The malls are all decked with holiday décor, and whether we're ready or not, "toy season" is here. As you might expect, books are one of my favorite gift choices, but I also think its fun to sneak in something that doesn't look like it is related to reading.
Did you know the ABCs of learning to read doesn't begin with letters? It's true. Much of what we as adults tend to dismiss as "just playing" is really the brain's way of organizing and putting together the building blocks that kids later use for learning to read. There is a lot of science (link to Reading Online article, ©2000, International Reading Association) to support the idea that playing is a very effective way for kids to build lots of skills, reading being one of them. Trevor Cairney has additional links and some tips for encouraging simple play at Families, Literacy and Learning, too.
This week, I thought I would pull together some ideas for ways to give the gift of reading that don't require batteries, computers, flashcards, or workbooks.
Encourage your Artist in Residence - Every toddler and preschooler I've ever met loves to play with crayons, markers, chalk, and paint. Giving kids the tools to create their masterpieces ultimately feeds into their reading. First, they can tell you fantastic, often very elaborate stories about those abstract versions of castles and dinosaurs, flowers and houses. Second, it also gives them practice in recognizing and drawing shapes. What does that have to do with reading?
Well, let's look at the letter b. It has two shapes: a line and a circle. The process of turning those early squiggles into straight lines and misshaped lumps into a circle is a precursor to being able to put the two objects together to create that "b." Before you know it those waves that mean "I love you. You're the best Mom in the world" will transform themselves into letters and lots more love notes that don't require translation!
Promote your Little Detective - Just as kids need to recognize the parts that comprise a letter, they also need to know what makes them different. When they're building a puzzle, they are looking for those types of clues ... one of the stepping stones of reading. That same stick and circle not only make a "b," but they are used for a "d" and a "p" as well. Putting together picture puzzles gives kids practice in finding shapes that fit together and pick them out from those that don't. It also lets them practice separating the "trees from the forest" and what makes sense (or doesn't). Does the tree branch really connect to the top of the sheep's head? Look for puzzles with pieces that range from 2 to 4 inches, are easy for a young child to manipulate, connect with "buttons and holes," and have just a few elements to the picture. Not the ones with 60+ pieces, varied shapes, and subtle distinctions (like 15 striped hot air balloons).
Add a Little Exercise - Studies (link to February 2008 Education Week article, PDF) show that there is a direct correlation between vigorous physical activity and learning. One of the best things to happen to my second grader this year is that she has PE before having to settle into math (a subject she struggles with). She concentrates better, she comprehends more, and she is more confident in her ability to learn. When kids get that heart pumping and use their "big muscles" - be it with jump ropes, jungle gyms, trampolines, hopscotch, basketball, soccer, or just running around - they are preparing their minds to focus. If you're looking for something to go along with your exercise ideas, Susan Stephenson of The Book Chook created a downloadable book of skipping and clapping rhymes, songs, chants, and games from her Literacy on the Playground (pdf) series. Speaking of songs ...
Mix in some Music - You can find children's music in every genre. The sillier the better ... at least from their perspective! The lyrics in kids' songs let them hear language in new ways, whether it is a made-up word or just a really big one. The rhythm, rhyme, and repetition all help with vocabulary.
These are just a few of the ideas of ways to mix in some "literacy toys" this holiday. When it comes to kids, their imagination and energy, there is no limit to where they can - and want to go! We were all born with an insatiable appetite to discover and learn, and there are so many ways we can encourage that and still meet our goals of turning our little ones into successful readers. If you've got some ideas, please add them below. I know one elf who would appreciate the help!
child's drawing and girl swinging - (c) Terry Doherty
puzzle pieces - Microsoft ClipArt, modified
Just the other morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and visited my library. I was still in my pajamas. It was okay, the librarians didn't mind. In fact, they didn't even notice. Why? Because I was visiting the library from the comfort of my house.
Don't get me wrong, I L-O-V-E going to the library. Frankly, if I could live there, I would. There are times, though, when the library's hours don't work for my schedule. So I improvise. One of the great things about living in the 21st century is that we can go to the library whenever the mood strikes. It doesn't matter that the library itself isn't open, we can check on - or check out - all of the wonderful offerings that live there. Many (if not most) library systems have at least a Web site with an online catalog of their holdings.
As an example, in my local library - Jefferson-Madison Regional Library - I can search for talking books (aka audio books, books on tape, books on CD), videos, musical recordings, scripts for plays, and of course, books. I can find them by subject, author, and title; and in a HUGE leap from the card catalog I grew up with, I can find them by just about any keyword, too.
Aside from the "cool" factor of searching the stacks with coffee in hand, what makes visiting the library after hours so great is the opportunity it creates for parents and readers alike. Here are some ways that those early morning or late night visits can help you.
Reserve books you want to read. Let's say a friend recommended a "must read" book to share with your kids during a recent play date. Odds are you aren't the only person who is going to want that book. Head to the online catalog and place a "hold" to reserve it. You may need to wait a day or two until it is pulled, but having the book waiting for you can save a lot of time on one of those days when your schedule is more than a little pinched.
Create a cheat sheet of the books you want. One of the great things about visiting the library is looking through the stacks. Sometimes, though, fate intervenes and there isn't a lot of time for browsing. On the days your toddler is overdue for a nap or your first grader is ready to melt down, it helps to have a ready-made list (with call number) of the books you plan to read. If your child is fixated on trucks, then having that list of picture books about trucks - with an X next to the ones you've already read - can save a lot of time and frustration!
Check on book availability. Forewarned is forearmed. It helps to know BEFORE you get to the library whether the book on [pick a subject or author name] that your child desperately wants to read is available. One of the most important tools in the parenting toolbox is "redirection." If you know ahead of time that the book your child is looking for isn't available, you may be able to offer alternatives and avoid a conflict. Many library websites have a page for new arrivals. You may be able to entice your young reader to be the first person in your library to read a particular book.
Maximize your read aloud time. Libraries are filled with a lot more than paper versions of books. Within the various collections - including children's books - you can find audio versions that complement the traditional editions. For example, in my library I found Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower by Peggy Parish as both a hardcover and a book on tape. My daughter and I can listen together, and while she follows along with the book, I can stir the spaghetti!
Get a few book ideas. Holiday shopping has begun, and books make great gifts. Let's say you heard about a book that sounds like it might be great for your nephew. Yes, the publisher's blurb can help you; but your nephew is particular about his fantasy (and his parents are particular about violence). So before you decide, why not borrow it from the library?
Do some in-depth research. With more than 10,000 libraries listed, Worldcat.org is the largest network of library content and services. Worldcat is also a portal for building research bibliographies and digital content like downloadable books. A simple search will tell you whether or not the book/CD/video/periodical/etc. you are interested in is at your local library or a neighboring one.
These are just a few of the ways that you can take advantage of all that the library has to offer and ensure that your visits go smoothly. A tool I discovered this summer is Library Elf. The Elf is a FREE service that can help you keep track of your library holds and due dates. You can register all of the library cards in your family to help you manage who has what checked out and avoid overdue fees. Having the Library Elf's assistance was particularly handy this summer when all of us were borrowing books on our own cards and more recently during this first round of Cybils reviews to let me know when holds were available.
Spending the day at the library, wandering in and out of the stacks, and talking with the librarians is my idea of a perfect day. Nothing can replace the fun of chatting with the librarians. They are the most helpful, insightful, excited readers I know. But at the times they aren't available - and you want to sneak in some of that library quiet at home - the online catalog can fill the gap.