Sunday, July 25, 2004

Parents hold the key to literacy

Reading aloud to wee ones fun, too

By Trudelle Thomas
Guest columnist

From the heat of a Cincinnati afternoon, we stepped into the inviting coolness of our local branch library. My son darted off to the fantasy section while I headed for the books on tape.

Midsummer is an ideal time to read with your children. According to literacy expert Jim Trelease, study after study has concluded that one factor correlates more than any other with success in school: Children whose parents read aloud to them are far more likely to read well themselves and to meet the other challenges of grade school.

Parents hold the key to literacy. Parents wield tremendous influence because we love our children more than any teacher can. Reading to very young children (6 months through 6 years old) is especially worthwhile because their brains are still developing.

So grab a book and curl up beside the fan or air conditioner and read aloud! As a parent, you can establish a certain armchair or beanbag as a reading nook where you and your child regularly snuggle up with a favorite book.

Take cues from the child

"I've never met a child who didn't enjoy being read to," remarks Cincinnati Public Schools speech therapist Laurie Phenix. "The trick is to let children show you what interests them." For toddlers this might be board books with bright pictures and very few words (like the Spot-the-Dog series). Finger plays are also good for infants and toddlers (think "Itsy Bitsy Spider").

If a toddler's attention span is short, it's enough simply to point out a word or picture as you slowly turn pages. As you turn pages, you're demonstrating how books work - words on a page have meaning, for example, and we read from left to right.

Most toddlers like books with repetition like Goodnight Moon or Where Do You Go, Brown Bear? Every public library has a picture book section where parents can check out a whole stack of books to try. (If you have trouble returning books on time, you can renew them by phone or online for up to nine weeks.)

According to Trelease, with children not yet old enough for school, parents should help children take ownership of books so that they associate reading with home and pleasure, not just school and assignments.

Rediscover the magic

Children in the 3 to 6 age range have keen powers of observation and lively imaginations that make reading with them especially delightful. They can help you get better acquainted with talking animals, mythical beasts, and magic. Children this age can help adults appreciate the fanciful illustrations of Richard Scarry or Jan Brett, or the philosophical wonderings of Frog and Toad.

As you read, imagine that you are filling your children's memory banks with stories and language that will last a whole lifetime. Three- to six-year-olds still enjoy picture books, but they are able to follow a longer story line. You can find a wealth of fairy tales, folk tales, and myths under Dewey Decimal number 398.

Look for common likes

Expose your child to a wide variety of books and illustrators, then let him or her take the lead in choosing books. If you think you'll go mad if you read Green Eggs and Ham one more time, check out other books by Dr. Seuss or similar rhyming books. You may both enjoy the off-the-wall humor found in the poetry of Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky.

Seek authors you can both love. When my son was 4, we both delighted in the folk tales (like "Three Billy Goats Gruff") illustrated by Paul Galdone's bold drawings.

As children grow old enough to read on their own, read-aloud time can continue to be a precious time for the family to reconnect every day. Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook is a superb guide to books well-suited for reading aloud, for infants through the teen years.


Trudelle Thomas is a professor of English at Xavier University and author of the forthcoming "Spirituality in the Mother Zone" (Paulist Press).

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