Watch Patricia Polacco’s picture book My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother expertly read aloud in this video. Use it as a role model for reading to your own children.
I’ve always loved Patricia Polacco’s books. Her illustrations are a perfect complement to the stories she writes, and both the stories and pictures tell us a lot about the author herself. In the video you see one of her favorite themes, that of the love that binds families together. You also get an example of how to read aloud with expression. Watch the video, but don’t let it be a substitute for reading aloud to your children yourself.
New research shows how important explaining things to mom is in a child’s education. Problem solutions explained to mom help young children retain what they have learned and be able to transfer that learning to new situations. Having to explain helps develop critical thinking skills.
I’ve written a lot about the need to read aloud to young children often and in past posts we’ve given a lot of hints on how to to that, especially in When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up. I haven’t said as much about the other technique we used to see how much the children understood. That method was to ask the children to explain something to us or to put something they had read into their own words.
Now in the article referenced above, a study suggests that explaining something to Mom (and I think the same would be true of Dad) is the best way to fix the problem solving method a child uses in his brain so that the information will transfer to a different situation. The study used four and five-year-old children and gave them some classification problems to solve. Some were instructed to just solve the problems and repeat the solutions. Others were asked to solve the problems and explain to themselves how they did it (while recording), and the third group was asked to explain to their moms how they solved the problems. (The article will give you several pages of details on this experiment and the data generated.)
The results showed that those who explained the solution to themselves or their moms did much better at retaining the information than those that just repeated the solution. But those who explained to their moms did better than the other two groups at transferring what they had learned to solving different problems.
Explaining a solution forces a child to think critically about his method. Explaining to a parent is even more helpful. I would imagine that this would also extend to explaining to a teacher or tutor, but it illustrated once again how important verbal interaction with significant adults is in student learning. It’s not just important to get an answer correct, but also to know the process of getting that correct answer. Remembering that process is much easier if the student has explained it to an adult.
If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.
It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.
I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language. He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.
However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.
What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.
We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.
Let’s take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.
As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:
What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
Do they want to help her do any of the jobs?
Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?
These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.
Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.
When you read aloud to your child, you can make it more entertaining for all of you if you use these hints to ham it up.
Ham it Up When You Read to Your Children
When I was teaching English and elementary grades, I had many opportunities to hear students practicing for oral interpretation events in upcoming speech competitions. I listened to “Binker” by A.A. Milne, “The Black Cat” by Edgar A. Poe, and many other dramatic readings of stories and poems more times than I can count. All of the
students did their best to bring their readings to life.
Do you do the same when you read to your children? Do you just read the story? Or do you “ham it up” by changing your voice as you become each character? Can your child tell by just your voice whether you are a frightened little pig or the Big Bad Wolf? Can you be a convincing troll as the billy goats try to cross the bridge?
When you narrate a book without much conversation, do you pay attention to the punctuation? Do you read faster or slower, emphasize words, and adjust the volume of your voice to create a mood? In a book like Who is the Beast? by Keith Baker (you will find this book among those at the end of the link), can you put some fear into the lines “The beast, the beast! I must turn back. I see his stripes, yellow and black.” Can you put a sense of puzzlement into the lines “Who is the beast? Who can it be? I see no beast. I just see me.” as the tiger wonders whom everyone is afraid of?
Making the Most of Sounds, Repetition, and Refrains
Some books beg you to read them aloud, and as you play with the words and chants, the child will want to join in. In Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (reviewed near top of post linked to), your children will easily pick up the refrain of “Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats.” The Gingerbread Man, The Three Little Kittens, The House that Jack Built, Love You Forever, Green Eggs and Ham, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, and probably hundreds of other picture books feature these repetitive lines. Ham them up!
The Dr. Seuss books, Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner, Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler by Esphyr Slobodkina, the Steven Kellogg version of Chicken Little, and more poems than I have room to mention all lend themselves to playing with words and sounds. Children love sounds, so make the most of alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and rhyming words — with some funny faces when appropriate — and you will delight your children and probably have some fun yourself. Allow yourself a second childhood when reading and ditch your inhibitions.
If you practice these hints, not only will you be showing your child how to read with expression, you will also have a wonderful time. You may even discover you have a flair for drama buried inside. Let it out! Ham it up! And do it often!
Most books referred to above can be found at your local library. You can read the reviews of many of them and see the cover art on Books to Remember