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Books and Reading

By Harald Breiding-Buss

It’s no secret that literacy skills in New Zealand leave a lot to be desired, and all the while they are becoming ever-more important in the workplace.

At home, too, it doesn’t hurt if you understand what you sign.

Literacy skills go hand-in-hand with language development in children, and as such the foundations for success are laid very early. Critical brain connections for language learning are made even before baby utters its first word.

Essential language milestones that specialists look out for when assessing early language development in a child include such seemingly benign things as blowing raspberries or whether or not baby strings ‘ba’ and ‘da’ together to ‘badadaba’ at the appropriate age.

Language learning requires one-on-one time. For a newborn it involves staring at your lips while they are moving; for a six-months old it might be imitating sounds you make, and for a one-year old it’s getting a reaction from a parent from an uttered word that ‘locks it in’.

In short: it’s interactive.

Stories come in a bit later. They fill several purposes: they are good for a child’s attention span, which is the single most important factor in learning success overall.

They also convey a message, and it is important for parents to make sure they understand what that message really is, and whether they think it’s a good one. And finally, yes, they assist language development by extending vocabulary.

Books help in various ways. One rather important one is simply to have books accessible to your child, even as they may go through phases where they are not really interested in them.

Research has shown that merely having books in the house greatly increases literacy skills, and this is the reason for some programmes that promote nothing else but having children’s books in the house, and never mind the content.

Baby’s first contact with books is usually just to want to touch them and put them in the mouth. That’s fine! Of course, that’s not what books are for, but in the process of all this baby learns to turn pages and becomes aware that each page has a different picture.

For children under one year old there is no point in using books that have drawings or symbols. To associate the drawing of a teddy with the real thing requires a certain level of abstract thinking that is simply not there yet.

In order to help baby recognise and name things the images have to be photographic, and the best book is in fact one you can make yourself: Glue photos of items that baby sees everyday (including yourself, pets, siblings and other people) onto a bit of cardboard, stuff the cardboard into zip-lock freezer bags, bind some of those together and bingo!

Baby will be able to name the items in there in no time at all.

Right through to the age of three books that simply contain images or drawings for the child to name are excellent. Puzzle books with mazes or search pictures will also go down a treat.

If your child loses attention quickly, make sure you extend the time spent on books just a little each day, without making it a chore, but keep at it.

Sometime during their third year children will start to appreciate stories, and many parents sign them up for the library as that gives an endless supply of children’s story books. However, you should still own some books because repetition is the key word for learning.

Children themselves ask for the same book to be read to them over and over again, even if they’ve long learnt to recite it back to you and you’ve grown rather tired of the story. Indulge them. Apparently it takes about 90 coatings of a connection between brain cells to make it permanent, one coating per instance.

So if you’ve read the story ten times to her, keep going: only 80 more times to go…

This is, of course, an exaggeration, but this aspect of brain development is the reason for children wanting to do the same things again and again, and that can be the most taxing part of ‘playing’ with your child, especially for a father.

Stories don’t just come from books.

In fact, it is hard to find children’s books that have nice father-child themes not involving predatory animals such as tigers or bears and their sons.

Just make up a story yourself and tell one of those at bedtime. You’ll find you get better at it the more you make up, and you have more control over what values you actually want to teach your child. To hold their attention your own stories will have more impact than any you can get from a book.

Of course, if your imagination is a little lacking you can cheat by memorising a story you’ve read (or the gist of it), and tell it back without the book.

Fathers have been criticised recently for not reading enough to their children.

However, reading is not as important as exploring books and stories with children. Depending on age this may be around pictures or words.

For literacy it is most important that children see their fathers being genuinely interested in books or other written material. Children who struggle with literacy will not persist if they don’t believe it is important.

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