Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading with a Baby

Before going further you should know that I consider my reading expertise to kick in around, say, four years old. So this post is based on some stuff I've been reading and how I've seen it play out with my own actual baby. A research group of one. So take it or leave it.
I think there is no special formula for reading with your baby. Except DO NOT BUY THAT INSANE BABY FLASHCARD READING PROGRAM. Unless you hope to raise an automaton who is incapable of actually thinking. Just saying. Just look at books together and talk about them. Read the books (meaning read the words of the books rather than just talking about what's in the pictures) when you can, and when your baby wants to skip ahead or go back, you can do that, too. If you don't finish the book, it's OK. If your baby wants you to read a book for the hundredth time and you happen to hate that book, skipping a few pages will not do any damage. If your baby wants to get up and walk around her room and you are in the middle of your bedtime book, keep reading it. It's OK if she's not right there next to you. When she is right there next to you, invite her to participate. She can turn the pages or fill in a missing word that you strategically leave out. I guess I'm saying, do what feels right. For both of you. You don't want reading to feel like a chore.

Now, in a teeny nutshell, here's some interesting research that's helping me refine how I think about reading. This research has to do with language learning, but I am thinking about it in terms of literacy learning and it makes sense. So check this out:
OK, we have attentional following and attentional redirection.
Imagine you're out pushing your stroller and you hear your baby make a noise. You peek over the stroller and see your baby looking to the side, where a tree is growing. You say, "Ooh, what's that? That's a tree. Look at all those leaves! They're just turning orange, but some are still green. That's a big tree." This is attentional following. You are noticing what your baby is already attending to and providing a lot of language to go with that. Research shows that babies acquire language most effectively when it surrounds things that they are already paying attention to.
Now, imagine the same scenario. Except when you peek around the stroller to chat with your baby, you say, "Hello, sweetie! Yes, we're going to the store. We're going to get some crackers!" This is attentional redirection. You are providing language, but the context is all mixed up. Your baby has a tree on his mind, and you're talking about things that have nothing to do with trees. It is harder for babies to acquire language this way.
So what does this have to do with reading?
Let me illustrate with school-age reading first. Many adults have a tendency to guide children toward their own particular interpretation of a book. Meaning, we see a right way and a wrong way of understanding what's going on in a book. If we think children are misunderstanding a book, we might redirect them to our own way of thinking. There are a couple of problems with this. First, it doesn't leave a lot of room for debate or discussion about the meaning of the book. Debate and discussion about meanings of books is what sort of defines the adult reading experience, so these things are important to develop young. Second, and related, is that when we tell children how to interpret what they read, we are not teaching them how to interpret what they read. We need to let them approximate (this means basically that we need to let them try, make mistakes, think about their mistakes, and try again. Approximation is another one of those conditions of learning I mentioned in my post of March 2, 2009). More on talking to kids about books later. For now, back to babies.
When I read with my son, he often wants to read the single most annoying book in his collection, despite my efforts to hide it under his giant dog pillow. My usual habit of redirection means I try to make him choose another book. I'm guessing the research is telling me to follow his attention and read the book I don't like. Then, when I do, he doesn't always follow along the way the book goes. Or at least he doesn't always put his attention on the things I think are most important. So we'll be looking at a page of his book, and way over in the corner a zoo employee is feeding fish to a seal. Huck says, "fish." I want to direct him back to the actual narrative and say, "Look here, sweetie, the animal wants to stay in the zoo with all the other animals. Here's a lion, and these guys are combing his hair. This animal wants his hair combed, too." But this would be attentional redirection. So now I try to say, "Oh, look! The seal is eating fish. They are feeding fish to that seal there. We saw that one time at the zoo." Then I might continue to read the actual text in the book. I'm still getting used to this. I think I already see a difference, but so do people who take sugar pills in experiments, right? I mean, maybe I just see a difference because I think I should?
Anyway, I think I'm seeing Huck become more engaged with his books, looking more carefully at the pictures and talking more about what he sees. I believe this is because I am following his attention more, talking to him about the things he wants to focus on, rather than the things I am focused on. I guess I'm giving him a little more ownership over his reading experience, and that can't be bad.

No comments:

Post a Comment