Your child is still in preschool. Not only does she know all the letters, she already easily reads billboards and signs. With your help and under your supervision, she’s gotten through an alphabet book with short words and sentences. You can proudly declare: “Our kid can read!” In other words, you’ve done your job as a parent—you’ve taught your child to read before school. Now you’re accosted by new worries: if your five- or six-year-old has gotten the basics of reading, why isn’t she mastering those skills? Not running off to read books? Frankly, it looks like she doesn’t enjoy it—you have to force her to read.
Suddenly you see the difference between “knowing how to read” and “reading books.” Or even “knowing how to read” and “liking reading.” Let’s set aside the approach you used to teach your child to read. We won’t look into so-called “teaching-induced neuroses” or a child’s aversion toward what he was made to learn before he was psychologically ready. Let’s assume you did all that correctly—or that your child was able to compensate for the negative influence of aggressive education. Children, after all, are mentally flexible—they may well amaze you with their ability to withstand adult “interventions.” Or it could be that she learned to read by herself and you just seized her initiative to help her to the next level.
Why then, having conquered the alphabet book, is she not interested in reading?
Well, while a child is small, if the choice is up to him, he’d rather play than read. Moreover, that’s exactly what he needs—play—to eventually make him into a reader. The longer, the more interesting, the more involved a preschooler’s, or even first-grader’s play, the better his chances of becoming a true reader.
A seeming contradiction, right?
Not so fast. Reading as an activity is related to play. Not play as in computer games, but pretend play—where a child thinks up and acts out his own plots, with toys standing in for characters. Children master this style of play gradually, usually by age four—after all, these games require confident speaking and a good amount of imagination. The directorial play, in turn, gives the child’s imagination the freedom to explore and furthers his development. And that developed imagination is the vital prerequisite for the transformation into a reader.
According to international research by PISA Programme for International Student Assessment , reading literacy is based on the following three factors: technical reading skills, understanding the text, and the ability to express one’s opinion on the material. Generally speaking, parents focus their attention on the first factor only. But that one condition, taken in isolation, doesn’t solve anything.
If we’re not just as serious about the other two sides of reading, it won’t work. Developing the ability to understand the text demands not that we double down on alphabet book lessons, but that we ease up a bit. Sometimes, it’s helpful to set them aside altogether. Turn your attention to another area: let the child play more. In play, a child comes up with events and accompanying dialogue for characters, speaks their parts (first aloud, then in a whisper, then to himself). It’s much like the work of a writer—except that the playing child brings his ideas to life not on paper or a computer screen, but in the field of play. In other words, in the process of play, the child becomes the creator of his plot-driven work. One could even call it the “text of play.”
Experienced teachers know this well: if you want to teach a child to appreciate music, give her a musical instrument and show her how to play. If you want her to make sense of art—give her more opportunities to create, use different materials, and show her different techniques. To interest her in physics—conduct experiments. When she encounters art, science, or another field, the child can say with recognition—I understand how this is done! That’s nothing to scoff at. We’re often most interested in what we can relate to personally. It speaks to us. And something becomes understandable (and even “our own”) when we know how it’s built.
So there it is. If we want a child to learn to appreciate and understand fictional texts (which is no small feat), he must acquire experience in a related activity. In this case, through directorial play.
Since reading and play—as we have seen—are related, reading should, in principle, take the place of play, replace it.
Even so, reading requires not only a developed imagination (since in reading, unlike play, imagination cannot rely on physical objects), but also the ability to perceive the other, his fantasies, his ideas. That is to say, reading is a new level of thought and social development. That’s why the transition to independent reading is generally tied to a significant change in thinking and behavior. The child doesn’t begin to read as passionately and with the engagement we would like simply because he is still small. You just have to wait (and keep reading aloud), until he reaches the period psychologists call the “change in leading activity” when play stops being central to a child’s life.
Sometimes, the process drags on, so that even by the end of first grade a child doesn’t particularly want to spend time reading. He’s still playing the same games as he did before he started school. This may be the result of not having had his fill—for example if the parents overdid it with their teaching efforts. (We’ll set aside scenarios where speech or social skills are underdeveloped.)
So what can we do?
One solution is to read aloud to your child as much as possible.
Another would be to take him to see theatre.
Here, we’re looking at theatre specifically in light of this issue, as a way of encouraging reading. What occurs on the stage is related to a child’s game with toys (it’s no coincidence that Russian psychologists termed it “directorial” play). But this “play” is the work of another director and has to be observed from the side. Plus, theatre is full of speech. It is literary in nature, but accompanied by movement and action. This action helps the child focus his attention. Compared to reading, theatre is easier to process, but it also more complex than simple play.
There are also ways to develop an interest in reading that use books directly. It’s important to remember that a love of reading is possible only when it brings joy—once it’s hard work, it’s unlikely to bring about any positive feelings. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right books in the early stages of independent reading. The focus should be entirely on your child, his interests and abilities.
1. The first books shouldn’t have too much text. When reading skills are just developing, a page packed full of words is intimidating. We have to keep the factor of understanding in mind. If poor reading skills prevent the child from understanding the text, it hinders reading. We should offer books that the child knows, from a glance, he will understand. If he trips up on a word, the illustration will be there for support. So let the first books be picture books with clear captions. Remember: it’s important to associate reading with pleasure.
2. Look for books with large print. Anything that lessens physical stress, and eye strain in particular, helps further understanding. Text in large print is easier to take in.
3. A child often happily reads books that were read aloud to him two or three years earlier—that is, books meant for younger children. There’s no need to resist this impulse. By opening a familiar book, a child is sure to understand what he’s reading. He can focus on the technical side, the details of the text, since he is already fully immersed in the narrative. So hold on to children’s books for this phase.
4. On the other hand there are children that push away “old” books. They’re no longer interested in these. A book absolutely must excite interest. Even if there are only three sentences of text, a child should enjoy the happiness of discovery and feel a bit smarter after reading. So it’s important to seek out books that, in your opinion, speak to the interests of your beginning reader in particular, whether those interests are dinosaurs, cars, or princesses.
5. There should be plenty of books for early reading. Not one or two, but a healthy stack, so there’s something to choose from. So a child can open one today and another tomorrow. So she can build an impressive list of what she’s already read. That’s important too—supporting a child’s feeling of success on her path to mastering a difficult skill.
6. And lastly—reading together. There are books you read to your child, those he reads himself, and those you read together: he gets the title, you get a page, three sentences for him, the rest of the story for you. It’s an approach that all reading parents know, and one you shouldn’t let go of too soon.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
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