The Rainbow Magic series of books has been an obsession at our house for over a year now. The seemingly infinite sets of themed books, written by 4 British women under the pseudonym Daisy Meadows, have everything our daughters love: humour, fairies, royalty, clear cut good and bad (but not too bad), silliness, talking animals, and a sister-like friendship between the two protagonists, Rachel and Kirsty.
When our latest acquisition, Melodie the Music Fairy, arrived in the mail last week, I worried that M and J would argue over who got to read it first. Instead, they compromised. M read out loud while J peeked over her shoulder. It wasn’t until after M took a potty break that pandemonium erupted. J just couldn’t keep herself from reading ahead while M was in the bathroom. She lost M’s place in the book. These children love bookmarks, and use them with abandon. Interfere with a bookmark at your own peril. Fail to mark a child’s place in her book, and you can expect to be tarred and feathered.
While the Rainbow Magic books are a clear frontrunner, J and M are classic bibliophiles. J got completely flustered when her grandfather asked what kind of books she liked to read. She hemmed and hawed, trying to limit herself to one category of literature. I told her she didn’t have to pick if she didn’t know, and she was visibly relieved. The girls are as likely to be found with my Complete Works of Lewis Carroll in their lap as Everyone Poops, their Children’s Atlas or anything Dr. Seuss.
It’s easy for me to forget that it’s unusual for 5-year-olds to be comfortable with chapter books or to enjoy independent silent reading. I too was an early reader, and have partially read books stashed all around the house for stolen moments of literary indulgence. My husband got me a subscription to National Geographic early in our marriage, and it was an inspired gift.
I started chatting with one of the ballet dads at the girls’ dance school this weekend. We pointed out our children to each other in the 5-year-old class, and I answered his puzzled look by explaining that my daughters were twins.
“Oh, wow!” he said. “Do they fight a lot?”
“No,” I told him. “They hardly ever argued when they were younger, but they’ve been bickering more since they started school. One will want to read when the other wants to play, and they’ll argue over who gets to pick.”
“They read?” he asked me, incredulous. “And they’re 5? I can’t get my daughter to read. I work with her on her spelling words from school. She learns them, but then she can’t recognize them on a sign or whatever. How did you get them to read?”
We spent the rest of the hour discussing ways in which a child can develop a love of reading. I’ve been asked that question before, and usually just blow it off with a “they had a great pre-K teacher.” While that’s undeniably true, having an entire hour to talk to a parent who was genuinely at a loss allowed me some time to analyze how M and J came to love books.
When I was on maternity leave, I passed the hours of nursing by reading out loud from books and magazines. I was a little surprised that “henceforth” wasn’t in their early vocabulary. We’ve always had age-appropriate books around, though. J and M chewed on their fabric books as babies, and pointed at pictures in board books when they were a little older. We read Goodnight Moon every night for 3 years. Our local library understood children, and allowed them to explore the stacks of the children’s section with abandon. It was there that we discovered the Daisy Meadows books.
Reading was a way to avert tantrums. Sitting in my lap, listening to a story and caressing the pages of books seemed to soothe both the girls. Books were also a way to get a forgivable moment away from Sissy.
When I read to the girls, I always pointed to words as I read them. I expected them to learn to read words passively, I suppose, family lore being that that was how I learned. Their daycare program took a similar approach to kids’ books as we did at home. They were available to the children at all times, displayed where they would catch their eye. In addition, the teacher read to the class as a group daily, and one day a week was designated Book from Home Day. My girls loved browsing their book collection every week to settle on the book they would take in to share with their friends. The classroom winter party included a book exchange.
When J and M began to display an ability to recognize common words in books they’d never seen before, their pre-kindergarten teacher ran with it. She found them somewhat advanced worksheets to work on. Once they were reading comfortably, she allowed them to occasionally read to the class. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was a favourite. By the time they completed pre-K, a couple of weeks after their 5th birthday, J, M and the other girls in their class were all reading independently to some degree. All the boys were still working on letter recognition, much to the teacher’s dismay. She wasn’t thrilled about the way literacy had broken down along gender lines.
I didn’t even realize that the girls were ready for chapter books until I found them both in their room one day, noses buried in fairy books. At first, I thought they were looking at the line drawings, but J looked up and summarized the plot for me.
It wasn’t until one of the girls’ friends spent the night that I realized that my husband and I had been teaching them about reading without even realizing it. J wanted to read Llama Llama Misses Mama as a bedtime story. Their friend became angry as J embarked on the first page.
“How does she know the story?” she asked.
“She’s reading it.”
“But how does she KNOW?” she persevered.
I asked J to show her the words as she read them, and J took the initiative to point out that the word “llama” repeated, which is why she said it twice. It occurred to me that our little guest thought of reading from a book as one of those magical traits parents have, like eyes in the back of our heads. I know her parents very well, and know that she has a book collection and is read to regularly. She didn’t, however, see books as toys. They were purely for parent-child interaction.
This realization was borne out the next morning. Our guest was a little ticked off that M was staring at a book in bed. I told our little friend that she was reading.
“No she’s not!” she said. “She’s not saying anything.”
It struck me that she had probably only rarely seen her parents read, except out loud to her. They’re outdoorsy, very active people, and on the rare occasion that they do sit down in silence, the television is their source of entertainment. I hadn’t ever thought of the way in which seeing Daddy and Mommy with books in hand, or discussing articles with news magazines strewn across the table, had influenced our girls.
I told the dance dad all of these things, and he confessed that he’d focused on drilling his daughter rather than making reading fun, and that she’d probably never seen him pick up a book. I had my iPad on me, so I showed him a couple of interactive books I’d installed for the girls. I told him that, in my opinion, pointing or highlighting words as they’re read is a pretty powerful tool in demonstrating that collections of letters carry meaning. Also, reading has got to be fun for kids to want to do it. I doubt my girls would have graduated to chapter books when they did if we only had books about dinosaurs. I was a dinosaur kid, but these girls of mine are all about the fairies and princesses.
I suggested to the dad that he consider letting his daughter run free in the children’s section of the nearest public library branch. She was far more likely to stay engaged with something she had picked out.
I forgot to mention one other tactic that has worked for us. The girls generally have television access only on weekends, and can watch either one full-length feature or a couple of shorter episodes. On the rare occasion that they do watch some TV on weekday evenings, the choice is invariably a nature or physics documentary, and we’re likely to follow it up by a trip to the non-fiction section of their bookshelf, or a visit to National Geographic’s kids’ webpage.
What do you do to encourage your children to develop good reading habits?
Sadia, her husband and their 5-year-old identical twins maximize their bookshelf space in El Paso, TX.