The South China Morning Post published this article today in the Between the Lines column. Here’s a link to the article directly, or you can read it below:
When parents lament that their children are not yet reading and consider hiring tutors and pricy evaluations to find out what’s wrong with their six year olds, I tell them to be patient and to keep reading to their kids. In most cases, when a child’s ability catches up with his or her interest in the narrative, the life long reader is launched. Reframing the situation not as a problem, but as a sign that their child might just have high standards for what makes a good story helps to alleviate some of the underlying anxiety.
A mother of three children, two adolescent avid readers and one developing reader, the benefit of hindsight allows me small experiential insight, butressed by a growing body of research in the area of brain development and functional readiness to read.
Doctor Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University is a leading expert in brain development and reading readiness. Regarding the trend in schools of teaching reading earlier and earlier she says, “They are doing enormous harm by blithely disregarding neurological readiness to learn these skills.”
Books have been an integral part of our parenting since my son was born 14 years ago. When he was tiny and we lived in California, we made daily trips to the local library and lugged home stacks of picture books, delighted in bookstores and attended a weekly local story time. Our evening routine after brushing his teeth involved reading two picture books that he would carefully select to read together.
In addition to the picture books, I read chapter books far beyond his own reading ability to him as he fell asleep. Even when he didn’t understand everything on a practical level, he intuitively absorbed the melody of the well-crafted tale as his own thought process and language was forming. A good novel is as beautiful to hear as it is to read.
With our family focus on literature I was sure he would be an early reader, but he was not. At the end of kindergarten, he wasn’t yet reading. His teachers weren’t worried and neither was I. After first grade, he still wasn’t reading. Again they weren’t worried. I noted it, but I didn’t worry. When second grade came around and he still wasn’t reading I began to express concern, but his progressive school said, “Don’t worry, he will read.
Just before Christmas of that second grade year I read the first Harry Potter book to him. He was hooked. Over that holiday we relocated to London and he spent the entire first few weeks reading hundreds of pages a day, for hours at a time. He was launched as a reader, and he has never looked back.
We moved from London to Hong Kong when my daughter was five. By the middle of second grade she could plod her way through Magic Tree House books, but not with any enthusiasm. On a trip to New Zealand that spring, I took along Roald Dahl’s The Witches and that was the magic one for her. She proceeded to read three more Roald Dahl books that holiday and hasn’t been far from a book ever since.
To fall asleep in the evening she liked to listen to books on CD. After I read to her, I would put on a CD and the books would play, sometimes all night when I forgot to turn them off. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Paddington and Ballet Shoes are indelibly embedded in her subconscious. Acting is her favorite activity now, and she can copy accents with surprising aptitude. I attribute both her love of great stories and her mimicry ability to those beautiful narratives that lulled her to sleep.
My son and daughter are now in 9th and 6th grades respectively, and place reading for pleasure at the top of their list of leisure activities. They never saw a flash card, had a tutor or strung together words they knew how to spell to write a story. Theirs is an intrinsically motivated love for books that I expect will stay with them the rest of their lives.
My third child is in second grade now and true to our family pattern is still not reliably reading. Technically he can do it, but he does not yet enjoy it. I continue to expose him to narratives as I did the other two, wondering which will be the one that launches him into the ranks of readers.
Reading is the gateway through which we discover the world, and loving to read makes that process all the more enjoyable. Anxiety, impatience and busyness are the obstacles that unintentionally inhibit the journey to raising life long readers. Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to nurturing readers, it’s good parenting.