My 18-year-old daughter, V has been volunteering at a Tibetan school for the past few weeks, teaching the children creative writing. The first couple of days she really struggled with engaging their attention and then in a moment of desperation she decided to give up ‘teaching’ and read them a story instead.
The story was about a monkey who has lost his family and his tribe, and his subsequent adventures, ending with him making a new tribe for himself. The next day, she began the lesson by asking the children what they had felt about the story and the most uninterested, distracted boy chimed that he had felt as though he was listening to his own story. For the first time, my daughter experienced the beauty of interconnectedness and an empathetic silence where before she had felt like an alien and completely disrespected. The class then moved seamlessly onto the animal behaviour, drawing scenes from the story and writing about their own experiences with monkeys.
Since that day, V has come to be known as the fun teacher who tells stories and through these stories, she has been teaching them grammar and vocabulary and creative writing and, most importantly, she has become ‘one of them’. So one read-aloud turned into three lessons in one, not including the takeaway for V.
It’s interesting to me as a homeschooling parent that almost instinctively, my daughter is using the same tools that I did while teaching her and my son, D. All the lessons, whether Maths or Science or Geography or Handwork, I would begin with a related story. And even more interesting is that all the stories she reads out to them are her favourite stories from childhood.
We have read to our children from the time they were born. We would seat them or lay them on our laps, or as they grew big, we would snuggle close to one another and open a book with great anticipation. Sometimes the anticipation was one of visiting a familiar friend, sometimes the breathless excitement of a new journey and other times the safe and well-understood rhythm of a beloved family member. As babies, they would prefer re-reading the same book over and over. As toddlers, both of them had a favourite book each; V’s was ‘Octavio Octopus’ and D’s was ‘The Little Troll’. Collectively, I must have read these books about a thousand times. And this is just me; other family members also remember the horror of a determined toddler marching forward, armed with a familiar book as large as them and a steely look in their eyes.
These repeated readings of the same book meant that they were developing long-term memory, followed by reading skills before they even knew the alphabet. When I tried making it easier on myself by paraphrasing a long boring sentence, my two-year-old son would quickly point out that “On Saturday The Very Hungry Caterpillar ate one piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and one slice of watermelon and not a ‘lot of food’” that I was trying to sell. I have never formally taught them to read, it’s something that they figured out for themselves. First whole words, by memorising the shapes and then the individual letters that made up the word. Each of them had their own process and their own arc of acquiring reading skills. And neither of them have ever learnt the alphabet by rote.
I have often heard parents having a tough time getting their kids to settle down for the night. Taking no undue credit for my parenting skills, my children never resisted bedtime. Post dinner, we would snuggle into bed with a book or two and read. Often I would fall asleep and they would still be trying to finish the book on their own and slowly drifting off to sleep. I still read to them, though not a lot, and we visit old faithfuls from their childhood, because the books that they read now are big and thick with no pictures in them and meant only for reading alone and not reading aloud.
But as recently as a couple of weeks ago, my teenage children and their cousin ganged up on their grandmother and insisted she read them ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’, at the end of which my 18 year old had fallen asleep on her Ama’s lap.
Parenting is literally the hardest job in the world and I urge parents to make it easy on themselves by reading to their kids. Books at mealtimes, books at bedtime, a story before beginning homework, all these will calm your children into settling into the task at hand, diffusing what would otherwise turn into a battle of egos.
Every time I’m asked by someone looking wonderingly around my book-infested home, on how to get their kids to read, I quote the author of one of our favourite books, ‘Floramel and Esteban’, Emilie Buchwald – “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”
As published in Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz as a part of their Read-aloud Festival.