Many research studies exist about the fabulous benefits of repeatedly reading a well-chosen book to children. Good teachers know and use this tactic to promote fluent reading, enrich vocabulary, engender deep comprehension, and encourage richer conversation.
However, this practice that research supports and teachers sometimes drives many well-intentioned parents crazy. When a child asks for a book to be read several times at a sitting and/or several times a day for weeks on end, parents eyes may glaze over as they begin to recite the chosen book by memory.
At age 4 my older son fell in love with a version of Jack and the Bean Stalk that I deemed as less-than-quality-literature. Every night, as we settled down for our bedtime read he would select several books and there in the pile would be “the Jack book,” with Jack beaming up at me wearing his little medieval looking hat with a feather in it.
It was the perfect bedtime read because it led directly to heavy-lidded drowsiness. The trouble was that it was I who was dozing off.
In an effort to spice things up a bit for myself, I would alter the tale or the wording on some pages. My son, being the sharp little guy he was, would immediately respond, “It doesn’t say that!” And when I’d try to skip pages, hoping to finish it more quickly, he’d call my bluff—“No wait! You missed a page!”
I would wonder, “WHAT ON EARTH is the fascination with this arguably mediocre book?!” Parents who read daily to their children know, the “chosen” book doesn’t have to be great literature to become the favorite. In my case, my son’s “Jack book” was a cute version of a delightful fairy tale … but not THAT cute! My sweet son had the opposite response of course.
These kinds of books become kids’ top choices because they are actually studying them while we read them. They study words and pages and letters and illustrations and fluent language and vocabulary and characters and adults’ reactions to the story’s events. Many of these little ones can’t articulate what they are doing, but research indicates that each time children experience their “favorite” book, they are likely to become focused upon something new about which they have an interest or question. In short, while it may seem boring and repetitive to us because we adult readers are experiencing the same story over and over … ad nauseum … to children, each reading is a new adventure into literacy learning.
- Sometimes the re-reading helps them review an impression they have, for example, “Dad seems to say the same thing every time when we get to this page. I wonder if he’ll do that again tonight.”
- Sometimes it’s to verify it’s not just some weirdness of Daddy. “Hmmm, Mommy says the same thing when we get to this page. What does THAT mean?”
- Sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, it’s to focus on items that to us are minutia. “Why are there numbers in the corner of every page?”
- Sometimes it actually feels like they are learning to read, like when they point to a letter and say, “My name starts like that.”
After the gazillionth read of Jack and the Bean Stalk, I finally was able to do what is called voice pointing. I’d read the first part of a sentence and then pause, inviting my son to supply the rest. He loved that game and his eventual memorization of the book became the basis for doing very sophisticated reading-like behavior and even re-telling the story verbatim.
The moral of this (repeated) story is for parents to embrace this repeated reading and re-reading strangeness as a clear indication that their children are taking it upon themselves to learn to read, in much the same way that all children who do anything repeatedly (from infants slapping the table, to toddlers messing around with the piano, to preteens shooting baskets) are practicing and enjoying getting better! They just need us to help out for a little while.
What a perfect role for parents, siblings, neighbors and friends. With our patience (ahem!) and help, soon they’ll be reading all of US to sleep!