At the Fairfax County Education Summit earlier this month, Dr. Ronald Ferguson from Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative shared “18 Research-Inspired Tips for High Achievement Parenting.” You can find Dr. Ferguson’s list here. As a mom who reads three books to her kid every single night, I was particularly interested in numbers 6 and 7:
6. Discuss reading materials with children in ways that encourage them to enjoy learning.
7. During bedtime reading, ask both easy (build confidence) and more difficult (but not stressful) questions about the story (the more difficult questions help with comprehension). Do it lovingly.
Over the six years of Bug’s life, I have been reading him increasingly complex books. However, I have not adjusted my approach to reading. The model is pretty straightforward. Whether it was Goodnight Moon or Harry Potter, I recited the words on the page and he listened. Bedtime reading has been our chance to bond and ease into sleep, not to practice comprehension.
Since Bug started school and I began working full time over two years ago, our opportunities for exploring books together during the day have dwindled to nothing. These three bedtime stories are often our only chance to read together. This means that some days, they are our only chance to settle into a shared act of intentional learning. Dr. Ferguson’s suggestion to discuss and ask questions piqued my interest.
Since the summit, I have tried a new approach to bedtime. While I read, I slow down and ask questions. “How do you think she feels?” and “Why do the prairie dogs bark at each other?” and “Which of those guys has the toughest job?” I weave a light thread of inquiry through the stories. Bug loves it. He comes up with all sorts of speculations and novel perspectives. His goofy explanations are often designed just to get a laugh. Even just two weeks of talking through the stories has revealed numerous layers of meaning inside the stories (and the mind of my child).
It is sometimes hard to slow myself down long enough to explore a book in this manner. We arrive home after dark. Once dinner, homework, and bath are done, we are both drooping. I could let myself off the hook, what with that unfinished pile of laundry waiting. I have persisted, though, taking a deep breath and letting myself be with my boy in the open place of a story. “Hmm. Why did it turn out like that?” I ask. Or “Uh, oh! What do you think will happen next?” Bug pays much closer attention now. He looks into the drawings, asks me questions, and sometimes turns back pages to think through the possible causes of a scenario.
In reading this way, we bond more completely than we do in the parallel universes of reader and listener. As we make meaning from the book together, we are crafting our own shared experience. We exist within but also separate from the words on the page. In this new mode, time seems to slow down and stretch wide open. I become lost inside the narrative much the way I do when I am reading my own much more complex grown-up books. It is a wonder to see my own son developing not just a love of the written word but a fascination with story. All that richness, all that mystery, is right there inside our relationship with each other as we read together. It won’t be long before Bug can open a book and find his own way into that magical place.