From a cradle game to a roomful of books

AS a young mother, I found myself fascinated with how children learn. I knew a tender, supportive atmosphere had to be the basic element. Then, after considerable research -- as well as thinking about the pairing of repetition with playfulness -- I designed a reading game for my oldest daughter. When she was still a toddler, I took a large, colorful poster, busily illustrated with animals and objects, and hung it on the wall where I changed her. As I dressed her I'd sing, ``I see a bird in the picture. Do you see it too?'' As soon as I'd mention bird, her eyes would dart across the poster, swooping over whole portions of pictures. She rarely missed anything.

However, just as she'd broken all records for rapid eye movement, I'd suddenly sing, ``I see a tiny bird with one tipped feather. I see a tiny bird with one tipped feather,'' or something similar.

The poster stayed up for years, and when our second daughter came along the older one played it with her, until she too became a speed finder. We continued the game when reading their favorite picture books and deliberately read these books over and over again. By the time they'd reached their second or third year, they were easily handling the texts on their own.

When they were about six and eight years old respectively, I decided it was time to expose them to such authors as Tolstoy, Rostand, and Shakespeare. We found a story by Tolstoy based on his boyhood experiences. As with most children, accustomed to only modern books, the richer, more formal language was at first difficult for them. We stuck with it, though, and slowly they attuned themselves to the lyric quality of the writing.

From there, we went on to ``Romeo and Juliet.'' We prepared by first reading a few sonnets to capture the rhythm and style of Shakespeare. Then we moved on to the play itself. We each took the part of three characters. The children immediately loved the language. With a special air and flow these classic lines were now coming from the mouths of babes. The characters became a part of the family. Their lives and the misunderstandings that shaped events toward their tragic conclusion were discussed by the children as though they were neighbors down the street.

``Do you think Mercutio will do that? Did you hear what he said? I can't believe Romeo would swallow a special potion to make him appear dead!''

After a time, they returned to their beloved picture books and children's novels. However, this was definitely not to be the end of adult authors. We instituted daily oral reading. Pleading lack of time, I asked my daughter to read me an adult book while I cooked. Assured she need merely get me started, she drew a sigh of relief. It was a short story by Virginia Woolf. She found herself entirely absorbed and read to the end. (Afterward, I must admit, in true childish fashion she announced, ``That was a dumb story!''

These and other learning experiments proved as entertaining to us adults as to the kids, but what had it actually done for them? Undeniably, it created a love for books. Most of those years were spent reading instead of watching television. Each night my husband and I would go into their room after they were asleep and pluck piles of books from under covers, curled arms, and rumpled pillows. The two of us frequently complained how impossible it was to walk over a carpet of books.

Today in their pre and early teens, both have rich vocabularies, the ability to play imaginatively with words, and a recognition and appreciation for quality prose. The one who most loved lying in bed with her book is a natural speed reader. The other one -- the faster to the kitchen stool -- is a superb oral reader.

Recently, sweet memories of our original reading game inspired my younger daughter and me to create a more grown-up version. Now the race is in articles and advertisements for words, phrases, and concepts. And again it's reinforcing the habit of reading quickly, concisely, and to completion.

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