Sunday, February 25, 2007

The great book mystery

Books were a mystery to our son for nearly the first year and a half of his life. As a dutiful, academic parents, our house was filled with children's books. Some were gifts, others I'd purchased. I'd even subscribed to BabyBug at nearly $4 an issue. I loved BabyBug. Tommy's only opinion seemed to be that it didn't taste very good.

When we sat down to read, Tommy had about a 3 second attention span. I could sometimes increase it to several minutes by letting him turn the pages and chew on the corners. But the moment I opened up a book to read, he was squirming off my lap. I even resorted to reading "librarian style", holding up the book from the chair while he played, oblivious, on the floor.

For a while, between about 8 and 12 months of age, I mostly gave up reading books to him. I felt like a terrible mother. I was failing in my duty to raise a literate child. The importance of reading to your child is infused into every parenting book, magazine and conversation about child raising. Parents bring their infants to story hour, their babies to the library, read books every night before bedtime. And here was I, academic mother, studying child language development not reading to my son. But really, what's the point when he just didn't care?

I consoled myself for a while with the rationalization that it's not jut the number of children's books in the home that matters, but the number of books for parents and the parental involvement in literacy. How can we expect children to embrace books if the only books in the house are children's books? Who wants to do something that's only for kids? When the adults in the house read, that's when it's appealing to children. And Lord knows, we were constantly engaged in activities involving literacy – reading e-mail, reading books, reading student papers, reading the newspaper, answering e-mail, writing on the computer, reading e-mail. We were modeling reading and writing for most of Tommy's waking hours.

And yet, books remained an enigma to him. As he became more communicative, and I observed him more, it became clear that he just didn't "get" the illustrations in children's books. I'd point to an illustration of something I knew he knew the word for (dog, car), and he'd look at me with puzzlement. Or I'd say "oh, look at the sheep!" and he'd look at me like I had two heads. Admittedly, some of the illustrations in children's books are pretty far-fetched. A fuzzy blob representing a sheep, or is it a cloud? A dog standing on two legs eating with a spoon? Nope, that just didn't make sense to my literalist.

And then something in the back of my mind remembers a discussion while I was a post-doc, that children with certain disorders (Autism? Fragile X? Down Syndrome? I can't remember) perform better at vocabulary tests when presented with pictures of actual objects rather than illustrations. So, as an experiment, I got several books that had real pictures, My Very First Word Book and My First Truck Board Book.

Maybe it was his age (15-16 months). Maybe he'd developed enough vocabulary to care. Maybe it was the pictures. But suddenly, he "got" books. Not only did he understand the pictures, but he understood that the pictures in the book represented things in the real world. I remember reading the Truck Book one evening. When we came to the picture of the tractor, Tommy got off my lap, ran over to the toy bin, and picked up his toy tractor. He ran over to me and showed me the tractor, saying "tractor", then pointing to the picture in the book, "tractor". He was demonstrating, the best way a 16 month old could, that he got the similarity. "Look mom, they're the SAME thing." He was so excited about his discovery. He had discovered that pictures in books had meaning. And he had discovered that words can label many things – what's known as 'context-free' word learning. "Tractor" didn't just label his toy tractor, but all tractors.

From then on, books made sense. We read My First Truck Board Book so many times its binding fell apart. We still had to keep the stories short. We still had to let him direct the reading and page turning. To this day, he prefers non-fiction to fiction. But, I'm no longer a failure as a mother. My child reads books.

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