Monday 30 May 2011

Reading Magic

One of the most powerful books I ever read is called Reading Magic by the Australian children's book author Mem Fox. Everyone knows how important it is to read to your children as they are growing up. However, unfortunately not everyone does it.  My sister, a high school teacher in Hamilton, estimates that most of her students were not read to on a regular basis at home.  Some parents just can't be bothered. Other parents feel overwhelmed by the demands of their job. For some, reading has become "passe". Technological gadgets have taken the place of good old fashioned books.

If they only knew what an impact regular exposure to literature can do to a young child. Mem Fox recommends that parents start reading to their children from the moment they are born. Of course, newborns don't understand most of the vocabulary, but they will at least be exposed to the rhythm and patterns of speech. In those early months, a mother can pick up a magazine and start reading to her child and the child will reap some benefits. I can remember holding my baby girl in my arms and talking on the phone and often she would fall asleep. It's the lilting rhythm of the convesation which soothes the child. Of course, as children grow, the type of literature that you read becomes more important.

Now here is what stands out for me the most about Mem Fox's book. She recommends that parents read at least 1000 books to their child before he or she reaches school age. Many people think that a child's education begins at school, but Mem trys to impress on her readers that the education begins long before that first day of Kindergarten. A thousand books is a lot of books. However, the Australian author suggests that if parents read three books per night, their child will have been exposed to 1000 books by the time he or she starts school. This is a good way of transforming your toddler into a reader before they even set foot in a classroom, she claims.

Some parents complain that their child requests the same book night after night. Mem Fox says that's not necessarily a bad thing. Reading aloud a favourite book to a child is a reassuring experience, especially at bedtime. She says that a favourite book, along with two new books is a good balance for a child's daily reading schedule.

Another point that Mem touches on is that reading is not only an excellent way to raise a strong reader, but also an excellent way for parent and child to bond. My daughter still enjoys climbing up into my lap to read a book with me at bedtime eventhough she is far past the toddler stage. Besides the physical bond that happens when we read to our children, we can also experience an emotional connection. Books can be stepping stones to real life experiences. For instance, I like to bake and I love to find storybooks at the library that include recipes. One year my brother Bill bought a picture book for my son called The Night that Santa Ate Too Many Cookies by David Carruthers. Tucked into the book was a recipe for "Chocolate Softies for Santa". We proceeded to buy the ingredients and bake the cookies. Now we make them every Christmas and they are my son's favourite cookies. My husband's father used to read him an old German anthology of stories with children who misbehave and get into mishaps called Der Strubelpeter. Rob, his sister Ingrid and their dad would often act out the scenes from the book. Now the tradition has been passed to the next generation as Rob re-enacts the skits with our children. As my son got older and became a strong reader, he started reading to my daughter. Their signature story was a board book called Barnyard Dance. My son would stomp out the beat as he read the book, sounding much like an announcer shouting out the steps at a folk dance festival.

Yes, reading aloud is a great way to connect with your child. And it can lead to so much more. If your child can read, then there is a much greater chance that they will be a strong student since they will understand the material more readily. Their natural curiosity will take over. Set the stage for a little reader by filling your home with books. And don't just let them collect dust on the bookshelf, but open them up and read. Read storybooks to your children. Have your children read books to you. Read chapter books to them as they mature. And let your children see you reading your own books as well. Readers raise readers. I notice that when I open a book, that's often when my children go to their bookshelf to find themselves a story. Reading truly is magic.

I should mention that I read this book long after my son started school. However, I did read aloud daily with my son. Sure enough, when he turned 3 years old, he started reading my grocery lists and signs in the grocery store. By his first day of Junior Kindergarten, at 3 1/2 years old, he read an entire book to the teacher. It works!

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