First of all – a disclaimer. My recent posts have principally concerned reading to older children – high elementary school, middle school, even high school. Mainly because my own daughters have been growing up and my most recent experiences have been with them. This blog receives input from moments of current inspiration and that’s where the spontaneous anecdotes and apercus have come from.
But all that has changed. I have an infant in the house – now 20 months old (as of this writing) – and thus I happily, joyfully get to do it all over again – starting with those infamous board books and working our way quietly and patiently up to chapter books.
As I don’t have to tell you, it’s been delightful to introduce my son to books – to see what he responds to, becomes enthusiastic about, wants to hear again – and what words and phrases, images and scenes, he remembers, repeats, and learns. To see him begin to respond emotionally to moments and characters – to identify with them, to laugh with them, to fear with them. Who doesn’t know the joy of seeing your child light up at the zoo-keeper’s wife’s eyes on that otherwise all black page in Goodnight Gorilla? My own son wants to skip the page when the scary bulldog with the big teeth chases the toy clown in Quentin Blake’s textless Clown.
Reading to an infant is all about noticing and proceeding through stages. You never can tell how long a favorite book will last as a favorite (for us it was Caps for Sale and Go Dog Go and Green Eggs and Ham) to be replaced by the current obsession (baseball books, truck books) or how long the next stage will last. But those stages also mark progress. Can his attention span handle a book you can complete from beginning to end? When can you add books with more text (or read the whole text)? What kind of edgy material can he handle? And best of all – what language acquisition to you see resulting from your reading? Is that where he picks up colors? How many obvious and eccentric nouns and objects does he acquire just from your books?
Recently, we’ve had one of those unexpected developments that I don’t remember from before – but now that I’m paying attention it’s clear as day.
One thing we know about reading to small children – they like to read their favorite books again and again. Admittedly, this can be tiresome for their adult readers. I have reflected on why they like this – and I think it is more than the mere truism that children like routine. Yes, they like routine. They also like novelty. (Even when they don’t know it.) But I think it’s something else, too. Children are like little scientists who want to confirm their understanding of the world. They want to check and make sure that what they “know” is still true. They want to test and confirm the unconscious premises they are learning about their world – and make sure they are still true each day. That is why they ask questions they already “know” the answers to. And that, I think, is why they want to hear some stories again and again. It makes them feel safe and sure – and confident – to be in command of a story – to know what’s going to happen and be right. (Life, of course, isn’t like that – the cruel truth they will learn soon enough.)
Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale was the first picture book I ever read to my new son. We read it in the public library in Evanston, Illinois when he was 14 months old. I had to paraphrase the sentences and narrate the action – but he was taken (as I believe all children are) by the monkeys going “Tsk, tsk, tsk” to the peddler. I don’t know how many times he’s read (listened to) Caps for Sale since then but I do know that it is still in the rotation. 8 months later, he still picks it out and asks for it.
But in a recent reading, I noticed that what he gets out of the book – what he follows and enjoys and anticipates – is different than before. Like most kids, he gets the most fun out of the monkeys, imitating and repeating their finger and fist shaking and foot stomping. But he likes to act out what the peddler is doing, too. So when the peddler gets sleepy for his nap – my son anticipates it with a big yawn. When the peddler wakes up – he likes to stretch with the peddler. (Don’t all little kids relish that big stretch when they wake up? Don’t all parents?)
This time through, he added something more. The story is clearly familiar to him. He knows how to anticipate what will happen next. He knows when you come to the picture of the sun (“The peddler slept for a very long time”) on the next page the peddler will wake up and he will get to stretch. But after learning about caps and trees – and monkeys – and about different colors (and aren’t those blue/green caps confusing – what do you call them??) – there is still more to be mined verbally from a simple picture book like Caps for Sale.
We can’t help but teach them and show them about the nouns and objects and characters and perhaps the feelings of characters in our picture books. And they can’t help but learn them. If we’re energetic and they are attentive – we use picture books to teach about descriptive things like colors. It comes naturally. You can’t help it. But sometimes there’s even more.
As I sat reading this time, he focused on new words – new concepts! – in the story. The peddler sought to keep his 17 caps straight on his head. “Straight” my son repeated. The peddler walked slowly to keep the caps balanced. “Slowly” my son repeated. The peddler sat down to nap by the tree – very carefully. “Carefully” my son repeated. Lo and behold – my son was picking up adverbs!
Did I have anything to do with it? I don’t really think so. Did I do anything to re-iterate or emphasize or clarify the concepts of straightness or slowliness or carefulness? Definitely not. It is a truism that young children’s minds are sponges – hungry and capable of absorbing new information – especially verbal information. This is what reading aloud can do for them. Their own hungry minds can reach out on their own and pick up all the elements of language they will need in school and life. And we don’t have to do anything but pick good books, read with enthusiasm, and be patient when they want to confirm their hypotheses.
What I was witnessed was my son’s acquisition of adverbs – right in front of my nose – live in real time! Without explanation. Without didactic instruction. Merely from his (unconscious) extrapolation from context. That is the power of reading aloud. If we only stop to pay attention and enable its natural course.