Once again American students are being compared unfavorably to students from other countries. This time parents, instead of teachers are getting the blame. Thomas Friedman, commenting in the New York Times on a study done by the Program for International Student Assessment concludes that we should stop putting the whole burden on teachers, and that “we need better parents”.
Parents are used to being criticized, but in this instance they should be praised instead for the influence they do have on their children’s educational achievement. This study indicated that students whose parents read to them regularly in their early school years scored markedly higher on the tests that were given. Furthermore, “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.”
It is interesting that reading a book with your children, or talking about things they have done during the day, has a greater impact than just playing with them. One bit of news in a related study that parents may also find interesting, is that being involved with children’s learning at home has a greater impact on children’s achievement than attending P.T.A and school meetings, volunteering in classrooms or helping with fund raising.
A few days after this newspaper article appeared stressing the importance of reading to your children, another article reported that parents are rejecting children’s e-books. Even parents who use Kindles and iPads for their own reading want old-fashioned print books for their children. According to the article, “parents also say they like cuddling up with their child and a book, and fear that a shiny gadget might get all the attention”. This quote reflects several important distinctions between digital reading and paper books.
On a plane during my holiday travel, a little boy who seemed about four years old was “reading” a Dr. Seuss book on an ipad. The illustrations were sharp and the colors bright, but what seemed really to capture his attention was turning the pages. With a flourish he made large sweeping motions in an exaggeration of the method used on Apple products. This was so captivating for him that he barely looked at each page.
Even more startling, on the return flight was a baby about nine months old with both her parents. As the mom was fixing up their seats, dad held the little girl over his shoulder facing a movie screen right behind him. There was no movie at that point and on the screen was a still picture of individual panels with a picture in each. The baby kept reaching over to touch one of the panels and seemed puzzled that nothing was happening. It may have been my imagination, but it clearly seemed that she had experienced touching her parent’s iphone or ipad and expected that her touch would change the picture.
The point is that the digital experience for children is something quite different than what we think of as reading to our children. Parents do get that. I saw the little boy with the ipad later, cuddled up against his mother who was reading a book to him. Together they pointed to, and talked about some of the things in the illustrations. It was not hard to see that this reading experience would make a more meaningful and lasting impression than turning the pages of an ipad.
The first newspaper article emphasized the intellectual benefits of reading to children, while the parents in the second article are focused on the emotional component. When children keep wanting “one more book” at bedtime, which often turns into three or four more, of course they like to hear the stories. But what they are really holding onto is that special up-close and personal time with mom or dad. These are the warm feelings that become attached to the experience of reading and that stay with children later on.
An educator quoted in the article also talks about how the shape and size of books are often part of the reading experience. Width and height of books help to convey their content. Size and shape “become part of the emotional experience, the intellectual experience”. The joining together of the emotional and intellectual experience is the key.
It is the emotional experience of reading to our children, and later on showing an interest in their school work that helps shape their intellectual experience and development. The two are joined. Parents worry at times about teaching colors, letters, numbers. But children are learning this as part of what parents are already doing by reading to them.
I disagree with Tom Friedman. We need to praise parents for what they do so well, and for the influence they have. Parents are not told this often enough.