Tis the Season for Reading TogetherMake the ConnectionReading together is the perfect way to bond with your child.
By Margery Rosen
My daughter Sarah's first word was "book." Well, actually it was more like "buka, buka, buka, whee-e-e!" But we're a literary-minded bunch, so we decoded her gibberish as "book," and that's how it remains in the family lore.
Thanks to the influence of my mother, a newspaper reporter turned elementary-school teacher, and my father, a writer with a passion for English literature and the wordplay of Gilbert and Sullivan, my younger sister and I had memorized the poems of A. A. Milne and the lyrics to The Pirates of Penzance before we could ride a two-wheeler. Books lined the walls of our home, and I grew up loving to read; I remember counting the minutes in third grade until I could rush home to finish E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. And I evidently passed that joy on to my daughter.
My son, however, was a different story. Michael would much rather spend his time practicing his slap shot (often against his bedroom wall, thank you very much) than reading a book. For a while I worried about that. But the truth is, he's not reading-adverse. Hand him a book about Wayne Gretzky, the Civil War, or snowboarding and he'll be spellbound long past bedtime.
That's precisely the point: While all parents wonder (and, like me, sometimes fret) about when and whether their child will learn to read, most do — though in very different ways and at different rates. And you can help. Reading aloud to your kid is not only the single most important boost you can give to get him ready to read and write, it's also a magical way to strengthen the intrinsic bond the two of you share and will help both of you get in touch with what is central to your lives.
Reading Leads to Learning
As First Lady Laura Bush's literacy crusade highlights, your home is your child's first classroom. There's much you can do right now — simply, inexpensively — to open your child to the diversity and wonder of books.
Reading lays the foundation for a love of learning, for pushing the mind to question beyond the printed page. What's more, studies show that reading out loud can actually wire a child's brain to recognize patterns and sequences and predict outcomes — cognitive skills that affect all areas of life. "Brain development in the areas that affect language and reading is especially rapid during the first two years of life," notes Kyle Snow, Ph.D., director of the Early Learning and School Readiness program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "Though language and reading won't be obvious to a parent until a child is one or two, there is tremendous development early on in the biological structures that support speech and reading later."
The benefits of reading with your child go far beyond the mechanics of word decoding and vocabulary lists. Reading sharpens listening and conversation skills, sparks the imagination, and expands a child's knowledge of the world around him. Chat about a book and you'll help him practice using words correctly. Pick up a book about the rain forest, King Arthur's round table, or the Mayan Indians and you'll ignite an interest in people, places, and ideas outside of his daily life.
A Special Bond
The intimate experience of reading yields important lessons about behavior, feelings, and the enduring bonds of relationships. It's a gift for time-challenged parents who may feel guilty about missing special moments with their kids. Snuggle together before lights-out or schedule a Sunday morning reading hour and you rekindle emotional closeness as well as impart important lessons, ease difficult transitions, heal personal pain, and celebrate family life. Read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to a toddler and you temper his exuberance with empathy. William Steig's whimsical Brave Irene reinforces the courage to persevere despite seemingly insurmountable odds. And through Laura Ingalls's Little House on the Prairie series or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a child can begin to understand the timeless message of family responsibility and generosity of spirit.
Colorful illustrations draw a child even further into the story, allowing him to make a stronger connection between his personal experience and the story he's hearing. Remind him of similar times you've shared together and you strengthen the link: "Remember when we saw the monkeys at the zoo?" "Remember when we splashed in the ocean?" He needs all that information when he's trying to talk at two, as well as when he's sounding out unfamiliar words at six.
"Shared reading draws families together," says Sue Korn, M.A., an educational therapist in New York City. "Nestled in your arms, your child feels cherished and safe. Memories of snuggling in bed and reading with my daughter are treasures that we'll both always have in our memory banks.
"A bedtime story shared by a parent and child in a warm, cozy environment leads to so many benefits, it's hard to say who gets the most out of it," Korn continues. "Your child will grow up with wonderful associations, not just about reading and literature but of a special time with people he loves."
It's a time that doesn't have to stop once he hits the I'll-read-on-my-own years, either. By consistently choosing books a notch or two above his current level, you challenge an older child's thinking and open the door to discussion about tough topics that may otherwise be difficult to bring up.
"Reading puts words on experiences," notes Melanie A. Katzman, Ph.D., clinical associate professor in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical School in New York City. "It gives kids 'cognitive schema' — ways of thinking about feelings or problems that seem daunting." And it lets them know they're not the only ones struggling with those issues. Who hasn't felt the sting of low self-esteem, like the children in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, or the misery of the title character in Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?
"Many books focus on issues that resonate with kids today, providing accurate information and language for understanding problems and relieving a sense of isolation," notes Korn. You can almost always find a story to use as a jumping-off point for conversation. And when you read about someone dealing with bullying, divorce, or even death, the issue then isn't personal; it's about the character in the story — and that's a whole lot easier to talk about.
Needless to say, snaring a child's attention away from television, videos and electronic gizmos can be daunting. But books have it all: drama, action, dialogue, rhythm. It's up to you to make them come alive.