Teaching a child to read is usually taken to mean teaching the child to recognize letters, form letters into syllables, read separate short words, and finally, tackle short, simple sentences. If a child has learned to do this, we say he’s learned to read. While it’s absolutely a victory, it’s an incomplete one: we expect that a child that’s learned to read (especially one that reads aloud rather well) will take up books right away. But that is far from guaranteed. Sometimes there is a significant gap between the mastery of beginning reading skills and the transition to books. Let’s figure out why that is.
The reason for the gap is that, from the very beginning, we teach the child to read aloud—vision is supported by voice, and the child has a listener (otherwise, it would be impossible). That is to say, when she starts out, a child’s reading is addressed more to the listener than to herself. The listener supports the reader with his attention and corrects both the reading and understanding of the text.
A child reads books independently in an entirely different way: it’s reading “with the eyes,” without vocalization, and exclusively for oneself. It’s a direct dialogue with the book’s author, without an intermediary. It’s an individual activity, its central experience hidden from others. It represents an entirely different set of actions, which require the child to have additional skills.
Is there any way we can help a child transition from the ABC book to storybooks? To transition from reading aloud for learning to reading with the eyes?
I think there is. Whenever I speak of reading, however, I always put out a disclaimer: these aren’t foolproof recipes, but rather a series of possible steps that may need to be adjusted to fit the particular situation and abilities of each individual child.
Sometimes, it’s enough for a parent to just be patient and wait a bit: if a child that’s learned to read hasn’t picked up any books, it may be that he isn’t yet ready for this new form of communication. It doesn’t matter that the neighbor’s child started reading when he was three. Everyone develops at different rates, and different skills and needs develop differently too. Children also acquire different forms of communication at different rates. It could well be that your child is quite happy engaging with a book through an intermediary, with an adult reading aloud to him. When he is read to, a child is certain to feel positive parental attention and he can share his emotional responses with the adult. When he is a bit older and gains more independence, he may start to read on his own. It’s very important to continue reading aloud to a child, since books should be present in the child’s life regardless of his personal progress.
Strange as it may seem, an ABC book can delay the transition to reading with the eyes. It’s intended exclusively for the learning process and is perceived as a set of exercises. These exercises are completed (read) aloud. A child will unconsciously associate the alphabet book with this series of activities.
This isn’t to say that we should do away with the ABCs. But as soon as you notice that your child looks at the words and moves his lips, or just looks without saying anything—that is, trying to read the page to himself—this is time to support his efforts. Once again, we have to specifically support a child’s desire to read with the eyes, the desire to read not for you, but to himself, not when an adult asks him to, but out of his own interest. As soon as these “signs” manifest, you should offer the child books (besides, or aside from, the ABC book) to read.
Where do you find books a newly beginning reader can take on? Finding such books used to be an issue. Today, there is a range of special sets, such as Barbro Lindgren’s Sam Published in English by HarperCollins. series. These thin books are written at the same level as ABC books. But they are fundamentally different from “teaching material,” something foisted upon children by adults. They are complete, fun, interesting stories, in spite of their minimal word count. A child can leaf through them and choose on his own which to dive into.
As adults, we can support these choices with pleasant surprise. Woah! You’re already reading books on your own!
There‘s often a touch of adult suspicion, however. Say, how do we know for sure that she’s actually reading? Maybe she’s just looking at the pictures. That may be. But I think it’s quite clear when someone’s reading. A little reader will often move his lips, even whisper. It’s just the same with play. At first, playtime is marked by loud noises and lots of speaking. But from a certain moment, the child starts to speak in a whisper, then plays without words altogether. In psychology this is known as “inner speech.” It’s usually between ages four and five that speech starts sounding not just on the outside but also on the “inside.” Inner speech is not a literal reflection of outer speech, but it is an important instrument of thought. Same goes for reading. It is only with “inner” reading that what we read is possible to fully feel and process. Reading aloud makes it difficult to experience the text, as your own voice is in the way. As I’ve said, a voice requires a listener. Reading aloud is a way to communicate text to another, who can then think through and experience it. It is a separate art only indirectly related to the ability to read “with the eyes.”
You shouldn’t worry if your child reads books with little text. What’s most important is that he reads books and reads them himself. Reading shouldn’t be too tiring. What’s tiring doesn’t bring much joy. How then will she learn to love this activity? So in dealing with a little reader we should follow a rule established for physical exercises: activities should remain enjoyable.
A child develops most comfortably as a reader with picture books, which is not quite the same as an illustrated book. A picture book has more pictures than words and the text is tied to those pictures. It’s the pictures that are “responsible” for the content. It’s impossible to read a picture book and not understand what it’s about. The child then feels that he and the author are engaged in a dialogue as equals. This is a vital condition, if we are to consider reading a conversational situation.
Not every book is a good fit to jumpstart reading. It must have large font, with plenty of “breathing room” between the lines. It’s best if the text is printed on a white background. All this is to say that the text should be convenient to read, rather than a decorative element within the book.
Naturally, the child should be interested. The plot should be attractive—specifically for her, not an adult. When an adult chooses a book to read aloud to a child, it’s important that the adult also like the book, that he also find it interesting. However, when a child chooses books for independent reading, we can dispense with the adult’s interests. The child can decide for herself whether the book is interesting by looking at the cover, leafing through the pages. She’ll know right away whether she wants to read the book or not.
A child must have the right to choose books to read—even at the earliest stages of reading skills development. After all, it’s the right to communication. Even if she chooses something that seems too “easy” to you, it’s still the child’s personal choice. It’s up to you to present different options, and the right of the child to choose from all these options something of her “own,” that answers to her interests and needs. A child’s transition from reading aloud to reading with the eyes is an incredibly important step in her development, and also one in the development of her inner world, her separateness from others, even her parents.
This increased autonomy is reminiscent of a child’s experience when she first learns to walk. With a sense of new freedom, she can move through her inner world.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover picture: askfoxy.net
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