Monday, April 16, 2012

Rediscovering the Joy of Reading Aloud: Mem Fox, Mo Willems, Cat at Night, Guji Guji

Thinking aloud: rediscover the joy of storytelling

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"Mama, read this one, then that one, please." My daughter, from age 15 months to three years, would plead for stories throughout the day and at bedtime. Now that she's four years old, we continue to read to her, but more as a matter of habit: on the potty, at meals, before bed.I can't recall the last time she picked up a book and asked us to read it to her.

I didn't give much thought to my daughter's recent feelings about books until I spent a weekend with Mem Fox, the celebrated children's author and early childhood literacy expert. After her weekend visit to Hong Kong, I became determined to reignite my daughter's passion for books.

I grabbed the funny, colourful, monosyllabic Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep by Mo Willems and read aloud with enthusiasm. I used different voices. I tried to engage my daughter, but she would give only one-word replies in a monotone. I wouldn't call my daughter a reluctant reader; she's too co-operative to run from a readaloud session. She just didn't seem to derive any joy from my reading.

I rationalised that my daughter's waning enthusiasm for books was due to a combination of reasons: she now had a growing collection of toys, jigsaw puzzles and other playthings to occupy her time, she was spending more hours at school and extra-curricular activities, and mum had since become busy with the baby.

I had the privilege of hearing Fox read aloud some of her best-selling children's books at a few of her talks. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that only a great storyteller could hold a child's interest in books. Then I recalled Fox's comment that reading aloud is all about children enjoying a good story. And it suddenly dawned on me that I was the reason my daughter had become so ambivalent about books. You see, six months ago, my daughter entered kindergarten and started to learn her ABCs and 123s. And that's when I began using our mother-daughter read-aloud sessions as an extension of what she was learning in school.

Here is the way I had started my reading of Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep: "Time to sleep ... [pause and wait for daughter to fill in missing words]. Yes. It's Sheep the Sheep. Let's read the title again, this time I want you to put your finger on each word that you are reading, OK? Time to sleep, Sheep the sheep. And look here on the cover, Cat the Cat has a baboo [my daughter's nickname for her blankie]. What colour is the baboo? Green. Yes, that's very good. It's a green baboo. OK, here we go. Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep, by Mo Willems. Mo Willems is the author. He wrote this story and drew all the pictures, too."

I considered how I was no longer sharing a good story with my daughter; I was using our story time as yet another lesson where she was quizzed and asked to focus on learning. Of course, for curious children who want to know more about a storybook, it's wonderful to digress and talk about the illustrations or relate real-life similarities. But by reading with my own agenda, I was slowly killing my daughter's interest in story time.

Learning to read is a benefit of reading aloud, but it should not be the goal. My need to test my daughter's growing knowledge had clouded my original goal for reading aloud to my daughter, and that was for her to grow up loving reading and books as much as I do. After coming to this realisation, I pulled out a couple of storybooks, The Cat at Night by Dahlov Ipcar and Guji-Guji by Chen Chih-yuan, and read them to my daughter. I didn't pick books with rhyming stanzas, I didn't introduce the titles and I didn't pause for teachable moments. I simply read aloud in my best "Mem Fox the storyteller" impersonation. When I finished, I could feel my daughter beginning to rediscover the joy of a good story. 

Fox shared a memorable saying from her own father: "Stop teaching and let the children learn."

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong ( a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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