Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reading up

Last year I lied to my school district about my homeschooled kids' reading.

Pennsylvania law required homeschoolers to submit a portfolio of work to the district to verify that our kids are getting an "appropriate education." (Whatever that means - what if we disagree on what's appropriate?) After the school district representative reviews and approves the portfolio, she sends a letter to let us know we "passed." Last year was my first time doing this, and I was surprised that it wasn't simply a form letter - she included some comments about the work.

For the portfolio, I include all the books we've used, separating out books each child read on his/her own, and books I read aloud or we listened to. (I also separate fiction from nonfiction.) Apparently I wasn't clear about that because the letter approving my girl's third-grade portfolio commented on her reading list, including Oliver Twist. Now that girl does have a pretty good reading list, but she didn't read that one. I read it to her - and to my boy, and, of course to myself, which is a good thing because it had been many a year since I'd read that story.

Though I had a vaguely bad feeling of having misrepresented my kids' reading in their portfolios, it didn't take me long to get over it. It really doesn't matter that they didn't read Oliver themselves. They probably will, someday, possibly because I read it to them last year. So often people express surprise and wonder that I am still reading to my kids, who are perfectly fine readers now. Why? they want to know. They can read. Don't you have other things to do?

Sure, I have lots of other things to do. And yes, they can read on their own. They read a lot. But I like to read up to my kids - read to them above their own reading level. My kids could read Oliver Twist, or Robinson Crusoe, or Treasure Island - books that are on this year's list. But would it do them any good if I just handed the books off to them and said "go read?. Is it enough that they are capable of reading and comprehending most of the words in the book?

What about the many words that need explaining? What about the cultural context that they don't know yet, but that is essential to truly understanding the story? What about the boring parts, scary parts, parts that are difficult to follow?

So we read, and we stop to explain and talk: about workhouses in Victorian London, cannibalism, pickpockets, sailing ships (the boy explains a lot about sailing ships to me). They learn a lot of new words and how to use them. They broaden their knowledge in ways that they just couldn't on their own.

It's funny that no one questions reading to a prereader. Of course we must read to our little ones - they can't do it themselves. And it doesn't seem odd to stop and explain the meanings of words and phrases, or give context to help the child understand. But as soon as children can read - poof! - no more reading to them. They're on their own.

Some people say, well, they need to read hard books too, and look up the words themselves. Sure they do. Kids should be reading books that challenge them (so should I, for that matter), but if they are stopping on every page to look up a word, or can't understand what's going on because the language is a little dense, they are going to get the impression that hard books are, well, just too hard to bother with. And boring. How many times do we hear that the classics are boring? If the kid gets the book handed to him and told read this, it's a classic that everyone should read and the kid goes off to read and quickly gets lost, he is going to decide that the book is boring.

So readers need to be read to. They need to be read hard books. They will love having hard books read to them, and they will learn from them. Don't think of reading aloud as a thing for little kids, and a waste of time for Mom and Dad. It is a really good use of time; even better for those like me who are deficient in their classics-reading. I was an English major and I never had to read one single Dickens novel in college. (I had to read some horrid feminist lit that I won't be reading to my kids, but that's another story.) So we might read Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities soon. Or maybe not. But we'll be reading something, a book that they could, maybe, read themselves, but is better read by me.

What kinds of books do you read aloud to your kids?

1 comment:

A Beautiful Mind said...

I think it is wonderful that you still "read up" to your kids. I went to public school, but my mom and dad were always supplementing my education at home. My mom and I read together until I was 8 or so. Then we began reading the same book on our own and then coming together to discuss what we read. That lasted until I was 12 or so. Even now (I am 27) we try to read at least one book a year that is that same and discuss it. In short, BRAVO TO YOU!