[Week 33 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Not all reading is equal
Reading together was a central part of life when my children were growing up. This was enhanced by us teaching them at home. We were able to easily make reading a priority. As such, I have examined how to read with them, how to engage them in reading, and what to read to them quite a bit. Based on this experience, I would like to offer you some ideas on how to read relationally with your child.
I will talk a lot about reading fiction, but most of the ideas can readily be applied to non-fiction as well. I will start with this:
Not all reading is equal.
To be more specific, not all reading material is equally good, plus not all conclusions are equally valid. Just reading does not ensure good information or experience or wisdom.
How to choose a good book
A good reading experience with your children begins with a good book. A book might be classified as “good” for various reasons. It might be fun or funny. It might be well written. It might inspire. A book is not necessarily good because you were required to read it in institutional school or government educators have deemed it a classic.
When I began to evaluate some of these so-called classic books, such as those by Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, I saw that many of them were dark and hopeless. I began to be suspicious that government book lists were designed to keep students in a state of despair and easily manipulated to accept government programs. So, I decided to only ask my children to read one such book just before they graduated, to prepare them for the sorts of things college classes would require. .
Until then, the search was on for other books. We found books that were both more fun and less accepting of government propaganda. There were still plenty of things to learn as we read, but it wasn’t boring or like pulling teeth type of learning.
It is generally recommended to read a book out loud that is just above a child’s current self-reading level. This introduces them to new vocabulary and stimulates interest in different books. However, since our children covered a 13 year age span, we varied the exact level of the book, including hilarity such as the Freddy the Pig series (with voices as well as I could) and adventure with The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson (which expanded my vocabulary and reading skills!)
Variations on the art of reading together
There were several variations of reading together that happened in our family.
- reading an ongoing story out loud in the evenings when their dad was home
- reading a variety of books together every lunch time (I ate lunch after reading time was over)
- one child reading out loud to me while I did chores
- me reading to one child
- one child reading to another child
- listening to audiobooks together
When it was family reading time, I was usually the one to read because I liked to read and as a result probably read with more meaning. During lunch time readings, I usually recorded the book as they listened so that not only could their dad listen later (during his commute to work), but the stories were listened to over and over across the years.
Natural integration of maps and timelines
When everyone is more connected to the story, the adventure is more mutually relatable. Being able to locate settings on a map makes a story immeasurably more relatable. We have had a world map on our kitchen table for years. By this I mean it was secured there under clear, adhesive shelf paper. There is no replacement for having a map this handy all the time. It is better than on the wall because not only was it right in front of us as we gathered around the table to read, but everyone had equal viewing.
Many times a story involves getting from one place to another, notable examples being Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne and Capt. Joshua Slocum: The Life and Voyages of America’s Best Known Sailor, by Victor Slocum. In these cases the children often drew their own maps, usually using Uncle Josh’s Map Outlines to get them started. One of my grown children recently expanded on this theme by creating a card table size map jigsaw puzzle following the adventures of Amelia Peabody on her fictional exploits in 19th century Egypt. She submitted her hand drawn photo to Up in Pieces.
A timeline is another extremely useful and enjoyable reference. We chose to purchase timeline books that each child could fill in. They color coded them some, which made it more fun to write in and easier to read. It was always fascinating to see how different events lined up.
We preferred to see things linked to specific years in a linear and overlapping fashion, rather than just listed on pages for time periods, similar to these pages. If you just want a reference, there are pre-made history timelines available. Our favorite is The Wall Chart of World History, but I don’t see any new ones published past 1999. Even with that, it covers the bulk of history.
Interacting with the story
Asking questions during a reading needs to be done thoughtfully. On one hand you don’t want to constantly break up the flow of the narrative. On the other hand, there can be some key points to address in order to capture the sense of the dilemma.
Sitting still and absolutely quiet is not necessary to listen attentively to a story. First of all, as the reader, I felt it was my job to make the story interesting to listen to. If they were the reader, I needed to interact with them in ways that made the story more enjoyable. I tried to read long enough to get lost in the story, but not so long that children were getting fidgety.
Secondly, being able to move often helps a child listen better. Keeping quiet enough so that everyone could hear easily, they often engaged in drawing, building with legos, or just wiggling in comfortable ways. The result of their movements, as well as any creative products usually showed that they were listening.
It can be useful to keep a notepad for quick notes and page numbers to go back to. When our children were on the older side, they often had their own cheap paperback copies to follow along in. They could underline words to look up or mark passages to comment on. This would help with after reading research that would help shed light on the story and time period. If the story was one that an individual child was particularly studying, sometimes I asked them to write questions about the book.
One key thing is to identify both the author’s and the main characters’ world views and biases. What were their motives, options, and did they have integrity? We also talked about how the story might influence people, including themselves. It is always good to be aware of how we internalize the conflict and resolutions we are reading about.
Fiction versus non-fiction
Our lunch time routine included a poem that we were memorizing (fun poems like Custard the Cowardly Dragon, by Ogden Nash). The memorization process was interactive and over several days, depending on how long the poem was. Then we usually read a very few pages of a non-story informational book, such as Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell or Mathematics: Is God Silent? by James Nickel or Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.
The main story could be fictional or biographical or historical fiction. The main criteria were that the story had to be engaging, the main characters needed to be worth reading about, and there had to be some sort of positive attitude in the conclusion of the story. We always kept in mind how an author could affect our perception of a story. In a fictional story the author can manipulate people and outcomes. In non-fiction the author can present in ways that bias our conclusions, not even intentionally.
Reading together both stimulates discussion and very likely results in discussion that is stimulating. Stories will bring up everything from emotion to the need to evaluate reality. In contrast, institutional school models tend to drain the life out of even good stories. Rarely does an author write with the hope that the story will be used to answer dry questions and create tests that cause children stress. Books should be more like a good meal enjoyed together. You might have a little discussion the ingredients and how it was made, but mostly you want to taste it and share in the enjoyment. That is how food and stories are digested. That is how relationships are built.