Reading is for All People, All Times and All Places
By: Bernice E. Cullinan
Excerpt From: Read to Me, Raising Kids Who Love to Read
Eighty-two percent of prison inmates are school drop-outs and 60 percent are illiterate. Barbara's job was to teach the women inmates of Cell Block 14 how to read. She had started out trying to conduct a basic adult literacy class, but nobody seemed interested. She tried to make the classes more relevant and practical by bringing in job application forms, resume outlines, and fashion magazines. Nobody cared. Finally, Barbara coaxed it out of one woman that she would like to learn to read in order to read stories to her young daughter.
Next day, Barbara brought in an armload of children's books to her prison classroom -- books with easy patterned language and vivid illustrations, books with nursery rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, and simple poems, books with photographs of objects and a single word on a page. Suddenly, the women inmates, many of whom had children, were intrigued. The thought of learning to read for the sake of their kids overcame any embarrassment they may have felt and Barbara's class became popular and the students enthusiastic. Barbara started each class by reading aloud from one of the books and the women worked hard to have something new to read each time their children came to see them; they worked to stay one step ahead of the next visit. Reading aloud is one of the most useful secrets you'll ever find for being an effective parent: It soothes a sick child, calms a fearful one, and eases a fretful one into sleep.
Tommy, the son of one of my friends, had to have tubes put in his ears as the result of repeated ear infections. Fear of the unknown made Tommy especially tense and uncooperative. After reading a story several times about Coco Bear who had tubes put in his ears, Tommy faced the simple procedure bravely. Dorothy Butler, a bookstore owner in New Zealand, tells about her grandchild, Cushla, who was a multihandicapped, chronically ill baby. Even though doctors said Cushla would have problems in school, her parents read books aloud to her while away long hours in hospitals and doctors' offices. Despite her severe problems, at age six and a half Cushla was reading alone at a level far above her actual age. Her parents had made books and language a vital part of her life, and Cushla had fooled the doctors and learned to read, despite dire predictions that she would not.
Books can help you as a parent in many family situations. When a new baby is coming along, books that deal with that situation head-on help a child express deep innner fears of being replaced or unloved when the newcomer arrives. Books can ease concerns about losing a tooth, having an operation, serving as a flower girl in a wedding, or facing parents' divorce. A child can learn how a character in a book deals with peer pressures. There is a backward and forward flow between books and what happens in real life. Children use real-life experiences to help them understand books and books help them to understand real life.
We never know exactly what is going to appeal to a child so don't be too selective in choosing books. If your child loves toy trucks, try to find books about trucks. If he is interested in the stars, find some books on astronomy or sky watching. If she wants to be an astronaut, get her books about astronauts and space travel.
Telling stories to children is important, too. After all, it is the stories in books that make them so appealing to a child. We have an instant audience when we say, "Let me tell you about when I was a little girl." My son once said, "Mommy, tell me about the olden days when they had covered wagons and pioneers when you were a little girl." The time frame may have been a little off, but I appreciated his interst. Stories about the good old days give children a sense of their family heritage. Do you remember some of the stories your parents or relatives told you? Isn't it fun to hear the one about how Aunt Emily nibbled like a mouse to eat chunks of icing off the pineapple upside-down cake while the rest of the family was out in the barn milking the cows? Do you remember stories that you loved hearing as a child? Tell them to your children. You can edit out parts they might not understand -- or parts you don't want them to understand! I told many stories about my little sister in which I took liberties to add to her misbehavior; Aunt Doty stories were the ones my children asked for repeatedly. The stories you tell become part of your child's storehouse of experience; they keep the past alive so that the memories can be passed down from generation to generation.
Whatever your background, your reading level, or your occupation, there are books for you and your children. If you speak Italian, read to them in Italian. If you speak Spanish, read to them in Spanish. Books representing different cultures reinforce a child's heritage and help build self-esteem. But no matter what the language, we must read to our children.