over and Over and OVER again!

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dad and kids reading_SMMany 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!

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7 Responses to “over and Over and OVER again!”

  1. Chuck Thompson December 15, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Insightful and well-written!! Cheers, C

    • Dick Allington December 16, 2014 at 11:26 am #

      Our youngest son loved a book where the repeated refrain was “Drummer Hoff fired it off…” as he shot cannon. Dumb book, dumber story but he loved it for some unknown reason. Like with Mark’s child, there was no way of skipping a page or altering the story line (such as it was). He’d always catch me when I altered the story one bit!

      • Mark Condon December 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

        …and if you know Drummer Hoff (which actually is a favorite of mine for read-alouds!) there is a lot of very complex vocabulary in that book for kids to attend to.

  2. BYRON HARRISON December 17, 2014 at 5:57 am #

    Thanks Mark for this interesting topic. Bear with me while I embellish the story a little.
    There are two ways of developing sight words: 1. by treating the word as a picture, giving attention to visually strategic letters, forming a pattern of those selected letters, searching in memory for known words that would fit that pattern and then using semantic and syntactic cues to decide which candidate-word best fits. 2.processing all the components, working from left to right, into sounds and then matching with a word that has sounds like that. Think of the two methods as ‘vision-based word recognition’ and the second ‘sound-based word recognition’.
    Now let us consider those two strategies in relation to repeated reading to the kids: if your kids are locked into a vision-based system, your repeated reading may give them enjoyment to story-line and the rhythm of reading but when you repeat the story there is little new visual information because the number of letters that form the pattern remains the same (i.e. the ‘VAS level’ changes slowly over years not weeks) the child will therefore pay attention to the same letters and therefore form the same patterns. Therefore repeated reading to a visual-based (whole word guessing) child should provoke little change in word-recognition.
    Contrast that with the sound-based (phonic)…the child hears and remembers the sound of the words but repeated exposure to the same words may establish the link between the whole word and the sounds, particularly if you take it slowly and point to each words as you read. You would therefore expect a benefit from re-reading. In either case I think the visual and auditory benefits are small.
    My own conclusion is that reading to a child is fun (I read every night to 3 kids and a massive Rottweiler, all compressed with me onto a single bed). It gives enjoyment to all (including the Rottweiler apparently) and can be useful in establishing morals or imagination but we still have to directly teach the children to read.
    Byron Harrison
    VAS Research

  3. J Arthur Melanson December 18, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    MARK, I learned to read at a Grade 1 level by looking carefully at words in stories in a basal reader (and listening carefully) as my teacher and then my classmates and I repeatedly read the same stories aloud (1937). There was no assessment of phonemic or phonological awareness. There was no systematic, synthetic, “bottom-up” phonics instruction. The teacher did have a chalkboard list of words including: fat, sat, mat, cat, hat, bat, rat, and pat. (Similar lists had words ending in: -et, -ot, -ut, -it, -an, etc.) It was our task to echo, “Those words are in the /at/ family.” Our teacher devoted little time to the “families” method. Over time, we acquired a “phonics sense.” My classmates became doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers.

  4. Jim Erekson January 12, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    So much of the research on ‘repeated reading’ ignores this topic! The active engagement you describe here is a more likely causal factor in spontaneous repeated reading and increases in fluency than forced repeated readings as assignments. I like Stephen Kucer’s arguments that engaged readers are likely to turn on their ‘problem-solver’–what you called ‘studying’ the book above!

    I agree somewhat with Byron–I worked with my own daughter as a preschooler between 1995-2000 to see what would happen with an ‘acquisition-only’ approach, and when I pulled off the training wheels after a few years, she had not figured it out. Then with about a week of onset-rime sorts based on keywords from her books, she had cracked the code and never looked back. It’s like Paul McKee said back in the 1960s, How much phonics for each child? Just enough for that child.

    • Mark Condon January 13, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

      Thanks for adding these insights, Jim. It enriches us all to hear such perspectives.