"You may have tangible wealth untold; caskets of jewels and coffers of gold,
But richer than I you could never be; for I had a mother who read to me."
So what were the commonalities I found in studying the environment of “natural readers”?
Common Characteristics of Natural Readers:
1. Interaction with adults—these kids were with adults a lot—and definitely not around peers more than adults. They had adults on hand to discuss things with, to answer their questions, and to provide examples of proper speech patterns, etc.
2. Much book handling by the child—these children were surrounded with books that they were permitted to interact with. They were often found at very young ages with stacks of books around them, just looking at the pictures, making stories in their minds from the pictures, etc.
3. Print abounds and interest in print is evident by itself—not only did the homes of natural readers contain books themselves, but they also contained all type of print. The parents of these children read magazines, journals, newspapers, etc. I think the “interest in print” part probably began with something like a parent saying, “Honey, look at this whale they found beached on the coast of Florida,” as he or she brought the little one up on to her lap to see the picture that was provided with the article in today’s newspaper, etc. This type of activity causes a child to become interested in print.
4. Tapes and books are used—nowadays, of course, this would say “cd’s and books are used”; however, this is the reason why I began using book and tape sets a few times a week for my preschoolers and elementary children—and why we have used audios (talking books, radio dramas, etc.) every week of our lives since our oldest was one year old. “Tapes” and books show our children the benefits and “fun” that reading provides.
5. Memorization takes place—these natural readers often followed a certain pattern—they memorized a picture book (usually many), then through the memorization, they began making print-sound-word connections. That is, when they turned the page and recited, “If you give a mouse a cookie,” they began to understand that i-f says if and y-o-u says you. Natural readers were experts at memorizing large portions of text.
6. Interest in writing words and “language experience” activities—many years ago, there was a movement in education to replace phonics instruction with “language experience” activities (also called a “whole language approach”). Phonics proponents everywhere were up in arms at the thought of “activities” of writing what the child said (dictation) for him, making little homemade books, etc. taking the place of phonics instruction. While I am a strong phonics proponent, I believe that these “language experiences” and “whole language” activities augment the reading instruction greatly. And, of course, the natural readers in the research were exposed to these types of activities early and often. These kids were the ones who dictated thank-you notes to Mom to go to grandparents and colored a picture to send along with it; they were the ones who had a chalk board in the kitchen in which Mom or Dad wrote the day of the week each morning; they were those who “said” stories aloud and parents copied it in little “journal” books for the child. And on and on. Why wouldn’t these types of experiences and activities increase a child’s relationship with print and love for learning?
7. Experiences related to literacy and books—these obviously include the types of activities listed in number six, but these kids knew from birth that books and reading were important. They were the ones in a double stroller at the library lawn sale as toddlers—child in front seat with back seat full of picture books. They were the ones who had their own “book basket” in the corner of the nursery almost from birth. In other words, they were immersed in literacy and books from an early age.
8. Self-regulated behavior and risk taking—This characteristic related to how they “organize” their little lives. These kids would pull all of the Curious George books off the shelf and stack them up to look at after lunch. They often had little learning systems in place at ages four and five. And they were not afraid to be wrong. This, of course, stems from not being talked down to or made fun of when they did ask questions. These kids were risk takers because taking risks in learning (“Mommy, is this word (dapper) ‘Daddy’?”) yielded information that helped them in their quest to learn. The questions did not yield put downs or “you should already know this.”
9. Read to often—Obviously, a link has to be made from the squiggles on the page to the sounds that those squiggles make in order for a young child to teach himself to read. Thus, a child must be read to (or follow along with books and tapes) in order to learn to read without formal instruction. Now, this is not to say that a child who is read to will automatically learn to read early and on his own. I read aloud to our first three kids three to five hours everyday for years and years—and not one of the three was a natural, or early, reader! But it certainly created a love for print and learning in my children!
Tomorrow—how does this reading environment teach informally what could take years of instruction to learn?