“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” I remember singing this little song in Girl Scouts as a child, and it expresses how I feel about good books. Books are like friends; some are familiar favorites and others are new acquaintances. At the beginning of each spring semester, I ask my undergraduate children’s literature students to describe early memories of books, reading, and being read to. I also ask them to name favorite books or special reading situations that stand out. Consistently, old favorites appear: Runaway Bunny, Good Night, Moon, Beatrix Potter books, Brer Rabbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia. We reminisce about old friends such as Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter collection), Wilbur (Charlotte’s Web), and Max in Where the Wild Things Are.
Beyond memories of book titles and favorite characters, students describe feelings of pleasure and security aroused by reflecting on childhood reading experiences. Parents and grandparents snuggled close in “squishy chairs” or in soft beds and delighted children with funny voices and favorite fairy tales. One student, Collyn Graves, has poignant memories: “I don’t remember any funny voices or animations she [mom] used to accompany the stories. What I do remember is the satisfaction I felt being gathered on a big double bed with my siblings listening to our mom read stories. It was comfort and safety at bedtime coupled with an eagerness to hear what new adventures my friends in the stories would experience next.”
The sight of a book cover or illustration can jolt fuzzy recollections into focus—“That was one of my favorite books!” Stories we have shared with people we love have the power to reach deep into our beings, stirring forgotten moments and arousing childhood icons of our imagination.
Thinking Biblically about Reading
Beyond offering fodder for fond reminiscing, why are early reading experiences important for children? Ultimately, reading offers one way to love our neighbor. God created humans with the amazing ability to learn and use language for a variety of purposes. Language ability is one aspect of “image-bearing” (Genesis 1:26-28). God spoke His Word to birth the universe. Scripture, God’s written word, tells the big story of God’s love for His people throughout history and brings us face to face with the personal revelation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).
Adam and Eve’s disobedience distorted our language abilities but surely did not erase them. Humans have studied the linguistic aspect of creation for thousands of years, specifically the process we call reading—creating and decoding symbols that transmit meaning in some way. We use so many different communication methods for survival and social relationships. Christians understand that our imperfect language ability is God’s gift and must be used for His glory.
Christ’s redemptive work restores us to a right relationship with God. Does this mean that Christian children learn to read better or more easily than others? That’s not the point. Reading offers Christians an opportunity to engage in healing as we listen to others’ stories and tell our own. In short, we can learn to love our neighbor through literature. By hearing and creating what Kathleen Nielson calls “artfully shaped words,” young children can learn to lament human sin and hope for the time when all is restored.
Valuable in Every Sphere
Donna Norton in her book, Through the Eyes of a Child, suggests several broad benefits of literature for children. A primary value is reading for pleasure. When motivated by love for good books, children carry reading habits into their adult lives. Books offer adventure or escape into fascinating worlds of imagination. Books also allow us to understand our literary and cultural heritage. Favorite fairy tales from the past preserved through oral tradition delight contemporary readers. Carefully chosen stories from a variety of cultures provide a glimpse into human lives lived in faraway places. As children read historical fiction and world literature, they vicariously experience common human struggles and gain appreciation for different ways of living.
Good literature presents children of all ages with an opportunity to develop social and emotional intelligence. Coming to care for characters as friends can offer solace to children who identify with them. Through others’ eyes, young people build empathy and understanding and may find courage to face their own triumphs and struggles. This aspect of experiencing books makes for rich soil in which love for God and our neighbor can grow.
Literature across genres helps develop children’s cognitive and language development. Nonfiction selections convey interesting information about real world topics to satisfy curious young minds. Publication of well-written informational books at all reading levels has recently exploded, providing a wealth of excellent expository reading.
Finally, good literature stimulates and nurtures the imagination. In her eloquent book for parents, Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life, Gladys Hunt writes, “Children and books go together in a special way. I can’t imagine any pleasure greater than bringing to the uncluttered, supple mind of a child the delight of knowing the many rich things God has given us to enjoy.” Healthy, active imaginations in children reflect God’s infinitely creative nature.
Literacy Development in Children
In addition to the general values of literature outlined above, early listening and reading experiences are vital to children’s literacy development in several specific ways. Children acquire language naturally by using it to meet a variety of needs. Oral language development is essential for later reading and writing competency. Acquiring an extensive oral vocabulary is particularly crucial. The more words children understand in spoken language, the better they will eventually comprehend those words when reading printed text.
Educators use the term “emergent literacy,” coined by Marie Clay, to describe how children build upon early oral language experiences as they come to understand how words work. Snuggled up in a parent’s arms, children observe valued adults modeling effective reading. Before learning any specific letters or sounds, children learn to hold a book with the spine on the left, turn pages from left to right, follow the text from top to bottom and left to right, and expect the print to contain meaningful and exciting stories or information. Familiar symbols and letters on signs (called environmental print) help solidify a child’s growing realization that print is used to communicate real ideas for real purposes. At a very tender age, my daughter Hannah piped up from the back seat, “Mommy, there’s a Publix truck!” She couldn’t read the word “Publix” but quickly recognized the symbol for her favorite grocery store. Even very young children identify those famous golden arches and squeal with anticipation when they appear.
Toddlers enchant parents with cries of “Daddy, listen to me, I’m reading!” Pages flip as the story tumbles out. Often the child’s spoken words are unconnected to the actual printed words at this point. Some children create their own versions of the story or appear to have memorized it through many repetitions. Sometimes I hear a listener comment, “You’re not really reading that, you just memorized it!” While it is true that the “reader” is probably not decoding words accurately, she is demonstrating an important developmental milestone: the knowledge that print holds meaning. Actively encouraging a child who is pretending to read solidifies crucial print concepts and builds a solid foundation for later reading success. You are forging thinking connections, and a happy marriage of pictures, print, and meaning ensues. Children love repeated readings and parents often hear, “Mommy, read it again please!”
When children reach preschool age, parents begin to ponder formal reading instruction. Should I send my child to preschool? What school will offer the best reading education? What about phonics and whole language? A few key ideas may be helpful here. Many children with rich oral language experiences and those who have had books read aloud will develop an awareness that spoken language is made up of smaller parts, such as words, syllables, and individual sounds (phonemes). Eventually, they recognize that printed symbols we call letters match particular sounds, and they discover recognizable patterns in sound and letter combinations. Known in educator jargon as the “alphabet principle,” this growing knowledge of how speech matches print signals another important milestone. Children at this stage are ready to begin formal instruction using phonics and other word recognition strategies. Many frequently used words become instantly recognizable to children as well. “Sight words” combined with skill at figuring out new words enables early readers to gain fluency, the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with expression.
Fluent oral and silent reading, including strong vocabulary knowledge, enhances comprehension. Books come alive when children can read, understand, and interpret the stories and informational books they encounter. Humans tend to love what they do well, and skilled reading is no exception. We learn to read by reading. The rich really do get richer when it comes to effective reading strategies.
In the flurry of phonics and flashcards, it is easy to forget that reading results in meaning. Louise Rosenblatt described the reading process as “living through” the text. Rosenblatt’s definition of a literary work promotes the active role of the reader in the reading process and highlights how important 1) the reader’s background knowledge is, and 2) their purposes for reading are in the creation of meaning. If coming to love our neighbors is a worthy goal of reading, then deep comprehension is desirable. Even young children live vicariously through the joys, fears, struggles, and triumphs of the characters they meet in books. Faithful care of creation often requires that we carefully apply complex informational text to real world problems.
Promoting Children’s Literacy Growth
Talk, talk, talk to children! Listen to their responses and engage them in conversation about topics that interest them. Simple pleasures such as warm baths, playing with pets, trips to the playground, and good food engage children’s interest and are ripe opportunities for imaginative description. Tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, and other silly sayings strengthen awareness of various sound patterns. Tell stories. Regale your kids with tales of escapades from your own childhood, or invite grandparents and other relatives to share favorite experiences. Read, read, and read some more. Choose poetry and interesting nonfiction as well as good narrative literature.
Bible storybooks and Scripture passages introduce children to the riches of God’s word. In some traditions, worship services offer unique literacy opportunities. Responsive reading, following along in a hymnbook, and listening to sermons can hone attentive reading and listening skills.
Connecting Reading to Writing
Label household objects such as chairs, tables, doors, lamps, and other familiar items. Stash books in the bathroom and cover the refrigerator with magnetic letters. Provide a variety of age-appropriate writing materials and let kids help you write lists, memos, and notes. Encourage young authors by purchasing decorative journals to break the monotony of long road trips. Inspire dramatic play and ignite a sense of adventure with props, such as puppets and costumes.
Adults invite children into the community of readers and writers when they engage in literate activities themselves. Let children see you turn off the TV and read for pleasure. Kids develop a strong literate self-concept when they begin to think, “I am a reader” and “I am a writer.” For older children, commercial word games such as Scrabble (and a great derivative, “squabble”), Apples to Apples, and Boggle offer alternative activities to video games and Internet surfing.
Literacy and Adolescent Development
Research suggests that reading motivation declines as children get older, beginning with a significant drop in about fourth grade. But pleasurable memories associated with reading may rekindle an adolescent’s desire to read. My young friend Hilary recently explained how she experienced this phenomenon. One day when her allotted TV time had expired, she was forced to find a replacement activity. She settled down to sort the books on her childhood shelf in order to earn money from a local used bookseller. After reminiscing with her mom over treasured titles, she exclaimed, “Mom, I just relived my childhood.” A bedtime story was not too babyish that night. My daughter, Aubrianna, still an avid reader, lit up like a Christmas tree when I asked her to brainstorm her list of favorites. Although many of her suggestions are current, she cheerfully rattled off numerous titles. Long after her initial list was completed, she burst into my office frequently with, “Oh, oh, mom, here’s another one!”
Psalm 78 instructs parents to use stories when teaching children God’s ways. “Oh my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old—what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.” Because literature engages our whole being—mind, heart, and body—God’s gift of language is one way to joyfully obey the greatest command: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 30-31).
Rebecca E. Pennington earned a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and a Master’s of Education in Integrated Curriculum and Instruction from Covenant College. She joined the Covenant faculty in 2002 and currently teaches elementary literacy, social studies, and supervises student teachers. She lives with her husband, Tucker, and two girls, Hannah (17) and Aubrianna (12), in Flintstone, Georgia.
PERSONAL AND FAMILY FAVORITES
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight, Moon, Runaway Bunny
Don Freeman, Corduroy
Dorothy Kunhardt, Pat the Bunny
Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss’s ABC Book
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
John Steptoe, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters
Jean Craighead George, The Talking Earth
E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Ring of Endless Light
Lois Lenski, Strawberry Girl
Lois Lowry, The Giver
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS, TEACHERS AND CAREGIVERS
Hunt, Gladys. (2002). Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life. (4th ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Trelease, Jim. (2001). The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York, NY: Penguin.