Reading Literature With Children

Christmas is a great time to cuddle up with our kids and read their favorite Christmas story.  But, the joy of reading to your child can be a year-long affair, and doesn’t need to stop once your child knows how to read on their own. 

Besides helping your child develop reading skills, reading and discussing a book with your child is a perfect way to gain insight into his or her world view.  While you may not get a detailed account of what happened in school that day, you may very well get some quite thoughtful and unexpected comments while discussing books. 

Additionally, you will see your child’s thoughts in action.   By listening to their reasoning, you learn what skills your child has aquired and which need development.  It’s amazing sometimes that I think my son has been off in dreamland somewhere while we read together, then he comes up with some unique and dead-on comment about the story which renews my faith that all the work I do isn’t in vain.

At each stage of your child’s development of reading skills, you can focus on different kinds of  discussion.

First, while your child is learning to read, the focus is on sounding out words and on comrehension.  For instance, you might ask questions like:

“What did the elf say to the raindeer?”

“What color was Mrs. Claus’s apron?”

“How did Santa get all those toys on his sleigh?”

Once you are comfortable that your child is comprehending and understanding what they read, you can branch out a bit and begin to ask questions that require higher level thinking skills.

“What do you think is going to happen next?”  (prediction)

“Are there any other books that remind you of this book?” (comparison)

“What do you think happened to toy after Santa dropped it?” (inference, logic)

“What do you think about the way the head raindeer talked to all the other raindeer?” (analysis, opinion, inference)

“Which character do you like best?”  (analysis, prioritizing)

“Has anything like that ever happened to you?” (drawing inferences)

“What did the little elf and the little raindeer have in common?” (comparing)

Once your child has graduated to “young adult” literature, there’s no need to stop reading books together.  My son loves for me to read to him, and we always bring a book along on car trips.  But, if that doesn’t work for you, you and your child can read the same book separately, a la book-club style.  At this point, you can move beyond comprehension and processing skills  to discussing the literary value of the book–the writing techniques, the themes and symbols and metaphors.

My son and I read Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues and discussed at length the way Alexie used dream sequences to flesh out the characters.  We also did some background research on Native American culture and applied that to our understanding of the book.

Holes by Louis Sacher was the first book I read my son that had two story lines, one in the present and one in the past.  He was confused, so we talked about flashbacks, backstories, and the cues the writer used to signal a switch from one story line to another. 

We read Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes’ classic novel about a scientific experiment to make a simple man smart, and discussed the nature of intelligence.  The smarter the character became, the less likeable of a person he became.  That became a springboard for wide-ranging talks about the things that define us as individuals and the lengths to which people sometimes try to be what they are not.

My son likes the Sackett series of books by Louis L’Amour.  We talk about the historical accuracy of the books, hooking it back up with things we learn in history class.  Though the stories are adventurous and fun to read, they are a smidgen dated in their portrayal of females.  We lay bare the ingrained sexual stereotypes in these old books, and look around for other instances where the roles of men and women are stereotypical rather than real.

After reading The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, a stunning story of a young boy who comes under suspicion for the murder of a girl, we talked about the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” and the nature of truth and perception.  We also talked about literary references, like the use of a bit of a Yeats poem by Cormier:  “I must like down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”  That line still gives me shivers

Some of the best discussions I’ve ever had with my son have been over books, but we also tend to pick apart movies.  The Inside Man and The Fight Club (though both are violent and not for youngsters) were marvelous models for discussion of foreshadowing and suspense.  We’ve watched The Inside Man probably four or five times and each time catch a clue we missed every time before.  We had great fun untangeling all the plot strings and reverse engineering the story to learn how it was put together.

My son refused to go see the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, because he disapproved of Marvel Comics marketing the movie to young children.  He believed the movie wasn’t appropriate for younger kids, that it would scare them, and that the deliberate effort to attract these kids was offensive.  I think he’s forgiven me for going to see the move.  We talked about it–about the intensity of Heath Ledger’s performance–and about how commercialism affects our culture.

These examples give you some idea of the opportunities for great literary discussions with your child.  Watch for those flashes of insight into your child’s inner life, and have fun.

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