Between the lines
Developing children's reading habits from an early age is essential for their development. Here, senior teacher, Beverley Craggs of the British Council, answers some frequently asked questions about reading.
Your Questions Answered
What is the best age for children to start listening to storybooks?
There isn't a perfect age - as soon as you feel comfortable with it. I read to my son when he was a couple of weeks old. Obviously he is not learning anything about vocabulary, but what children at that age learn is the tone you use. They hear the different intonations in your voice and the different emphasis you put on words. As a parent with an infant it is very often soothing and a nice, calming part of the day. Make sure you are reading from a picture book so that they can look at the pictures. They will learn that pictures and text are connected.
What kind of skills does a parent learn from your reading workshop? How can these help?
They learn two sets of skills. The first is knowledge. We inform parents about the relationship between reading and a child's development. Children need to understand the cause of reading - the words in the books are communicating messages and they need to be ready for that. We also teach how to choose a book, by looking at age, interest and language level. We talk about the ways to tell a story, for example using your voice, your intonation, the appropriate pace, how to draw a child's attention to a picture by asking some questions about characters or plot. We give parents some ideas on how to make use of props to tell a story more interestingly. We also give parents some ideas on how to get their children involved in storytelling.
What is a suitable age for children to start reading books by themselves?
When children are between the ages of three and five, they are exposed to the language they are reading. You can tell when a child is ready to start reading when they know the names of letters, can pick letters out in text, can identify words and maybe guess what those words say. These are all indicators that children are ready to start reading.
What kind of assistance should a parent provide children who start reading books by themselves?
The greatest thing a parent can do is understand the process. Many parents forget how difficult it was for them to learn to read and write, and they expect their children just be able to do it simply by practise-practise-practise. They should cultivate a sense of patience and tolerance. The more books you read to your children the more they hear the language. It will be easier for them to begin to read. Parents should provide a quiet environment in which children can fully concentrate on their reading. They need to be patient, non-critical, and ready to accept that their child will make mistakes. They also need to provide a range of suitable books. Books used in reading schemes, often used by schools, are the most suitable type to help children learn to read. Books under the scheme rely heavily on phonic knowledge and repetition of key words. But parents must not stop their children reading picture books. If children only read reading-scheme books they will stop wanting to read and they will see reading as work.
What are the reasons behind most children losing patience in reading?
Once they are deemed by their teacher or parent to be ready to read, all picture books and storytelling goes out of the window. Children mustn't have their favourite storybooks taken away just because its time for them to start reading on their own. It's almost like a punishment. They lose patience because it is actually fairly difficult to read by themselves and often they don't understand the process. If children don't see their parents reading books or they don't see the advantages of reading, they will lose patience. One thing a parent can do is to let their child know what they can get out of reading. For example, if you are reading a book or even the comics from the Sunday papers, you could say to your child, 'when you are big and you can read you will be able to do this too', so that they can see some of the benefits that they may one day gain from the reading process.
What is your advice to parents in choosing the right books for their children?
Hong Kong has a wide range of books available for children. Allow children to choose their own books, but bear in mind the age of your child in terms of the kind of vocabulary they would have, the language level, the topic of the book and their interests. This is particularly important with boys who find the reading processes more difficult.
What are the benefits of reading?
How does the hobby help a reader's growth?
Children who were read to when they were younger are often more likely to become better readers. They will be more interested in being a life-long reader as they grow up. Generally, reading helps to establish a good vocabulary, it also gives children the skills to be a writer. Book reading opens up the world for children and takes them on a journey through all sorts of circumstances and environments. It introduces different practices and customs from around the world. It also helps to develop a child as a person. For example, if you are reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears you can discuss the rights and wrongs of stealing with your child.
Are the books available in book stores and public libraries good enough for Hong Kong children?
Only the children can be the judge of that. They have to decide what they like. Local public libraries have a big selection of both English and Chinese books. Book stores have the most popular ones - generally for most children these books will do very well. Parents should use the library first and then decide what books their child likes before buying them.