Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Reading To Children

My educational philosophy came from
a) how I was raised
b) intuition
c) the situation I was in
d) one random class I took on creativity for pre-schoolers
e) what my children were like.

So there we were, way up north, out of the educational winds that blow through American/Christian/Mennonite society. We had very few electronic devices. But we had books. And time.

We also had phenomenally smart, curious, engaged, creative children. Ok, doesn't every parent say that? No, but they should. I've had people tell me, "Your kids are so clever. They say the most amazing things." True, but I want to say, "LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDREN. You'd figure out how clever they are too."

So, this became my strategy for "educating" my preschoolers:
1. Read to them.
2. Answer their questions.
3. Let them bake and do other work with you.
4. Turn them loose when they play and don't over-manage things.
5. Limit screen time.

Obviously this worked, if you know our children at all.

Later Paul became the school principal and through anguished phone calls from young moms I came to realize how hideously complicated our culture has made the preschool years. My word. These moms would detail to me how they got THIS workbook for their 4-year-old and THAT one when they were five, and how much should they be reading when they come to school, and Ruth likes CLP Learning-to-Read but Tina likes ACE and their cousin likes Sing-Spell-Read-&-Write and oh, dear, what if little Harold can't read nursery rhymes by September?

And always, always, they were sure they hadn't done enough and their child wouldn't be ready for school.

And I would always say Calm down. Read to your children. Answer their questions. Let them do stuff with you. Send them outside to play with sticks and mud. And, especially with boys, I'd say, Ditch the workbooks. Dear me, what punishment, to set these wild little 5-year-old boys down to workbooks when they should be outside playing with the dog and running trucks through the sandbox.

I don't think I convinced any of them, unfortunately. Moms like to make things complicated, I think.

Today Matt, of the 118-why-questions-in-one-day-at-age-3 and the recent engineering degree, linked a Thomas Friedman article on his Facebook page. He also noted, "To Mom and Dad: thank you," which made me weepy.

Anyway, Friedman says:
There’s no question that a great teacher can make a huge difference in a student’s achievement, and we need to recruit, train and reward more such teachers. But here’s what some new studies are also showing: We need better parents.


“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background.

There's a lot more. You can read the whole thing here. And while it doesn't advocate following my ideas step by step, it's still really affirming for parents who want to help their children without obsessing over workbooks for 4-year-olds.

If you don't do anything else, you busy young parents, READ TO YOUR CHILDREN.

Quote of the Day:
"It always had this mysterious ending. Was it really just a hedgehog, or could she really talk and stuff? And she had this thing called a pinney. She heated her irons over the fire, which was interesing. And she starched things. I'd never heard of starching things and there was also this thing, the girl could look down people's chimneys or something. and there was like a robin and Mrs. Tiggywinkle washed his red thing (me: waistcoat) and she washed something for Peter Rabbit which is weird cuz he was in a different story. And all her hairpins were wrong side out and you explained to me that was all her prickles because she was a hedgehog and there was a hen, Henny Penny, who always said the same thing I go barefoot barefoot barefoot, and you always said it the same way."
--Emily, when I asked her what books she remembers me reading to her and she went off about The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter


  1. Yes, yes, yes. I had a grandmother tell me via phone that she wanted to have her grandson (whom she was helping to raise) put on medicine for hyperactivity. Her reason? "He is so active." OH? "Yes, he makes noises like trucks and guns and he jumps off the sofa and doesn't want to sit still." So I told her to send him outside to play. "Oh, but then he would get dirty." Duh. [Gert Slabach]

  2. Well said! But of course that is easy for me to say, since I love reading aloud, and have read aloud to my children through the years, even into adulthood. But I think you're right that there is too much frenzy to push our preschoolers to be the best, and FIRST, academically, when the most wholesome thing that can shape their lives is to experience healthy day-to-day interaction with parents/siblings.
    Also loved the QOTD! Mrs. Tiggywinkle is an old favorite of my girls and me! I can still hear the very British voice of the reader on the audio book which introduced us to 'Dear Mrs. Tiggywinkle.'

  3. Right on! For all the things I will have left undone, reading to the children is my one comfort.I so want to tell people to back off and let their kiddoes be their age and activity level.

  4. Right on, all around. A fundamental reason why reading to children produces stress-free development is that the ability to absorb something is always way ahead of the ability to produce something of the same nature.

    People don't seem to understand that you can't keep a child from learning to read when he or she is ready, if the foundation has been well laid with abundant exposure to words. The transition from hearing words to decoding text is best made by giving children letter shapes to play with. When he's got a particular letter in his hand, tell him its name. If you're sneaky and smart, you'll actually not say "aye" for the first letter of the alphabet; you'll say "a," making the sound of "a" as in "cat." For all the other letters, you'll also say sounds--not names. Then one day you'll line up the letters and your child will say all the sounds because he loves to do that, and he'll do it faster and faster, and he'll suddenly realize he just said a word he already knows.

    Our three year old learned to read this way, and he never "did schoolwork" until he was at least six.

  5. I am so thankful to my mom for reading to me as a child. I still love to read today, and I think it's mostly due to her early reading to me and to my brother (who also likes to read even today at age 22). I remember in kindergarten being asked where I had gone to preschool, and responding that I hadn't gone, and all of my classmates were so surprised. However, I could already read, and most of them couldn't! Even today, in college, I love to read and am good at school, and many of my peers don't understand it. Well, it's because I love to learn, because my mom taught me in a way that I enjoyed, in the everyday parts of life, like the grocery store or cooking, and she also gave me room to run around outside and make up games and stories and songs and just be a kid without overscheduling my life.
    ~Rachael (a friend of Emily's from Bridgewater)

  6. Thanks, Dorcas! I needed to hear this. I'm one of those Mom's of preschoolers who want to get it right. :-) My intuition knows that reading and listening are good, but yeah, the complicated culture makes me obsess a bit over the workbooks. So thanks again for giving me this advice. It's gonna stick with me.

  7. OK, I needed that one today. Thanks for the admonition not to make things so complicated! As mother of a 7 month old and an almost 3 year old, I'm pretty overwhelmed sometimes. Relax, relax, relax.

  8. Gert, that is a very sad story and far too typical from what I hear.
    I love the stories of both the experienced moms and of you, Rachael, who show the good results of such an upbringing.
    Hang in there, Sharon and Lazonya. It doesn't have to be so complicated, honest.

  9. Dorcas Byler11/21/2011 2:21 PM

    Those are some of my best memories with my pre-school daughter who is now a teenager. I would read to her for hours on end. We both loved it. I still miss reading to her.

  10. My children have all sprung up (unexpectedly and astoundingly) overnight...I'm sure my 17 year old was 3 years old and curled up beside me listening to stories with rapt attention only yesterday.

    Whenever we have company under 6, I pull out a favorite book and start reading aloud. In only a few moments, I have a little person wiggling up beside me to listen.
    Funny thing is, before very long I also have a bunch of teens and preteens hanging over the chair or sprawled at my feet listening in. Nobody can resist a good yarn!

  11. I completely agree, although I'm still in the midst of parenting my little brood. We read aloud a lot. When my oldest was five I was CONVINCED that she needed to learn to read (b/c all of my homeschooling friends had 5 year olds who could read). Didn't work...she wasn't ready until around 7 1/2, BUT I kept reading to her, lots and lots and lots of books, especially Little House books and other related books b/c that's what she liked. I have definitely not made my boys (7 & 5) do much "school work". My 7 year old reads and writes, then he goes outside and plays in the dirt with his brother. Oh yes they make lots of messes, but people are always saying to me how bright, smart, articulate, etc they are. Let them play and make messes---they won't be little forever.

  12. Very insightful article.

    I would like to comment about boys playing outside. I do not think we understand its value enough.

    We had four boys and one girl. They were all read to but they also played outside. They climbed trees; all the boys built a tree house - had more fun building then playing in them. The rigged up other interesting things to play with...they used our entire back yard and built roads, hills with their tucks, tractors and etc. They had fun and still will talk about it. But they grew up and my yard was worked to be nice and smooth...
    Today these boys are gainfully employed in very different occupations: brick/stone mason, civil engineer, manufacturing expert, sea captain. Very diverse but they were allowed to play with medium that left me gasping at times.

    Yes, they got dirty but there is always water and soup to be applied at the end of the day. And thank the good LORD for automatic washers! Sandra

  13. "You may have tangible wealth untold;
    Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
    Richer than I you can never be --
    I had a Mother who read to me." Gillian Strickland

    What a blessing.

  14. You and Charlotte Mason sound very alike in your educational philosophy. I agree 100%, but that said, I am very glad for my husband who still has to calm me down and say "it's okay", when my four and seven year old are on top of the swing set (it's high), or shooting a bb gun, or carving a stick with a pocketknife (the seven year old), or when I have to change multiple sets of clothes every day and shoes are soaked because every puddle HAD to be jumped in to see how high it can splash (the four year old). And I still obsess over my 2nd graders work sheets and try to get him to sit still sometimes. But I am learning. Slowly, but it's coming. Thanks for the reminder.