Monday, 18 May 2020

When Books Become A Child's Best Friend

"I never feel lonely if I've got a book - they're old friends. Even if you're not reading 
them over and over again, you know they are there. And they're part of your history. 
They are about your journey through life." - Emilia Fox

This is the 26th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we took a look at the possible milestones that might occur as each child takes their own, idiosyncratic journey towards becoming a reader.  This blog entry we begin to explore long term relationships children might develop with literature as they progress and begin to see themselves as readers and appreciate the significance reading may hold in their lives as they grow into adulthood.

Learning to read independently is often a slow and meandering experience that does require dedicated, ongoing support - much like learning to cook, or engage oneself in any craft. Classes may be cancelled, but teachers and parents alike continue to support this steady practice of reading skills to ensure children become both proficient and joyous readers!

As a parent, I have frequently experienced moments where I’ve thought “Do as I say, not as I do!” whenever a child has clearly demonstrated a behavior I have verbally outlawed but practiced myself – such as watching a child toss their jacket onto the same chair as mine, rather than hanging it in the entry way closet as I repeatedly reminded them to as they came through the front door.

Accompanying a child on their ‘learning to read’ journey can seem a lot like this – as children stumble through an unfamiliar text, it may seem like it’s a very long journey indeed, but it is their journey, not ours, to take at their own speed and in their own meandering way. As adults, we’d like things done in a hurry, if you please, and get onto the next stage. However, as noted in last week’s post on ‘growth markers’ along the reading pathway, next stages are not neat, tidy, nor predictable as children move towards reading independently. And the catch is that they are watching us, their own particular grownups, all the time, trying to emulate what we do as readers too.

We say things like ‘reading is really important’ or ‘pretty soon you’ll be reading books all on your own’ or ‘I think you will like reading this book’ yet how often do our children see us doing those things? Do they catch us reading every day because ‘it is important’? Do they see us reading on our own with natural enthusiasm? How do they know we like or dislike a book ourselves? How we model ourselves as readers is most likely how our children will shape their own reading habits as well. It isn’t just what we say; it’s what they see us do that matters.  And if we frame ourselves as avid readers with favourite books, that is the lens through which our children will see themselves as readers too.

One of the most important things I believe we can do as adults for and with our children is begin to read novels aloud to them as they are just barely beginning to demonstrate independence as an early reader – or perhaps even before there is much evidence they are on their way to reading independence. Children’s novels are short with necessarily short chapters so it is not onerous to read them aloud, and they lend themselves beautifully to questions and discussions. “What do you think will happen next?” is a natural end-of-chapter question when the reader is unsure what will happen next in the story. It is this incidental conversation that leads children towards appreciating the nuances of a story and builds a desire in them to become readers of novels in their own right.

A key indicator of growth as a reader is evidenced when children begin to develop particular interests and tastes for books and want to build their own collection of favourite books and stories. This is a significant milestone, not a notification the guided journey has ended but rather a strong indicator your child is ready to begin rooting his/her own reading habits in the gathering of specific well-loved titles or topics.  Favourites will definitely include picture books or non-fiction picture books in the beginning, as well as early novels. As children begin turning repeatedly to these much-loved titles, they are not stagnating or being repetitive but are establishing their own reading independence as they silently shout to the world ‘these books are my best friends’! 

Building Early Collections
Early collections of children’s favourite books frequently include many eclectic titles – I remember when our youngest daughter claimed, at age 6, that her ‘most favourite book of all’ was a rather inane book (in my view) titled Sir Small and the Dragonfly and refused to read or listen to virtually any other book for several months in a row! Her next favourite became Laura Charlotte, a story about a much-loved stuffed elephant that looked very much like one she owned as well - and promptly named ‘Charlotte’ in honour of the book.  And that is how collections of favourite stories begin – with real-life affinities between books and readers.  Our older son was a huge Dr. Seuss fan as a young child and we have a grandson who fell in love with the “Piggie and Elephant' books at an early age. Another grandson loved any book that had a space ship in it J

Early Novels
Early readers fall in love with characters in books and thereby become ‘best friends’ with novels. There are numerous series of early novels that captivate children, including such favourites as the Nate the Great series, Geronimo Stilton series, The Magic Tree House series or ThePrincess in Black series, as well as many others. These are short novels with simple story lines and predictable patterns, and that is why children fall in love with them. Their reading skills grow, their understanding of story lines expands and their proficiency at decoding and understanding new vocabulary blooms as well – all while in the great company of ‘best friend’ characters in books. When a child begins asking for books in a series, one can be comfortably confident the learner in question has turned a corner towards becoming an avid, skilled reader!

Somewhere between Kindergarten and early grade 3 (ish!) students will begin to demonstrate greater proficiency as readers as well as becoming skilled ‘choosers’ of what they really want to read.  It is in the establishing and naming of book choices and preferences that a child on the journey to learning to read successfully begins to demonstrate an understanding of what reading for enjoyment and purpose may really mean in their lives, and initiate enduring relationships with stories, novels and non-fiction texts. This is a considerable milestone – one well worth noting and celebrating too!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

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