“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” – Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen is an author, so it’s no surprise that the quote above clearly speaks to her passionate feelings about the place of books in our lives. The truth is that books can be a very important part of a child’s life, helping them grow, learn, and explore. But, the more we hear about children’s literacy, the less likely it seems that our children will read anything other than what is assigned in school. How do we get our children to grow into lifelong readers?In her new book, Raising Passionate Readers: Five Easy Steps to Success in School and Life, Nancy Newman outlines her plan to help children learn to love reading. Surprisingly, her plan doesn’t start with the ABCs in kindergarten, but much sooner. Actually it begins right at birth:
1. Talk, talk, talk to your infant, toddler or school-age child. Newman encourages you to use words all the time with your child, even if he can’t speak himself. Encourage questions, give detailed answers, tell him about what you are doing and why you are doing it (“I’m buying four apples because later we are going to make apple pie. One, two, three, four. Did you know that not a lot of words rhyme with apple, but that nothing rhymes with orange? Can you think of anything that rhymes with apple? How about Snapple or grapple?). Giving your child a rich vocabulary from birth, is essential for later reading experiences.
2. Encourage free play and fiercely protect free time. Children use their brain the most when they are engaged in free play. Try not to over-schedule your kids – leave a few afternoons a week empty so that your child can play at home. When he gets into the groove of creating his own fun on his own time, his imagination will soar. And, with that imagination, comes problem-solving skills and gumption. As much as weather permits, you should also encourage outdoor play and physical hobbies. These activities strengthen body and mind.
3. Read to your child and expand how, when and what you read aloud. Allow reading to be something enjoyable and fun. Read to your child and let him see you reading. Create opportunities for cuddle time and discussion around the book. When your child gains pleasure from reading, he will be more likely to associate reading with enjoyment in the future.
4. Support and motivate your new reader and give extra support to your struggling reader. It’s a great idea to set aside a space in your home that is a “reading nest” – a cozy chair or couch that is a quiet space for reading and discussion. Even when your child successfully reads on his own, continue reading to him and have him read aloud to you so that you can give feedback.
5. Use – don’t abuse – technology and balance your child’s diet of fun. Don’t let technology take over your house; keep it out of your child’s bedroom. Make sure that your child has time to rest and dream – this is essential for reading growth. Think about your own use of technology and be a role model who reads for pleasure.
Hebrew Reading and Confidence
Nancy Newman has pointed out that with reading, we need to make sure that the focus is on pleasure. Reading should be fun and nurturing. Children tire easily when tasked with work that has become rote and monotonous. Recall the long-suffering expression on your child’s face, the sagging shoulders and half-closed eyes that signify profound exhaustion when he is faced with rows of spelling words to copy or information to memorize.
Kriah teachers continually search for ways to combat tedium and monotony in reading practice. Most of us have found that when we make learning to read enjoyable and stimulating, children approach the subject eagerly.
In essence, we “lure” our young students into doing the necessary brainwork by loading the lesson with incentive and pleasure. Through stories, games, song and skits, charts audiovisual aids, blackboard activities, posters and charts, we engage their hearts and minds.
Nowhere is this “campaign to engage” more important than in the teaching of nekudos – one of the early milestones of kriah instruction that pose difficulty for many children.
Unlike English vowels that “say their own names,” a Hebrew vowel comes with a name and a sound that bear no obvious correlation to each other. How does patach correspond with ah? What does segol have to do with eh? To a child’s mind, there is no apparent rhyme or reason here.
In addition, Hebrew nekudos largely consist of identical-looking dots. Children are asked to master these confusing arrangements of dots, learn both their names and sound, and remember to use only the sound, not the name, when learning to read.
In addition, to the trained ear, uh, ah, eh and ih may be easy to distinguish, but to many five-year-olds, these nekudos sound hopelessly alike. Is it any wonder that it takes some children many weeks, if not months, to master the differences between kamatz, patach, segol and shevah?
Vowel-fluency is so vital for reading success that kriah experts advise against “turning the page” and moving on until every single child has attained complete mastery. Most kriah teachers rise to the challenge with an assortment of popular strategies.
- In some classrooms, each nekudah-name-and-sound is introduced with a dramatic story and follow-up activities that imprint the relevant information in the children’s minds.
- Some kriah teachers find it especially effective to create tactile-kinesthetic activities in which the children shape osiyos and nekudos out of clay, trace them in sand, or use “sky-writing” to reinforce their skills.
- A popular idea is to use “nekudah-sticks” shaped like large lollipops, that feature a nekudah on one side, and a picture corresponding to the nekudah’s initial sound on the flip side. Games and activities requiring the manipulation of these “nekudah-sticks” reinforce “name-and-sound” identification.
- As a variation of this idea, “nekudos men” are drawn with faces that correspond (approximately) to the nekudah’s sound. Children listen to stories in which the respective vowel sounds are enunciated again and again within the story’s context.
Make It Safe To Be Wrong
In my kriah workshops, I urge teachers to create a confidence-building environment where a child feels safe enough to risk making mistakes. Eliminate the dread of failure by creating abundant opportunities for surefire success. The wonderful thing about academic success is its built-in power to generate the confidence to tackle ever more daunting challenges, leading to even greater success.
What kind of motivation induces children to make headway in a subject that demands more mental energy and concentration than they may be ready to give?
Variations of some all-time children’s favorites such as treasure hunts, musical chairs and bingo prompt children to harness the full range of their cognitive abilities. All of these activities can be adapted to incorporate reading drill within the context of the game. Even better, all have the key advantage of allowing multiple winners!
Parents and teachers can work together to help students read in both English and Hebrew. Through books, let’s get those kids going on the imaginary adventures Robert Louis Stevenson describes on the sea, land, and air!