My seven-year old granddaughter and I have shared a wonderful storytelling ritual since she became a big sister three years ago. She calls me while her little sister is napping and asks me to tell her a story. I have managed to keep her entertained all these years with many simple little adventures about girls her age. One of her favorites is about a pair of best friends who have a pet rescue service that takes them to some exotic places to help people find their pets.
I have always let her decide the focus of our time on the phone. Recently, she’s enjoyed listening to me read some stories. This shift happened so effortlessly. During a call she mentioned that I’d been late in calling her back. That prompted me to recite the White Rabbit’s lament from Alice in Wonderland: I’m late, I’m late. For a very important date. No time to say, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!
She loved the refrain and repeated it several times. Then asked if I could read her the story. While we were on the phone, I did a search and found Project Gutenberg’s eBook of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The book is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. I had to do some major editing as I read along on my screen but she didn’t seem to notice and was disappointed when we had to stop.
The next time she called, little sister was in the room and wanted to listen, too. But every so often she would chime in: “Baba, can I tell you something?” Her attention span is that of a typical three-year old. So I stopped reading and she would try to remember what she wanted to tell me! Meanwhile, big sister was patiently waiting for me to get back to the story.
All of this felt a bit chaotic and since we were on the phone and not on Skype, I could not see what was going on at their end. I wondered if any of us were benefiting. Later that night I started reading Pam Allyn’s What to Read When and found validation for the messiness that seemed to be going on. Pam is the founder and director of LitLife, an internationally recognized organization that trains K-12 teachers in literacy education. She wrote a guest post earlier on this blog titled The Value of a Picture Book.
In her book Pam explains the four keys to helping your child become a lifelong reader. She has categorized them into an easy acronym—READ: Rituals, Environment, Access, and Dialogue.
The first key is to develop Rituals for reading aloud with your children. She acknowledges that “it’s not easy, especially considering how busy all our lives are. But it’s well worth if for the investment you will make. The ritual of reading brings us together in profound ways. The ritual of reading with one of your children gives you the chance to consider the beauty and mystery of this particular child.
Reading together, too, with all ages and diverse interests in your family, is powerful and can be a transformative tool in building family relationships. Reading books to the younger child, an older one snuggles close. Reading books to the older child, the younger one leans in, even if it’s over her head for now. Allow this ‘messiness’ in the read-aloud ritual. It is part of the way your family can come together and also a way for all of you to learn more about each other.”
The second key is to establish an Environment that is conducive to reading aloud together—a physical layout of space where your child and you will read together. Pam set up a writing table in the kitchen when her two daughters were little. When she got home from work, she wanted her kids to be near her so she could hear what they were saying and thinking. She also recommends putting books in a place where kids will be able to reach them in baskets or on low shelves.
The third key is Access, which means the right text at the right time and books that match your children in terms of levels and interests. She suggests three levels: uphill books, which are hard but with a strong interest component that compels your kids; level books, which are just right for your kids and feel comfortable; downhill books, which appear easy but are actually critical for your kids in terms of building their reading abilities. Reading on all these levels will give you some peace of mind if you have to read to multiple children in your family and are worried that your stronger independent reader is still hearing “easier” books. Hearing books read aloud at different levels is important because it builds your children’s fluency levels, stamina levels, and comprehension levels.
The fourth key is Dialogue. It’s what we create when our children are babies: the nearness of each other. In dialogue, the listening is as important as the talking. The best dialogue is the inquiry: asking our children what they are thinking and what they are wondering about and how they are absorbing information. Some questions to spark inquiry include: “What are your biggest questions about what we are reading?” “How does this book connect to another book we’ve read?” “What does this story remind you of in your own life?” “How could reading this book change you or your thinking in some way?”