Reading, Thinking

Growing A Reader



Our daughter is almost 2 and a half years old. I never read to her when I was pregnant (sorry research, but that just seemed weird) but we did start reading to her  from a pretty early age – maybe 4 months old? We have a stuffed bookshelves of books, a book box by her bed and another in the window of the living room, more in a drawer beside our bed, and others stacked around in piles. In addition to books, her dad likes to bring her catalogs for farm equipment, lego toys, toy tractors…and so these are part of her library too.

Recently I have been noticing more about her behaviour as a reader. 

In “The Bear Snores On” we now pause at the page (below) where the bear wakes up and sneezes so that Lizzy can point out that “The bear has ABCDBCBCBDBCD’s coming out of his mouth! That’s funny!”


When we read one of the Usborne books from a boxed set, we have to start with her point to each piece of text on the cover and asking “What is this?” (The answers being: The people who printed the book, the name of the book, the person who wrote the book, the person who drew the pictures). The book is turned over and we talk about the writing on the back too.  Inside the book, she’ll point to the words and I’ll tell her that they are the words that make up the story. When we’ve gone over this, the story can begin.


And after looking at a “First Words” book, I asked her to tell me what all the pictures on the front cover were and to my surprise, she could name them all. Likewise, she will often ask for books to be re-read multiple times (“Read it again! Read it again!) and will now laugh in the funny parts and respond more to what is actually happening in the story.

All this got me thinking.

We have been reading some of the same books for 2 years now so it is not surprising that she knows the stories by now.  What I am surprised by – or maybe more curious about – is how her behaviours as a reader are changing. She will ask for a book to be read to her as soon as she wakes up. She will pack a book in her little backpack if we’re going out for the day. She definitely goes to sleep pretty easily if we first read books to her.And she has started pointing to the words (albeit randomly) while I am reading. So, do we have a reader? And, why should we care?

So I watched some TV…

Bill Clinton was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and he talked about the “Too Small To Fail” initiative of the Clinton Foundation, designed to support parents and children in closing the 30 million word gap.  Essentially children of higher socio-economic parents who have the time and the resources to read to their children will have enabled their child to hear 30 million more words than his or her lower socio-economic peers.

More on the 30 million word gap from Rice University.

And more on the Language Gap from Stanford University.


And then I bought a book…


Raising Kids Who Read – What Parents and Teachers Can Do by Daniel T. Willingham. (Here is a great NPR Q&A with the author).

This book poses some really great questions and focuses your attention on three components of reading:

  1. Decoding
  2. Comprehension
  3. Motivation

There is a lot of ‘chicken or the egg’ type thinking going on as you examine these three points. I would argue that our daughter is motivated to read, and is beginning to comprehend what she is reading, but is unable to decode. In schools, we often start with a desire for students to decode words and then they are ‘readers’. We then drill them on comprehension and by the time they are 11 or 12 (or maybe earlier, sadly) we are focused on how to motivate them to read in the first place.

Willingham talks about comprehension being born out of experience. He gives an example of a sentence in which it is mentioned that surprisingly, the sails of the boat were made of kevlar. A student may be able to decode ‘kevlar’ and comprehend that if something is ‘surprising’ it is atypical, but unless they have come across kevlar in a previous experience, they are unlikely to make the connection as to why this is surprising.

So, how do kids gain this experience? By reading, sure, but by speaking and listening and experiencing. And by talking. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, Catherine Snow – one of the world’s leading experts on language and literacy has conducted research which shows that talking with children leads to a larger vocabulary, and that leveraging this broader vocabulary through further discussion and storytelling leads to improved literacy outcomes.

Bari Walsh wrote a great article, How To Raise A Voracious Reader. Consider the implications from this extract of his article:

A large body of research — much of which arises from the pioneering literacy work of HGSE Professor Catherine Snow — has shown that rare or sophisticated words are the building blocks of a robust vocabulary in children. And it turns out that rare words — those that don’t appear on an age-defined list of 3,000 common words — show up more often at the dinner table than they do in the picture books we read to our children, says Fishel, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

A 2006 paper by Snow and Diane Beals found that children between the ages of three and five heard about 140 rare words when caregivers read aloud to them from picture books. At the dinner table, they heard about a thousand rare words. “That was the real jackpot,” Fishel says. “Kids who have bigger vocabularies learn to read more easily and earlier, because they can decipher the meaning of more words when they’re reading.”

And it’s not just listening to words – it’s using them to explain, remember, and tell stories. Research shows that “kids who know how to tell stories are better readers,” says Fishel, whose recent book on the topic is Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. “The dinner table is a place where we encourage our kids to tell us stories. When you ask your children open-ended, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, or when you ask them to reminisce with you, you’re helping them build their narrative skills.”


Kids who know how to tell stories are better readers.

Consider the implications of this in your classroom. How much time is dedicated to story telling? How often are children given the opportunity to talk? What are your kids doing when they are eating their lunch and how could you support language development and the building of robust vocabulary during this time?

The Family Dinner Project offers some practical tips for parents who want to use dinner time to build these skills with their children. This is great place to start if you have questions about why and how the FDP works.

The solution to ‘Growing A Reader’ is not in buying flashcards or comprehension workbooks. The solution is spending more time talking with your children. Sharing your stories. Encouraging them to share theirs. Talking and listening. And having experiences that promote talking and open the door to conversations.

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