Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Guest Post: "How to Choose the Right Book For Your Child," by Herbert Howard Jones

Choosing children's books, or any book for our children is a challenge which should be met with care. Aside from their purely entertainment content, books can stimulate a lifelong interest in the child that wasn't originally there, or even suggest a direction in life which the child could take later on.

It is my view that carefully chosen fiction or non fiction books have the potential to radically shape a young mind! Perhaps more so than any other form of media, because, for one thing, a book tends to have longevity. It sits on the shelf at home silently demanding to be picked up, until eventually it is.

Other forms of media are more fleeting, get lost more easily, or conveys its message too quickly as a so-called 'blip'. But books tend to have a resilience and a staying power that, perhaps, other forms of media don't have. This equally applies to children's books, with an especial emphasis on reading books as opposed to picture books. More importantly, a book in the 'hand', enables the reader to control the assimilation of information at his or her own pace. They can also be deliberately placed in the way of a child by a discerning adult, whereas output from other media streams is based on an agenda which is not necessarily educational! So exactly what books should we place in our child's path? And should we also allow them to make some of the choices?

The answer to the second question is almost obvious in retrospect. A child must practice his or her decision making faculty if it is to successfully run its own life later on. Decision making is an important life skill which must be practiced. And so somehow, we have to instill this ability into our offspring, and empower them to distinguish between right and wrong decisions.

Latest findings suggest that choosing a book is an excellent way for a child to practice this process and to appreciate the consequence of its actions. It is also an approach which is finding favour with teachers, who are the source of this information in the first place. There appear to be considerable benefits in allowing children to choose books for themselves.

It has been found that children who are allowed to do this, tend to spend more time reading both in the class and at home. It seems to provides them with the strong spur to keep on reading as they progress through school.

Unsurprisingly, a child that reads more, develops its reading ability and expands his or her vocabulary and reading fluency. But without a proper strategy for comparing and choosing children's books, the art of decision making in this area could become lopsided.

The child may develop a preference for choosing unchallenging reading matter which would slow up or even permanently stunt its progress. The prevalence of words in common usage can render less common words obsolete at this level, at least where every day conversations and everyday reading is concerned. It can then turn into a bad habit!

Certainly, vocabulary at a certain level can be intimidating. But words like 'perdiction', 'inalienable', 'tablature' etc, are still relevant and in use, but have to be grown into by the reader. At some point they have to be put within the reader's range, preferably at the earliest possible moment, because a college education isn't always an option, and an individual may grow up developing a stigma towards more complex language.

I personally know of a woman who feels intimidated when she is in the presence of people who 'talk nice' or speak as if 'they have swallowed the dictionary.' And this is because she only progressed to a certain level of reading fluency, when possibly it could have been encouraged more by the system or by someone at home.

And so how can we as discerning parents lubricate the cog wheels a little, and gently push our children towards higher and higher reading plateaus?

Two approaches, which dovetail nicely into one another are suggested as a means of choosing children's books or reading books in general.

One is known as the 'Goldilocks method' and the other doesn't have a name as such, but could be thought of simply as parent guided reading.

Applying the 'Goldilocks method, instead of shoving a pile of books in front of a young reader and saying, 'which one do you want?', we should try and get them to make comparisons. Like Goldilocks who, tried out the porridge and found it to be either 'too hot', 'too cold', or 'just right' etc, we explain to our children that some books may be, 'too easy', some 'too hard' and others 'just right,'. We then show them examples of books in these categories, and make the important point that books which are 'too hard' today will be 'just right' in the future.

If the books in the 'too hard' category are books that we own, or belong to a sibling, then it is also very important to explain to our child that he or she is still allowed to look at them, to see if they are getting any easier to read. No book, unless its morally questionable, or plainly unsuitable should be off-limits to the interested young reader.

I say this because I remember taking a book down from a shelf as a child and being told 'not to touch it' because 'daddy wouldn't be too happy if I did.' (Jammy fingers probably had something to do with this!) As I recall the book was an old annual of 'Boys Own paper' -The Bop, which would have been quite fascinating to look at.

Books in the 'just right' catagory tend to have only a couple of unfamiliar words on a page, which is still understandable to the child. Books which are 'too easy' tend to be the old favourites. In some cases, passages from these books are virtually memorised word for word by the child and do not present a challenge.

To arrive at your assessment of the relative readability of books, have your child read three or four pages, and make a note of words they don't understand, and ask them if they can explain the text in their own words. If more than three words a page are unknown to them, the book is still a candidate if the child's comprehension of the text is adequate. The book will be readable and still pose a challenge at the same time.

Books which are outside the scope of your young reader will make themselves immediately obvious if you use this method. If a child's comprehension of the text is poor, then it is clear that the book is unsuitable. By a process of elimination you'll end up with a shortlist of suitable reads for your child. However, the whole process can be done quite quickly, and if in a bookshop, can be a question of assessing a couple of pages to judge the suitability of the book in hand.

The next step is to teach your child to make this assessment on their own, perhaps using a piece of paper to make notes when choosing books in a library. Have your child write down the title of the book, followed a count of the words not understood on a randomly chosen book page. Then have your child read a page and have him or her write down either 'H' for hard to understand, 'E' for too easy to understand, or 'OK' for just right. See example below:

Book 1. 'Tom Sawyer.' 4 words (not understood). OK

Book 2. 'The Pyewiz and the Amazing Mobile Phone.' 2 words (not understood). OK

Book 3. 'Little Dorrit.' 8 words (not understood). H

Book 4. 'Dr Suess.' 0 words (not understood). E

A choice can then be sensibly made based upon the child's own assessment. The important point being that your child's reading skills can only grow and develop if they are moderately challenged.

If the text from the test pages of a book can be comprehended, but the vocabulary is challenging, then this would be a good choice. But if there are difficulties with comprehension, then unchallenging vocabulary won't make the reading any easier. In this instance it would be better to choose those books whose text is best comprehended.

In my own experience, when I was nine, my father took control of my reading and sat me down with the works of William Shakespeare, expecting me to learn passages by heart! At that age, it was pure gobbledegook! And although I managed to memorise parts of various speeches, they made absolutely no sense to me. My father obviously had a better understanding of the bard, and tried to impart this to me, but it was no substitute for my being able to read and comprehend the text for myself. And although I acquired some archaic vocabulary, it didn't help my overall comprehension of what I was reading. In this instance, the choice of reading material was too challenging, and should have been abandoned for something more commensurate with my abilities. Comprehension is therefore vitally important to the above method.

Once the child learns to make choices, it is a good idea for you, as the parent to make
'recommendations', but this can only be implemented if the parent is aware of suitable books to recommend. It is therefore a good idea to have a stock of books in the home on a wide variety of subjects. These can easily be obtained from a second hand book shop where prices suit any budget. Reference books tend to be more expensive but are well worth the purchase.

Obviously the wider the choice, the better for our child. Books on a narrow range of subjects may fail to make the desired impact. So breadth and width of material is what is required, but guidelines as to the suitability of certain subjects can be obtained from your local school or educational authority.

H.H.Jones is the author of one sci-fi book for teenagers. For more information click on: The Pyewiz's new website

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