When my daughter was barely two-years-old, another mom commented on how advanced she was verbally. This mom wanted advice on how to help her young son, who wasn’t talking that much, improve his verbal skills. “Talk to him,” my husband and I replied. “About what?” she queried. “Everything.” We said. She seemed confused by this comment; as if “everything” was a vocabulary word she didn’t comprehend herself. I continued, “When you’re in the car, talk about signs. Talk about the Stop sign; what the letters are, what color it is, what shape it is, anything you can think of. Go grocery shopping and point out the fruits and vegetables, their colors and shapes. Have him hold them and feel their texture. Talk about whether they’re smooth, rough, or prickly.”
Now, this advice we gave is pretty simple, right? How hard can it be to talk to a baby? But the thing is I don’t think our society is used to doing that, at least not in a productive way. How often do we put the baby in the high chair or bouncy seat or swing and not engage them in conversation, even in one-sided dialogues? I have to admit that the whole idea of talking to my babies about everything was daunting at first. I’m the kind of driver whose mind is busy planning the day’s activities, or I’m daydreaming about getting more sleep, and when it comes to being a passenger, well the scenery looks lovely! Nope, I would rather write, or read, than talk. Lucky for me (and our kids) my husband likes to talk – a lot – so they’ve been exposed from infancy to his non-stop monologues about everything from the weather, to license plates, to the song on the radio, to the flock of migrating geese overhead. Perhaps it’s his penchant for chatting people up that makes my husband a great baby-talker, but he’s got it right. An article in the Sep/Oct 2009 issue of Pediatrics for Parents states that, “the best way to help your child learn to speak it to simply talk with them.” Yay, Daddy!
So, what do I do to contribute to my children’s language development? I read to them. After all, reading out loud is an awful lot like talking, right? Only with a plot! Even before I had kids, I read up on the importance of reading to children. I found The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease helpful, as well as MemFox’s Reading Magic. Even when they, in turn, reached 15 months and would push the picture books away, I persisted. I read constantly and consistently, every night before bed, in the pediatrician’s waiting room, in the car, wherever we were and books were to be found, I read aloud.
While all this reading was going on, I knew someday my efforts would pay off. However, I was not prepared when, at age four, my daughter (and first-born), picked up Green Eggs and Ham and started reading. I was stunned. I figured she must have memorized it from pre-school, so I had her flip through the book and read at random. She was able to do this with no problem. I had a legitimate reader on my hands. She entered kindergarten reading at a third-grade level.
I’m writing this on Saturday night, and this morning we attended an awards ceremony with the Central New York Branch of the National League of American Pen Women, who bestowed upon my child the First Place award certificate for her poem. She also received a $35 check. In tomorrow’s Sunday paper I will find her published poem. She tells me she aspires to be a writer and an artist. I think, “You’re already there.”
As for my son, he did not read at age four, and was not reading before entering kindergarten. In fact he grew frustrated that he couldn’t read and that someone (um, me) wouldn’t drop what they were doing and read to him right now! I gently told him that he would learn to read in kindergarten, and when he did, he would take off. As we approach the end of April, he is reading at the end-of-first-grade level. Oh, and he loves doing math problems on his own. You know addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Yes, in kindergarten. Today was his birthday and his favorite gift was an abacus. I think all that talking and reading has helped!
What do you think? Do you think you’re a writer today because your parents engaged you in frequent conversations as a child? Would you rather talk or write/read? As a writer, what do you do to help influence children to read and/or write?
I’d love to read your comments.