Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Four
Reading to Baby
More Than a Bedtime Story
Every early and successful reader has a history of being read to. In addition to holding
“conversations” with their most important partner, listening while that partner reads to
them is essential if a little partner is to become a reading success.
What could possibly stimulate a small partner’s curiosity, and satisfy a baby’s nearly insatiable
need to learn, than listening to a bedtime story read by someone baby knows and trusts?
Of course, a small child will not yet understand the plot and twists of a story, or for that matter understand the words. Baby may not even be very attentive at first. Still as baby listens to your voice and your expression, baby’s brain will be actively gathering information and building knowledge about language, book language. While listening to and learning about book language, a baby’s brain is actively preparing for the day when he or she will be reading on his or her own.
Unfamiliar Words?
School-aged children who have not been read to are often at a loss when asked to read words that they are not at all familiar with, or try to tackle the more formal sentence structures found in books. More often than not, they simple can’t relate to book language —and just prefer to skip words and even sentences, or for that matter skip the whole difficult business of learning to read. 
For these reasons, as children begin to read, it is important that they are already familiar with written language. A child should not have to face the complexities of written language for the first time, upon being handed their first reading book in first-grade. This is not fair.
Written Language: New Lessons for Baby
By reading to your infant you will be familiarizing baby with the structure, the rhythm and tone of written language. Spoken language simply does not get you there.
Even a very young child will begin to pick up on the differences and the similarities between spoken and written language as he or she listens to mom or dad read a favorite story. Since early exposure to written language is so essential in preparing a child to read, introduce baby to stories and books at the earliest possible moment.
The day of birth? Yes.
In anticipation of that day, tuck a favorite poem or nursery rhyme into your pocket to be retrieved as a welcoming gift soon after your first meeting. From that moment on, plan on reading to your infant for short periods of time every day, especially at bedtime.
Early exposure to written language, right from birth, is essential. Right from birth, there is so much that a child has to learn about language (it’s not an easy subject) before beginning to read. There simply isn’t any time to waste.
Right from the beginning a child needs to learn that while there are many similarities, there are also significant differences between written language and oral language. Without this knowledge a child who experiences written language for the first time in first-grade is at a clear disadvantage. 
In contrast, an early and successful little reader will already know or take for granted that:
  • Written language is more formal. Communicating in writing requires more words as well as complete sentences.
  • Written language uses less slang and fewer informal phrases than are commonly used in oral communication.
  • Written language requires a more extensive vocabulary than spoken language.
  • Written language uses words in especially creative ways in order to describe events and communicate ideas to the reader.
The Up and Downside of Oral Language
When you read to a child, the written word introduces a child to more a formal language, something that is useful as he or she grows and pursues an education. Why? Because book language is more extensive and demanding than the vocabulary we use when we speak.
 For instance, oral language is far less demanding than written language. When speaking we often use partial sentences, short phrases, a limited vocabulary and even slang to communicate our message. We can add gestures and tone and even volume to get our message across. It is all so natural – so easy.  Essentially, it lets us all off the hook.
Because you are responsible for your child’s language development, try to keep the commands, the slang, or sloppy sentences to a minimum.  When speaking to a little partner, try to use as many complete sentences as possible, particularly when you are explaining or describing events, places and things.
If all a child hears is one or two word commands such as “eat!” “Sit up!” or “No,” it will be very difficult for that child to know or understand all those extra words in a sentence when he or she is learning to read.
Unfortunately, in many households these commands are all too common. I have worked with many school-aged children who don’t even listen to all of the words in a sentence because they don’t think they are important. Hence, they have a very limited vocabulary and they are very poor readers. As parents and senior partners we all need to check ourselves from time to time.
Why Written Language is Important
Because we can’t use gestures and oral tones and expressions in our writing, written language depends upon using more words to precisely communicate ideas and meaning.
For instance, I definitely would not be using all these words to explain to you how to teach your child to read -- if you and I were having a real-time discussion. Much of our discussion would be in the form of dialog with questions and answers. We would use fewer words and more tone, expression and even gestures to communicate with each other.
A child who has not been read to, who has not become familiar with the written language and its rules, and who has only had experience with oral language is at a decided disadvantage when learning to read.
A Bigger, Better Vocabulary
Written language also relies to a greater extent upon an enriched vocabulary. Often words we see in print are not ordinarily used in our everyday conversations. Even in children’s stories.
In the book, Babar, when the king died, it was a great “calamity.” In the story, the news about the king’s death was reported by the oldest elephant in a “quavering” voice. We normally do not use the words “calamity” or “quavering” in our conversations with young children. For children, this is language or vocabulary enrichment, it is learning new words and discovering new meanings, all while listening to a story.
What’s more, in writing, ordinary words are often used or combined in different and creative ways. This creativity is important in order to convey meaning in the absence of gestures and verbal expression. Fortunately, authors of children’s books are incredibly creative in their use of language. Of course, we could be this creative with words when we are talking to a child, but chances are great we won’t.
Time to Think Creatively
The use of metaphors and comparisons in writing are great examples of creative language and they are particularly appealing to little partners whose imaginations are as rich and entertaining as any author’s.
Look for a wonderful example of a metaphor in the children’s book, Stellaluna, where the baby bat’s wings are described as “limp and useless as wet paper.” In everybody’s all-time favorite, Charlotte’s Web, the web “glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil.”
How much nicer and more effective it is to learn about language through Babar, Owen, Stellaluna and Charlotte’s Web, rather than from the neighborhood kids yelling down the street. Language learned through listening to stories will soon prove to be much more useful to a little partner as opposed to hearing neighborhood banter.
Keep it Interesting
Reading to your child should not be a chore, but rather a time to share and bond. Admittedly, however, it is often difficult to keep an infant’s interest.
In order to keep a little partner interested and listening, you can try the following techniques:
  • Read with expression.
  • Keep reading time short.
  • Read often.
  • Slide your finger under the words as you read.
Keep in mind that baby really does want to listen; baby is just new at it.
So try reading with expression, modeling your very best reading skills. From your first reading session with your little partner tucked in your arms, work at refining your reading skills by practicing what your junior high teacher suggested (admonished!). Read slowly and read with expression.
Go ahead, don’t be afraid to take on the role of the characters in the story – you have an appreciative, and nonjudgmental, audience now. As you work at improving your pacing, your phrasing and expression, your reading sessions will take on new meaning for both of you.
By using expression you can make all your reading sessions pleasurable events, filled with baaing sheep and a tooting Little Toot. Before long, your little reading partner will associate reading time with the happiest and brightest moments of each day.
Keep Reading Time Short
But don’t overdo it. Time spent reading that is, not expressing. A child who is read to even a few minutes a day will have a decided advantage over a less fortunate child. That doesn’t mean that reading endlessly to your child will make him or her a superior reader. Too much of a good thing is still too much.
Reading time needs to be relaxed and enjoyable, whether we are listening to others read or reading by ourselves. Keep reading time short enough to be pleasurable. If time and story happen to run on? Be assured baby will not complain. Baby will simply fall asleep.
What about Finger Pointing?
The best senior reading partner is also an active reading partner. While reading baby’s favorite stories use your finger to point to the words as you read. And you don’t need to feel self-conscious about pointing to the words.
True, an infant may not pay much attention, but eventually your activity will direct an emerging little reader to the idea that there is a connection between the printed words on the page and the story. So by the time your child is ready to read on his or her own, there will be a natural association between printed words and meaning.
Early readers who have not had this idea brought to their attention often seem to assume that stories simply flow from the reader’s head or even from illustrations on the page. To them it is all pretend. To them printed words are meaningless squiggles and all the action springs from the illustrations and stories made up somewhere else.
So begin pointing to the words right from the beginning. Establish a good habit that will help both partners avoid a problem in the end.
It is an old-fashioned idea that children who point to words as they read will lack confidence and not be able to read fluently and become slow and plodding readers.  In fact, pointing often helps an emerging reader focus on unfamiliar words. As young readers gain confidence in their ability to read, they will soon abandon this practice.
After all, most readers want to hurry to get to the end of a story to see how it turns out. They don’t want to be delayed by pointing to each word. Furthermore, reading partners need not fear a lack of confidence. The joy and love they share while reading together will carry the little emerging reader along the reading journey just fine – and besides, who exhibits more confidence than an early reader?
Some Classic Book and Stories to Read with Expression
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  • The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
  • The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
  • Little Toot by Hardie Gramatky