Reading to Your Kids: Challenge Your Assumptions!

Holly Jahangiri
 


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Even before she was born, I imagined snuggling close with my daughter, Katie, and reading to her. I just knew that she would love books, and she would become an avid reader like her dear ol’ Mom. Her bookshelves were stocked with the best of the best - from One Fish, Two Fish to The Chronicles of Narnia and everything in between. But it was not to be.

Katie liked to snuggle, all right. Up to a point. But almost from the moment of birth, my girl was filled with a restless energy that made sitting still seem almost painful. She had to be doing something. Even before she could talk, her eloquent eyes learned to say “I'm bored!" She would tolerate the first few pages of a story book, but after a few pages she would begin to wriggle and squirm. She would give me an apologetic look ("I love you, but this is boring me to tears!") and slip down onto the floor in search of things to do.

The first word Katie learned to read was “exit. " Not from the bright red lighted Exit signs at all our favorite restaurants, but from the Microsoft Windows menu options File > Exit. Yes, by the time she was a year old, Katie loved to play with our computers and we made sure she knew how to turn them off properly. She learned the word “milk" from playing with her Magnadoodle. She learned “stop" from stop signs along the road. But I can't remember her learning many words from reading books, or from being read to, although I swear I tried.

When Katie got to Kindergarten, she knew her alphabet and could form most of the letters competently. But curl up in the classroom reading center with a good book? She'd rather not, thanks. I'm still not sure how the kid learned to read. But halfway through Kindergarten, a light went on and she was able to read just about anything you put in front of her. One week she couldn't read the simplest primer, the next week she could read passages from the newspaper. But don't get me wrong, Katie still didn't like to read, or choose to sit quietly and immerse herself in a good story. I used to think you had to practice a skill to develop it, but I'm convinced Katie just plucked “reading" out of thin air and added it to her arsenal, without ever investing the time or effort to perfect it.

When Katie was in third grade, she was required to pick a book from the library each week and read it. That was torture for her. She groaned over the silly fairy tales they studied, and had trouble locating any book that could hold her interest long enough to complete the assignment. I took her to the bookstore and encouraged her to choose a book she might enjoy. She wanted a book on Helen Keller. It was longer than most she'd read to date, and had no pictures. The vocabulary was challenging, but she dove into it and asked questions when she needed help. And suddenly, a light went on in my head.

I'll just confess it straight out. I had always assumed that little girls (I was one, after all) liked fairy tales and other fiction. Men, on the other hand (at least my Dad, my husband, and most of the men I knew) preferred the “real world" stuff like Popular Mechanics or the newspaper. And this realization hit me like a two by four: Had anyone ever asked a small child what subjects interested him or her? Or had we all just assumed?

Turns out that Katie liked biographies and historical fiction. Or, as she put it, “stories about real people and real adventures, or things that might have really happened. " So I said “Honey, ask the librarian to show you where the biographies are. " Katie's reply almost stopped my heart: “We don't have those in our school. "

Well of course not. “Katie, go ask the librarian to show you where they are. Trust me, you have them. They're probably stashed over in the sixth graders’ section of the library, because they think you guys wouldn't be interested. " She came home the next day, beaming from ear to ear and armed with a few books that actually captivated her interest. Over the next couple of years, she has branched out and tried new things - she even read Jane Eyre twice. She has begged me to get her the next couple of books in the Left Behind series. But the real life dramas, particularly the one she's living, not just reading about, are what hold her interest best.

Katie is still not the avid reader I'd dreamed she would be. But she's darned good at it. In fifth grade, she tested two and a half grades higher in reading, and has made perfect reading scores on statewide tests. But she'd rather be playing basketball.

My son, William, is all boy. He loves trucks, Hot Wheels cars, his Little Tikes workbench with its peg board full of realistic plastic tools - if it does something, makes a nice resounding crash, or can be dismantled for further study, he likes it even better. He has developed a prodigious (if offbeat) vocabulary from watching a vast array of kids’ movies on video. At four, he loves to play Diddy Kong Racing and Mario on Nintendo 64, and can use a Mac or PC with amazing skill. He tried to sign himself up for an account on a favorite Web site the other night, and would have succeeded had he been able to repeat the password twice - displayed only as a row of asterisks - to confirm it.

I used to think getting William to read would be a challenge, as it was with Katie. Don't most little boys hate to read? I started my campaign to instill a love of books in him from birth, putting soft cloth-bound books in the crib with him. I read to him often, but we never established a nightly ritual of reading. It hadn't worked all that well with his big sister, so I suppose I assumed (again!) that it wouldn't work all that well with my little boy. Sometimes we sang and danced to his favorite lullabies, like “Waltzing with Bears. " Sometimes we talked softly, making lots of eye contact. Sometimes we just snuggled. But from the time he could reach for a toy, you could tell that books were special to William. He reached out for the books I left in his crib, and I would often find him balancing them on his feet or flipping pages to see the colorful pictures.

As time went by, William would drag a book downstairs to be read almost as often as he brought his toys downstairs to play. Sometimes he brought two or three books at a time. He would climb up in my lap, snuggle in, and insist that I read to him. I was surprised to see how well a good book could compete with a brightly-colored, hyperactive animated video for my son's attention. (This is a kid who had all the lines from the movie Toy Story memorized by the age of 2 and, casting all of us in supporting roles, acted them out with all the drama and emotion of a veteran Broadway star. ) He'll climb up in my lap and beg me to read to him, even if Buzz Lightyear's pleading with him to help save the Galaxy!

Fantasy and fairy tales are fine by William. Imaginary worlds intermingle with the day-to-day reality, reminding those of us around him what it means to be a child. It's too early to tell whether William will be an excellent reader like his sister, Katie. But he enjoys it more. Maybe he'll spend a lifetime practicing. He recognizes all his letters and numbers, can read his name, and has started showing a real interest in the words (not just the stories). I wonder, when he gets to Kindergarten, will he search out Grimm's Fairy Tales or the biography of Neil Armstrong? Or, maybe he'll prefer basketball by then, too.

Holly Jahangiri is a professional writer who claims, tongue-in-cheek, to channel the spirits of Edgar Allan Poe, Erma Bombeck, and O'Henry. Holly is an author on Writing. Com (http://www.Writing.Com/ ), and you can buy her books at Lulu (http://www.lulu.com/hjahangiri ).

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