I’ve read more baby board books than education books this week. That’s what 11 days of vacation in Salem, OR, with my first grandchild will do for me. (Oh, yes—and with my two daughters and their husbands, too.) In that context, I’ve been reflecting on the opposite end of the process of language learning from what I usually do—not teaching honors and AP English classes, but playing with an 11-month old. I’m reminded of a New York Times article I read recently, “How to Raise a Reader,” and I’ve been noticing how my own reading to my grandson corresponds to the advice in the article for reading to babies.
For instance, he and I were reading Sandra Boynton’s What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? Little Pookie is crying, and the mother runs through a litany of questions trying to guess what’s wrong, starting with the usual—hot, hungry, hurt—and when the answer is always “no,” venturing into the ridiculous: “Did a very large hippo try to borrow your shoes?” My grandson suddenly lost interest and crawled away. I put the book down and followed him. My English teacher daughter (the other one, not the child’s mom) called out from her armchair where I thought she was lost in her own book, “Wait! I’m not going to find out what’s wrong with Pookie?” So I quickly finished it for her…but not for my grandchild. He was gone, and that’s okay. Books are fun, not a chore.
The sounds in baby books are a lot of fun—like the animal sounds in Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. Usually my grandson just stares wide-eyed at me or babbles or grunts in excitement as I moo and oink. One time he actually “baa-ed” back after I made a sheep sound! It might have just been a serendipitous vocalization because it hasn’t been repeated, but we toss the sounds back and forth and practice the pattern of conversation.
While most of the language is simple, every so often vocabulary pops up that we don’t usually use in talking to a baby. Words like “anxious” in A.A. Milne’s Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water and “suspicious” in Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees.
But mostly we “play” books more than read them at this point. An 11-month-old is still exploring how cool it is that the pages flip back and forth. Board books are great because he can do this flipping himself and even chew on a page if he wants—and no one says, “No.” Who wants to associate “no” with books? I play with the voices—big, deep ones and little, squeaky ones. We stop and notice the illustrations—count the frogs, find the chick, name the colors. And when something in the book bounces, we bounce. It’s reading as a contact sport. The important thing right now is that he associate language and books with delight.
The family trip to Powell’s City of Books, which claims to be the world's largest independent bookstore, he didn’t find as delightful as the rest of the family did. However, if we are all enjoying books on our own, and enjoying them with him, I’m pretty sure he’s on the right track. So enjoy some books yourself this summer, and share your enjoyment with a child near you. There’s a straight line from that to how passionately and skillfully that child will wield language some day.