Try to teach children to do something they don’t care about. It is challenging at best and most often doesn’t work.
In an effort to get every child to “proficient” in reading, schools mistakenly make learning to read a grind: Turn the pages, read left to right and top to bottom, discriminate each of the letters, remember sight words, discern punctuation and all the rest.
All necessary, but not the reasons that children become proficient. The easiest path to that result is helping kids become eager to be proficient.
Literacy is not just about letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories and information. It’s actually about a child’s personal connections with books’ messages and illustrations. Proficient reading, no matter how an education system decides to define it, must represent the use of print to fulfill emotional needs, sharing feelings of wonder and fulfillment through riveting stories and eye-opening information. That’s when reluctant readers decide to do the necessary work to become full-time literate.
So, how do we teach children to discover the rich possibilities of books, establishing the expectation that well-chosen books can promise an on-demand, hand-held, bridge to the warmth and exhilaration that comes with personal connection?
Consider preschoolers. Babies sit in our laps, cuddling and sharing our warmth, not just experiencing the noise of the words and pictures. They are associating book reading with love and human touch, and affection.
They learn early that emotions are expressed by their loved-ones through changes in facial expression and the dynamics of their speaking voices. That foundation establishes how we should then read to very young children. To become eager readers, they need to see our faces while we read, and hear the animation of our voices as we interpret the text. Thus, children absorb the glorious promises of books and reading.
Eye contact is a critical tool, too. Just watch a terrific teacher reading to a group of children. The kids are looking at the book he holds open for them, but they’re also watching his face as it projects the surprise, confusion, joy and sorrow cued as the book contents unfold. His theatrics also are accompanied by vocal dynamics and by the projected expectations that his listeners are sensing the feelings that are shaping his actions.
Ultimately, delighted readers must stop to think about what they are reading. Hence, adults must demonstrate for children that there are points in a book when they will stop and think about the personal significance of what the author and illustrator are sharing. Pausing establishes that a book is not just something to get through quickly because it’s getting late for something else. It establishes that a book is something to savor. Pauses to invite the child or group to converse about a book’s artwork, the beauty of its language and the new connections carried in its content are how adults illustrate those electric possibilities.
If we are to lead eager children into reading proficiency, we must first activate the emotional needs that the artful language and the compelling nature that books’ illustrations touch in them.