featured the baby in the mirror

Why Johnny won’t read

What do we have to do to persuade our children to read? If one Spanish politician gets his way, children in the small town of Noblejas will be paid by the hour just for reading books in their local library. The proposals have come about in response to a very high school drop-out rate in a predominantly agricultural (but not economically disadvantaged) area. Even in affluent British suburbs, schoolchildren’s reading is being incentivized in various ways, such as the offering of sweet rewards for each book finished. If reading is meant to be a lifelong pleasure, why is it so hard to persuade children of the fact?

This month sees the UK publication of a book by the American psychologist Maryanne Wolf which provides some answers to that puzzle. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Wolf draws on evolutionary and neuroscientific evidence in arguing that our brains were never really built for processing the printed word. Stretching back only ten thousand or so years into our past, reading is too recent an invention for us to have evolved any specific capacities for it. Caleb Crain’s interesting essay in the New Yorker connects Wolf’s arguments with our broader intuitions that, as a culture, we are reading less, and less willingly. Although our brains show remarkable flexibility in allowing us to cope with (and indeed excel at) this recent invention, perhaps, in the long run, we are simply giving in to nature.
The Baby in the Mirror is anything but a parenting book. I do not profess to know the right way to bring up a child; in a few cases I clearly demonstrate the wrong way. So I cannot take any credit for the fact that Athena reads avidly. She will take a book in the car with her and read it lurching around country lanes at speeds that would make either parent nauseous. She has always preferred to be reading for herself rather than having people doing it for her. In the chapter ‘It’s About a Little Mouse’, I describe how she would ‘read’ books to herself before she had any clear idea about letter–sound correspondences, or even the correct order of turning pages. Long before she could decode text, she was imposing her own narrative structures on the information she encountered. She didn’t learn about stories from books; she taught books about story. Children, like adults, use narrative to organize their experience and frame their memories. They have the basic understanding of how story works some time before they turn their attention to the printed word.
Shared storybook sessions are important for young children, then, but perhaps not for all the reasons that parents think. For one thing, it is unlikely that sitting down with Mum and a book teaches young children much about the mechanics of reading. Whatever benefits follow from joint reading, enhanced understanding of how those squiggles on the page encode meaning is not one of them. In a recent study, French-Canadian four-year-olds read storybooks with a parent or teacher while their eye movements were recorded by a special headband fixed around the child’s forehead. Apparatus like this allows researchers to tell exactly where a child is looking: at the words on the page, where presumably the adult reader’s attention is focused, or at the illustrations. The eye-tracking data showed that children spent hardly any time looking at the text, even when it was embedded in the pictures in speech bubbles, or when it had distinctive features such as special decorations. Shared reading helps vocabulary development and story comprehension, but it doesn’t teach children anything about print or reading. That requires specific joint activities focused on decoding text, such as spelling out letters—something that can be done in a bookreading context, for sure, but only if letters, and not the story, are the focus.
Athena still enjoys the social element of being read to, even though she would rather be doing the reading herself. Perhaps she thinks that we adults don’t do a particularly good job of it. Last night I asked her if we could do some reading together, and she said she would rather we told each other riddles. She came up with some good ones about suns and volcanoes (I put in a pretty good effort myself, I thought, with a riddle about a river). When it was time for lights-out, she begged me to tell her one more, so I promised that I would make one up overnight. Waking early, I typed and printed out an invention of my own so that it would be ready for her when she came down. (It is no Exeter Book marvel, but then it was six o’clock in the morning.)
I can be very long, but I fit on any shelf.
You can get lost in me, but I am much smaller than you. 
I can take you to new places, but you will never have to leave your chair. 
What am I? 
She got it straightaway.

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