Monday, May 4, 2015

Learning to Read

When my second daughter was learning to read, she had trouble. She knew her letters and their sounds and could put them together into words but became discouraged and tearful before she finished a line. Her glasses were fine. She wanted to read. I was puzzled.

I found out by accident, one day, what the difficulty was: she had a big sister who read like a fiend. She couldn't remember that sister learning to read and was under the mistaken notion that other people didn't have to decode, or remember what a word looked like and how to say it. All this time, she was feeling "dumb" because she couldn't pick up a book and just skip right along. When she found out that even her older sister had gotten "stuck" on words and had to learn to sound things out, it made all the difference.

I now talk to moms who have trouble reading. They never acquired the habit and, even though they think it is important to read, still struggle to comprehend. I think their problem is similar to my daughter's. They think that because they know "how to read" they should understand and enjoy it more. Like my daughter, they don't realize that effort in reading is self-rewarding.

Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre. Her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, was my favorite of dozens of books I read two years ago - so much so
that I reread it this winter. I took notes as I read and it was even better than the first time through. One night at my book club, I wondered aloud if these friends might enjoy reading a chapter of it for each meeting, along with the classic novel we read each time. We met this past week, and they were thrilled with the introduction (titled "Why Worry About Words") and are taking up the challenge to
become stewards of our language by choosing to speak and write more deliberately and carefully, inspired by the author's powerful use of words to convince us of their importance.

In person, her words were just as well chosen. One statement she made seemed simple on the surface, but its profundity captured my imagination: "We are all always learning to read." To me, this idea, as she would put it, bore the "ring of truth."If we are seriously venturing into literature, expanding our repertoire, discovering new authors and genres of books to open, we are learning. This is the reward of the true reader: the never-ending adventure, the ever-extending vistas of wonder and truth opening endlessly before us to explore, like a palace mysteriously disclosing ever further wings and rooms to find. . .

That same week, my 11-year-old son and I were comparing our individual piles of books. He had made the observation that he was reading "so many different books." This was true. He was reading just that morning, his Bible, a book on tornadoes, America Grows Up by Gerald Johnson, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, and, for fun, The  Cricket in Time Square by George Selden. He is being stretched. Only a year ago, he could barely creep through some very elementary reading and most of
his school books were being read to him. I reminded him of this and could tell he was pleased with his progress.

That progress started not just this past year, but ten years ago when he moved from board books to real picture books, then, in time to his first picture-less books. I vividly recall his distress during the
first chapters of Little House in the Big Woods; he was restless and complaining, telling me he couldn't understand a book with all words and no illustrations. By the time Ma slapped the bear, mistaking him for her wayward cow, he was all attention.

My pile reflects my own current interests and educational opportunities. It currently consists of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, which I am reading with my book club; Stilwell and the American Experience in China by Barbara Tuchman, inspired by my realization of my ignorance of that nation's history when my daughter's Chinese friend was here this Christmas; Dante's Divine Comedy, which I read in high school, but was so ignorant of history and mythology that I got lost in the inferno and never finished; The Lord's Service by Jeffrey Myers; and a collection of poems by Richard Wilbur, a new poet I'm getting acquainted with. I acquired this habit of reading a variety of books years ago when I saw how my children were thriving on that practice. To me, it is like eating a variety of foods and expanding my literary palate.

I hope these various reading experiences I have shared encourage you, wherever you are on the reading road. It's a very long road, with new possibilities all along the way, as well as many travelers to encounter. We all have books in common, and those who enjoy the journey the most do so because they love to know, and are always learning how to read something new.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, April 27, 2015

What's in a "Living Book," or, Why We Collect the Books that We Do

Over the past few weeks I've been helping a friend choose books for a comprehensive science curriculum she is writing, a science curriculum depending almost entirely on living books for elementary through middle school. She had been checking out books to preview during her Living Books Library visits and then scouring the internet and public library to find good living books for other topics. Finally, I suggested she just come and work in the library so she could find and preview the entire section all at once. After agreeing that that was indeed the best way to proceed her only complaint was, "There are just too many good books to choose from!"

Yes, she has found some good books in the public library, and others that are still in print, but the quantity of good, well-written, engaging and informative books available beyond those in our library's collection is just a small percentage of what is readily available. The books we collect and preserve, though most were written before 1970 (and are considered "out-of-date" by the school libraries that discarded them), are still the best options for all but the newest technological topics. Why is that?

The content hasn't greatly changed, that's why books written in the 1950s and 60s are still relevant for today's students, but the manner in which that content is presented has been completely overhauled. For an example of how this looks in science books, refer to this post. What is missing are the characteristics that make a book what we call "living."

Last month mom and I traveled to Charlotte, NC and led a two-day seminar on using living books as the basis of a curriculum. Of course, we needed to define our terms first and I came up with the following points to illustrate what we mean when we say a book is a "living book." Since acronyms are helpful, I'm using "L-I-V-I-N-G" to describe these six qualities.

When the language itself is worthy of notice, the words are so perfectly chosen, the mind takes hold and images are created—true literary power. Charlotte Mason said that a book without literary power was like having beautiful pictures painted that you could not see because your eyes were covered or being introduced to people who do not live and act in your thoughts—lack of literary power is crippling for our intellect because it lacks the “Beauty Sense.”
“We do not mean by a book any printed matter in a binding, but a work possessing certain literary qualities able to bring that sensible delight to the reader which belongs to a literary word fitly spoken. It is a sad fact that we are losing our joy in literary form. We are in such haste to be instructed by facts or titillated by theories, that we have no leisure to linger over the mere putting of a thought. But this is our error, for words are mighty both to delight and to inspire. If we were not as blind as bats, we should long ago have discovered a truth very fully indicated in the Bible––that that which is once said with perfect fitness can never be said again, and becomes ever thereafter a living power in the world.” (Charlotte Mason, "Parents and Children" pg. 263)

Living ideas capture the imagination by planting a seed that germinates in the mind, causing one to continue to wonder and ponder it, and to pursue further knowledge about the subject. There are so many books full of living ideas, and what is even more wonderful is that different ideas in the same book grab hold of each of us in different ways. What one child grasps, another might overlook in favor of a different idea.

My younger brother on a nature walk one day said quite solemnly, “I wonder what’s underneath my feet.” This may not seem like that great a notion, but for him it was an indication of an expanding of his mind, considering something he had never before given thought of. This showed us that a great idea from Charles Kingsley’s Madame How and Lady Why had been working on his soul. I’m sure you all have experienced something similar with your own children. This is what Mason was talking about when she said children must be put in direct contact with living thought without a teacher standing in between the child and the book. The living thoughts are those living ideas found in the best books.

Living books are those that exemplify virtuous living. The characters, like us, struggle to make the right decision, but ultimately do, or dire consequences occur. Consider how much deeper an impression reading about Sara Crewe's self-denial when confronted with an even poorer beggar girl would make on a student compared to a lecture they heard from us about being generous. Our children will readily identify with Sara as she struggled to do the right thing, and their hearts will be enlarged as they contemplate what it would feel like to be terribly hungry yet give one's food to another who was truly starving.

Characters don’t always make the right choice or emulate virtue in every circumstance. Take Pinocchio for example. His exploits are mostly disastrous as he pursues his own desires. This type of living example can also be instructive for the reader as his bad decisions result in great consequences. And after struggling with him, we are overjoyed when he finally chooses the harder path to serve and love another above himself.

Living books are inspiring when the author is passionate about their subject and they transmit that passion to the reader. This is a major reason why textbooks are not living—they are written by multiple authors or committees whose members may be individually passionate but that gets lost in the collaboration on the text. A passionate author does not water down or pre-digest their subject as they write it for the reader, they want to pass on their own knowledge and do it in such a way that their interests become ours.

Take Carry On, Mr. Bowditch for an example. Jean Lee Latham approached her publisher with the intent of writing a biography of the early American navigator who transformed the world of shipping with his love of mathematics and innovation in calculating longitude. Her publisher looked at Ms. Latham with incredulity and said she must be kidding. There was no way to make this guy interesting for young readers.

The result of her labor won the Newbery Medal, has been continuously in print for 60 years, and was so riveting that I couldn’t put it down the first time I read it (and I always listened in when I heard my mom read it separately to my two younger brothers). Her passion leaps off the page as she gives us the inspiring example of Nat who loved learning but had to teach himself when he was indentured. In fact, my brother is reading Newton’s Principia because that is how Mr. Bowditch taught himself Latin!

When we think of books that are narrative we think “books told like a story.” This is indeed the case of many excellent living books, both fiction as well as non-fiction. We often find the subject of a biography is written like the main character in their own story. However, for a book to be narrative it doesn't always take this form. The use of wonderful language and imagery can evoke such vivid pictures in our mind’s eye that we see what is being described and understand it better than if all the facts were just listed. Charlotte Mason said living books put the flesh on the dry bones of facts, and the narrative quality of a book does just that.

One sure test to determine if a book is living is if the text can be NARRATED. When narrative quality is present we are able to comprehend, organize the material we just took in, and relate previous knowledge and experience to it, and then are able to tell others about what we read or heard. If a book can’t be narrated well, it’s not living. (One caveat here—sometimes it takes a bit of time for us to be able to narrate a book as we have to chew on it, digest it, ponder and consider it before we can describe our thoughts to someone else; that’s not what I mean when I say a book truly can’t be narrated) Narrative books make us feel like we have had the actual experience being described even though we never have had that experience “in real life.”

Finally, living books are generational because they are enjoyed over and over throughout life and from one generation to the next. Most classics got to be called such because they have been enjoyed by people over and over throughout history. They speak to us because they contain a bit of the truth of the human condition, and so different details like dress and technology don’t stand in the way. The essential truth conveyed in the ideas remains ever relevant to us.

CS Lewis wrote several great essays about this concept in his book Of Other Worlds. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of 50—except of course books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”

All of these six tests of a living book can be distilled into the one overarching principle: Living Books capture our imaginations. We are changed and moved by these books so that after reading one, we are never exactly the same again. These are the criteria we use in our collection, and why the books in our science section are still wonderful though they may be stamped "obsolete" or "out-of-date." Your students will think the same.

Happy reading,


Monday, April 20, 2015

Hey, Will You Read to Me?

Years ago, a friend told me a story that I've never forgotten. Her mother was bedridden, in the final stages of Parkinson's disease, and had a woman who came in to care for her. On several occasions, my friend would arrive to find this woman reading to her mother. She was a horrible reader - stumbling over and mispronouncing words, laboriously agonizingly reading to her mother.

"How do you stand it, mother? Why do you want her to read to you?" my friend finally asked one day when they were alone.

"How else will she learn how to read?" was her mother's simple response.

She went on allowing this woman to "read" to her. It is sad to consider that this woman could have been enjoying reading with ease all her life if there had just been someone in the past who was as willing to let her practice and perfect the skill as my friend's sick mother was.

If you've ever taught a child to read, you may be familiar with the hour-long minutes that are required for a beginning reader to learn to articulate the words printed in the reading book. Possibly you can recall your own early struggle to see, translate, and orally pronounce the written word. My friend's story reminded me that listening to someone "learn" to read is a tangible, life-lasting gift to give. The arduous decoding and translating of marks to meaning in the brain is a complex process. It takes time to build competency.

All too often, once the new independent reader is somewhat comfortable reading, we graduate them to silent reading and breathe a sigh of relief. Oral reading and silent reading, I suggest, are not really the same skill. We all know what it is to get "rusty" if it's been awhile since we last read aloud. Reading aloud obviously corrects pronunciation, enhances diction, and builds security in speaking aloud, among other verbal benefits. It also slows the reading process down. When we slow down, we see and understand things we don't catch when we are skimming along on our own. That slower oral reading can boost comprehension, even when we do read silently to ourselves.

Keeping your child reading aloud, whether to you or younger siblings, whether in taking a turn in family reading, or simply being asked to share an interesting or funny passage with you makes them aware of words they might otherwise have skipped past. It also deepens understanding because they are not omitting dull or tedious portions they would pass over when reading alone. Ultimately, this builds a more intimate connection with literature. I fear many children lose interest in reading altogether because they are simply passing time with books and not really deeply engaging in the text, thus missing the ideas of the author or building strong reading experiences.

Usually, most parents do find that reading to young children is important to help introduce them to stories and the idea of reading. Yet, it is not as common for parents to continue to spend time reading aloud as long as the children are in the house. Sometimes kids resist this practice because of a mistaken perception that it is something only "little" kids do. Perhaps the proliferation of TV and other electronic entertainments do usurp time that could be spent in reading aloud to one another - doubtless, they do - but, if this is true, our families are losing a precious means of deepening and strengthening our relationships. My husband and I still read to one another, a pleasure we have had since dating days, and as our children grow into independent readers, we encourage them to read to us and to one another. It's a great way to have company when you're in the depths of dishes or laundry. The shared experiences and emotions found in telling stories to one another are permanent ties. It trains us to read and it trains us to listen.

Taking time to let a child read aloud to you not only teaches him how to read, but ensures a life-long preference for literature. If we leave our children to read on their own, surely other competing pastimes will eventually crowd out reading. If we have bookworms in the house who love to seclude themselves with a book, we can also help them into a lifetime habit of sharing that love with others by reading aloud to them and encouraging them to be sociable. For the child who seems disinterested in reading, a simple invitation to read aloud together will not only put a new spark into your relationship, but will probably relight their interest in books, too.

In a time of busyness, of independent involvement with personal electronics, and a time in history when reading is fast falling out of fashion, think how simply we could regain something precious that has been lost in the old practice of reading aloud - not just to preschoolers, or early readers, but family members of all ages. Some day, when these children have their own homes, our voices will still be near them, right along with all the stories that have been permanently buried in their hearts because we read aloud to one another.

For the joy of reading,