Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reading And The Young. And The Very Young

I have a couple of youngish relatives who are education majors. One of them will be graduating with a master's degree next month and is applying for jobs even as we speak. I have been nagging this guy, who we will call Relative 1, for years about reading kid and YA books. Last spring for his birthday I gave him Gregor the Overlander. I gave him Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane for Christmas. Over the winter he finally had time to read both books. He liked them so much that he went out and bought the third one in the series for himself.

Last Friday I gave him The Lightning Thief for this year's birthday. He e-mailed me today to say he'd already finished it and that it made him want to study mythology all over again.

So, I saw Relative 2 today. I told her, "Hey, I gave Relative 1 The Lightning Thief last Friday, and he's already finished it."

"He's making me look bad!" she replied.

To which I said, "Exactly."

Here's why I'm always on these guys about reading kids' books: They're going to be teachers. Part of the job is going to be to teach kids to read, hopefully, to encourage them to read. What better way to do that then to read and be exited about books children are likely to want to read? How can you excite someone about something that you don't do yourself?

You always have to remember, children do not read book reviews. They don't read publishers' catalogs. They have no way of knowing what's out there for books unless an adult tells them. They see their teachers day in and day out for something like 180 days a year. Who is in a better position to tell them about good books than their teachers?

Good books are the absolutely best encouragement for reading.

Nagging young teachers is my personal mission. But here's a little something I heard from a nearby librarian relating to even younger readers: Circulation among grade schoolers is down at her library. Not down a little. Down thirty percent. We're talking a so-called nice, comfortable, middle class small town.

She doesn't know what to make of this. Is the library at her local elementary school doing such a fantastic job that kids no longer need to use their town library? Are children so overscheduled that they no longer have time for recreational reading? Kids can't get to this library without a ride from an adult. Why aren't their parents bringing them in?

She says that in the summer they have a large number of kids sign up for their reading program so they can get whatever goody bag the library is giving away as an incentive. The kids take a couple of books out early in the summer, but they don't continue through the whole program.

She's even seeing a drop off in the preschool programs, which have always been heavily attended. The heavy attendance is technically still there. The kids and their moms show up for the story and the craft. But far fewer kids are checking books out than in the past. "They come for the show," she explained.

What is going on?

This librarian had some interesting things to say about early literacy programs, which is what these preschool story hours actually are. I always thought reading to little kids encouraged them to read because it was a warm and fuzzy experience, reading is fun, etc. All of that is true, of course. But it turns out that there are some very practical, nitty-gritty reasons for reading picture books with children. When kids read with parents, they get practice turning pages. They get practice scanning pages. As parents read and point things out to children, the kids pick up on the fact that, in this culture at least, we read from left to right.

Try to imagine learning to read without knowing any of that.

On top of all that, children who are read to regularly have a larger vocabulary then children who aren't read to. That's a big aid when learning to read and in the early years of reading because it's a whole lot easier to sound out a word you recognize if you've heard it before.

If you're reading a kidlit blog, you probably don't need any encouragement to take your kids to the library and help them check out some books. But here's an idea you may not have thought of: The end of the school year is coming up soon. If you're thinking of an end of the year gift for a favorite teacher, how about a kids' book?

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