Maybe we shouldn’t even look at the words

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If we want to grow avid readers, then we have to embrace the reality that avid readers do what they darn well please. They skip pages. They stop before the end of the book. They re-read something they particularly enjoy. They ask questions. They take time to think. They do it their way.Asian mom and child on laptop laughing

Empowering and inspiring children to do all of these seemingly random, non-reading things is critical if we are to eventually position them in a mature, independent relationship with books. Of course, all youngsters will want to reach a point where they can read (and by that I mean say) all of the words. That’s the most obvious benchmark of success for early readers. And naturally, we all want them to experience that sense of accomplishment. But there are literally millions of readers who can capably say every word that they encounter or that we might place in front of them who don’t read…who never read. Frankly, those would be our deepest educational failures.

Again, it’s not that being able to say any word they encounter isn’t critical as children approach 3rd grade. However, as necessary as that is, it is not sufficient if we really, really want them to become avid, lifelong readers. Engaging literally with the print is not the same as engaging personally with the author’s message.

Reading with little ones (babies and toddlers) starts off as fun, cuddle time. They connect with the images first of course, because they are in the process of figuring out what pictures are, what they do, what significance they have, how they work and so on. Everything is new to them.

So for our smallest readers, the experience might best be focused for a significant amount of time on the image alone. There’s no need to point at words; there’s plenty of time for that as they grow. There’s no requirement to even read the words except to get ideas about what we might say to the baby. Just enjoying the pictures together, talking about what we see, and inviting them to point and babble about what they are experiencing is all that’s needed. If you point and talk about what excites you, they will too. That is where reading becomes a personal activity and and begins to take shape as an intimate individual choice.

The dictum of pictures being worth a thousand words is particularly compelling when children are just learning what words are, how they are used and what words mean to them, personally. Avid readers who have grown into a mature relationship with books also know that words are worth a thousand pictures. But to get to that position, diapered darlings certainly don’t have to begin with words.

Focusing, talking, wondering, reflecting and sharing with loved ones…around compelling images of other children, of insects and animals, of intriguing places, of fascinating activities, of strange peoples or of foundational concepts builds the bedrock for “me” centered literacy that is the internal, personal, connection with reading that unites avid readers of all ages.

Simply help babies engage with pictures in books. There’s plenty of time for text.

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5 Responses to “Maybe we shouldn’t even look at the words”

  1. Laura Westberg April 1, 2015 at 11:48 am #

    It’s really about the language rather than the literacy at this stage of childhood. The “language of words” experienced through “book talk.” Thanks for your inspiring “words!”

  2. Jean LaTourette April 2, 2015 at 7:18 am #

    I disagree. I do agree with sharing a love of reading and books with children. I believe, however, that the author’s message is important to share with even very young children. Often early “baby” books have brief, sound related, and/or rhyming text. The words are excellent fodder for language development, in my opinion. Yes, the pictures are key. I agree that the reader’s reactions, thinking, and feelings are important to share and therefore model. The words are key to the reading experience, no matter how young the “reader”. Try reading Brown Bear Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric Carle to an infant. Yes the colorful illustrations are most important, but the simple, repetitive text will build a memory, enjoyment, and future reading, as well.

    • Mark Condon April 22, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      I hear you, Jean. My take here was effectively to turn any book into a wordless picture book if it pulls the child closer to a love of books and reading. So long as there is rich and joyful give and take conversation between the reader and the child, building oral language and appreciation for what books can bring into the lives of little ones, I’m a happy guy.

  3. Diane Ambur April 8, 2015 at 9:41 pm #

    Pictures are another cueing system that leads listeners and readers to better comprehension. In addition, learning to use the pictures to understand the story will assist the learner in decoding unfamiliar words that would make sense in the story. Scanning and discussing the illustrations before reading excites and motivates children to make some predictions about the book, therefore stimulating critical and creative thinking. Using illustrations in this way with young children leads to future avid readers .

    • Mark Condon April 22, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

      Thanks for that, Diane. I was focused on the value of conversation around the pictures and you did a nice job of connecting the dots to print.