't but could springboard.