By Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor
I simply knew that I wanted to raise a reader. I just didn’t know how. I had a vague plan but no road map. One of my university friends gave my then newborn A.A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and I felt rather validated. Clearly I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree – other people thought that I ought to be raising a reader too.
However, reading Winnie-the-Pooh to a newborn wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. At that point in time, I wasn’t used to reading aloud. Reading aloud all those words on such a text-sense page was – I suddenly realised – wasn’t something that I was game for in that time of fourth trimester exhaustion.
That Familiar Beast: Mum Guilt
Naturally, I felt guilty. Not reading to my newborn was yet another thing to add to my long list of failures – as I saw them then. Now, I really must add that with hindsight I can fully appreciate that I was doing a brilliant job. It’s just that the cultural and social landscape of 2011 was quite different. My friends were singing ABCs to their week-old infants rather than lullabies, breastfeeding was meant to be done but not seen, bottles were trendy but not to be used and women who had Caesarian sections were ‘too posh to push’. Feeling guilty came as second nature. Of course, I want to reach back in time and give that 25 year old a hug but as I can’t do that, I’m writing to you now: my readers.
First thing: never feel guilty about reading or the lack therof. I know that’s an imperative and I’m not even pretending to mitigate it. But, stay with me on this – reading and guilt are two words that need to not belong in the same sentence together, when it comes to you and when it comes to the young people in your life.
You know that saying – a bad workman always blames his tools? Sometimes the tools are the problem. They might not need to be blamed but they do need to be replaced.
A A Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh is not for your child unless you feel like reading Winnie-The-Pooh out loud.
Reading, as a mother
I didn’t. I love Winnie-the-Pooh but I didn’t really feel like reading stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood. And so, I took to reading the stories that I wanted to read out loud. At that time, I wanted to read about women who felt as bewildered by motherhood as me hence I read a genre of fiction known as ‘Mumlit’. The plots were fairly predictable, there was a plethora of stitches and sore nipples and usually, a nice brown-eyed, brown-haired man at the end with whom to have a happily-ever-after.
It’s not quite the reading material that you think of when you think of reading and children but that was my reality.
As it happens, I wasn’t too far off the mark. You might not want to read Mumlit to your baby but reading books that you would read to older kids (one that you want to read rather than one you feel like you ought to read) actually helps very young babies grow used to nearing longer sentences and this helps them to focus and concentrate when they are older. It also helps them to pick up on the natural rhythms, patterns and cadences of language.
Tiny Books For Tiny Hands
Eventually,I fumbled my way into a bookshop. It had been a dispiriting day. Exclusive breastfeeding wasn’t working out. I’d read about a particular brand of bottles and I’d gone to town to pick them but they weren’t in stock. It wasn’t a good day. I needed to feel successful at something.
And there, next to ‘The Gruffalo’ (would you believe that I had no idea who Julia Donaldson was at this point of time? No, I can’t either!) were a host of these little books.
They were literally little. They were sturdy. Some of them were squeaky. They were books made for tiny hands, with a diverse menu of different textures on each page. Some pages were soft and fluffy, others were smooth as a mirror, others were rubbery, they were little flaps to lift and little attachments to pull…
Filled with bright pictures and simple words, these books encouraged conversation between me and my newborn. I would find myself saying things like ‘Oh who do you think is behind that door?” or ‘ What colour are those shoes?’. Simple things but conversations nevertheless.
It wasn’t until he was older – about six months or so – that he took an interest in the books themselves.
Reading to children can play an important role in their language development. Parents and primary caregivers are often encouraged to read to children from a very young age but we are frequently not told what to do. Dialogic reading is different to traditional reading aloud because while traditional reading aloud asks the child to listen and be passively entertained.
How does dialogic reading work at this age?
The interactive nature of dialogic reading means that parents and caregivers engage their listeners with the text at a deeper level. Dialogic reading encourages higher quality interactions between children and the adults involved in their care. This encourages language development. Contingent talk – where adults talk about what the child is doing or what the characters in the book are doing – questioning, narration and so on and so forth ensure that adults and caregivers engage with children through affirmation in a caring environment.
Dialogic reading – with reference to very young children – also introduces them to the social world of conversational turn-taking. Studies have shown that children who had grown up in environments where they have experienced a higher level of coversational turn-taking had an increased verbal language test score in later years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and talking about tests. I need you to stop thinking about tests now – even though I brought it up.
Here’s another thing: dialogic reading (leading to conversational turn-taking) has been shown to lead to greater brain activity in the ‘Broca’ area of the brain – the part of the brain where language is processed.
It is a process
It is a process but it is a process which starts fairly early. Happily, it’s also easy to access. You don’t need very many books to begin and you don’t even need very many books to continue. A simple collection of well-chosen books will help you on your journey to raising a reader.
How do you choose?
Well, you simply choose the books that allow you to talk.
Indeed, simple is the operative word. Simple words, simple pictures coupled with lots of opportunities for attention-grabbing activity and lots of interaction.
Here are my favourites for this age group:
1. Usborne’s Touchy Feely Books
2. Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
3. Brown Bear Brown Bear by Eric Carle
4. Where’s Spot by Eric Hill
5. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
We still have the Winnie-the-Pooh book. My son reads it, on and off, whenever the fancy takes him. He’s now 10.
I also have one wish. I hope that one day in the not too-distant future, we can also find representative books for our very youngest readers just as easily as we find all the classics above. It’s happening, but it’s slow. While I have referenced books in English here – as this is what I know – please remember that this applies to all language. Furthermore, whilst I’ve referred to mothers and fathers here, trans, non-binary parents are equally as part of this dialogue as well as anyone who considers themselves to be a caregiver to young children in their life.
Don’t rush reading. It is about the journey, not the destination.
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