Aim Low

Aim Low

My own daughters are getting older now. Entering high school. I can recall wistfully the moment not long ago when we realized we had purchased “the last picture book.” So sometimes my musings can tend toward the high minded, what to do with your older children, as in my recent Aim High column. But there is a flip side.

I am here now to remember the simple pleasures and joys of reading picture books out loud. To children of any age. Reading picture books to children who cannot yet read is the start and the heart of reading aloud. It is when children learn that books contain a world of vibrant mystery and imagination, continually new, continually stimulating. Each book different, each book offering a different pleasure or stimulus. It is when adults learn the techniques of gauging and adapting to their children’s attention spans and varying restlessness. It is also when adults learn the reading techniques that not only hold but increase their children’s interest level, making the experience so rewarding that the child will be the one clamoring for more.

Young children crave the familiar. They rarely tire of repetition. They want to hear and see the same books over and over again. Sometime even the same book over and over again. It’s a security thing. They constantly want reassurance that the world is the way they have come to understand and interpret it to be. Change is unsettling and so young children crave security.

I have even known graduating younger children to want to hear – or read themselves – the same chapter book over again. (Heck, maybe you have a favorite book you return to. I know I do. Even as we become adults and learn to manage change, it doesn’t mean we don’t want a little reassurance and security, too.)

But sometimes, that repetition and sameness can be wearing, trying, even boring. Reading Go, Dog. Go! for the umpteenth time, so that you practically have it memorized – “Go around again!” – that can become monotonous. The obvious solution is to keep things fresh by staying alert, making regular trips to the library or bookstore. Sometimes children will resist this, but not often. Each book is a brand new world, each page might yield a new surprise or picture, each story may have a new magic moment. Children learn this as you have learned it. That is what coming to appreciate books is all about.

There are some things you do to make reading picture books more interesting, more stimulating – just in case it threatens to get old. Happily, these are things I recommend doing anyway as they are techniques that maximize the experience of ‘listening to’ picture books, too.

The biggest key – other than the obvious one of adapting to your child’s interests – is to make reading picture books interactive. I am not saying this is something you “have” to do, and certainly not something you need to do every time. (Sometimes children just want to be safe and quiet and cuddly. What can be nicer for a parent – knowing how fleeting that time in their life is?) But it is something very much worth doing. It maximizes the interest children can find and make in picture books. It teaches them how to find points of interest in future books – on their own. It acculturates them to be alert and observant and thorough. And it keeps them on their toes. It makes reading more than passive. It makes it stimulating.

Tip #1 is to ask your children to find things in the pictures. Sometimes this can interrupt the narrative or flow or momentum of a story, so it may not be ideal the first time through a story. (Unless you judiciously keep it to a handful of items.) But especially when you’re plowing through familiar fare, start pointing. Ask questions. Get your child to guide you through the text.

“Can you find the monkey?” “What color is the balloon?” “How many ducklings are there?” (“Five? Are you sure? I think I can find seven…”) “I see four different kinds of cars in the city. Can you find all four?”

These kinds of questions bring the entire world of a story’s illustrations into play. Your child may already appreciate the details of a story’s world. Asking questions lets them take control, become the guide, and become proud of mastering its knowledge. It teaches them to be both observant and thorough. Along the way, depending on their age, it’s a fine way to rehearse childhood knowledge, from colors and counting, to specialist info like the difference between taxis and dump trucks, or hippos and rhinos. Children are hungry for knowledge and even the simplest books are an endless source.

Asking questions will also make the act of reading more stimulating for you, too. It may require a tad more energy. But it provides you a new way to bond and paves the way for interrogative interactions. It also shows your child you care about both the book and the experience. (Just in case your sighs and monotone might have crept in after the fifteenth reading.)

Tip #2 is to sell the prose. This is easier when the prose is better, but important nonetheless. It is probably more important when reading chapter books. (Finding vocabulary and phrases worth selling, subtly or emphatically.) But it is can be easier when reading picture books. Some picture books have so little prose, you can treat each sentence like some special haiku, even if – or especially if – it’s merely there to introduce the next illustration. Some books are more plot driven and when this is so, it’s hard not to read in a pell-mell style, overwhelmed by the need to find out what happens next. But I think it’s worth finding ways – or moments – to be patient. Not to frustrate your child. But to teach them the pleasure of anticipation. (After all, the story will be over much too soon, anyway.)

Involving your child in the prose is easier when reading Dr. Seuss (or any other book that rhymes easily, well, and somewhat predictably.) Dr. Seuss writes in verse, but it is verse with an easy, loping rhythm. When I begin to recognize the rhyme scheme, I will often stop just before the phrase which completes a couplet or rhyme – and let my child finish the line. This is easiest when they already know they story, but it is still plenty easy – and worthwhile – when they don’t. (You can start with just expecting the last word of a rhyme, but it won’t be long until your child can deliver a phrase entire, and even the whole line.) It’s a minor way of asking, ‘What happens next?,’ except that it requires their brains to interact with the language, to sense how the parts fit together. There is nothing better for a child’s brain when listening to text, even if it’s only Dr. Seuss. Making this kind of observation and anticipation second nature is what will enable your child to unconsciously attend to the components of a grammatically correct sentence when they get to school. It is truly the best way to prepare for the SATs. Not that you’re worrying about that when your child is four. But it’s the most helpful thing you can do.

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