“Read to your kids!”
That directive echoes down the halls of every maternity ward, is heard in the waiting rooms of every good pediatrician’s office and is certainly in every school classroom, regardless of the age of a student.
But that statement packs so much more meaning, and too often the larger message is lost, turning what could be a huge opportunity for discussing how books touch our children’s lives in very direct ways into merely an item to check off a teacher’s schedule before lunch or prior to bedtime for families.
Like any other productive interaction, children learn the most from their own involvement in the conversational give and take around an experience, like a science experiment, an outing to a local farm or hearing a new book. The book or other experience only lights the fuse. The conversation among those who shared the event or book reading powers the rocket that can take children to new conceptual levels about the world and their places in it.
Further, conversation here is not recitation, i.e., responding to questions to which the leader/reader already knows the answers. Conversation is a sharing between two or more individuals about how an experience impacts them personally. It is an invitation to discuss how an experience was significant to each participant’s personal life.
Little ones may benefit from being “present” for such conversations without ever saying a word. Soon enough they will express themselves to the family group involved, too. Older children can share their contributions, as well as parents while being sensitive to the levels of sophistication in the group. Thus, the discussion should actually be more about the participants than the book or experience itself.
For infants and toddlers the experience also should be one in which the focus is all on them. The book has been read, yes, but the focus is on their experience of the book. “What did you think of that?” kinds of questions, while unlikely to generate any real answers early on, will initiate children into assuming the roles they can take when they feel that they have something to say.
In previous blogs, I have suggested that any effort to jump start a discussion about a reading could be initiated by asking questions or offering any statements that elicit each listener’s unique response to a book. That would include sharing of comments or questions about the book’s content, but also about the book’s significance or place in their lives.
That beginning will naturally invoke contributions that are unique to individuals, setting the tone for later answers or responses that come from the heart or spring from personal history.
These reading discussion experiences position completed books not as endings, but as beginnings of lifelong explorations about the world and those in it.