reciprocal reading
15 September 2002
Way back when we first started down this road, Damian’s first speech therapist gave me xeroxed papers on speech like a grandma hands out treats to her grandkids. One of them was about how you should make reading interactive. Makes sense to me. You want your kid to stay involved. Active, not passive. Engaged with you. This went further, though, giving two examples of a father reading to his little girl. (My examples are different from the handout, but the gist is the same.) In one, the dad quizzes the kid. What’s in the tree? What’s in the sky? Where’s the bird going? And his daughter answers dutifully: A nest. A bird. To the nest. Interactive, yes. But not very lively.

The second example feels a bit different. Dad reads the book, kid curled in his lap. All the same so far. But this time Dad looks at the picture and says "Look at that nest! That must have taken a lot of work, putting together that nest. I wonder who made it." And the girl said, "Birds make nests. See, a bird!" And points to the sky and the bird. Dad says, "That must be the bird’s home." And the girl says. "The nest has baby birds. It’s a mama bird." And so it becomes a conversation, a mutual exploration.

So much of children’s lives – especially for kids like Damian – are about proving what they know, about answering questions and, well, being put on the spot. Grownups rarely know how to engage children unless they’re peppering them with questions. "What’s your name, little boy?" "What did you do today? Do you go to school?" "That’s a pretty skirt you’re wearing. Did your mommy buy that for you?" And of course the ubiquitous "What’s that you’re playing?" We want to be included, we want to be invited in, but we do so by asking and asking and asking again.

I’d forgotten until today about that xeroxed sheaf of pages. I don’t know what made me think of it. At the time, it had felt so far removed from Damian’s ability level I just looked and laughed in dismay. If he could say one single word while I read him a book, that would have been out of this world. A whole conversation? That would be a whole other universe.

As it happens, it’s the universe we’re living in today. So tonight I tried it. Damian trotted up to me with a book. "I want to drink juice and read with Mommy." So I prepped the juice and we settled in the rocking chair to read a story about Max the bunny and his bossy older sister Ruby (a kid-friendly series written by Rosemary Wells). This one is about an Easter egg hunt.

How to do this? I opened the book. The first image is an older rabbit stealing across the meadow with a basket of eggs. Planting the eggs. How do I say something that invites but doesn’t demand a response? Finally I said "Hmm, would’ja look at that?" And you know? Damian responded. "That’s an Easter Lady putting eggs on the ground." Easter lady? I wouldn’t have identified the image that way, but I love knowing he does.

Wanting to encourage this, I proceeded with caution. "It’s dark, I can see the stars."

"It’s night time." He turned the page. Which shows the same meadow as the sun rises. "The sun came up and now it’s day."

That was the best moment, the most clearly spontaneous. But we did fairly well through the rest of the book. I pointed to the eggs Ruby collected in her basket and said I liked the striped one best. Damian said he liked the blue one with swirls best. But when something specific is happening in the book, it’s much harder to let it just flow. If I comment on something I see in the picture, Damian often takes that as an embellishment to the story, not requiring his input. If I ask him what’s going on, well, then I’m putting him on the spot again, demanding a specific answer. I’m still figuring out how to do this. It’s not a simple thing after all, leading a child into dialogue.

Admittedly, Damian now has language. He and I talk all day long, some days. He talks to Dan, talks to his teachers and floor timers and even occasionally to other children. So why is this so important? Why do I feel like I need to do this right now? I’m not sure I know exactly why, but it feels like the right thing. Feels like it will encourage him to develop his spontaneous thinking, to not rely on other people for his ideas about the world and what he sees. He has the ability in some ways – he’s wonderfully creative in his imaginary play – but it still feels like his speech is sometimes more concrete, less thought out than other kids his age. I can’t help but think that something like this, something that allows him to explore in the context of the world of a book and that sets up a dialogue between us about something outside of ourselves – that it might be just what he needs right now.

I just hope I get better at encouraging while leaving him room. It’s deceptively simple in theory. Harder in practice. Much much harder. I think the next library trip, we’ll bring home some books with just pictures, no words. We both need more room to explore.

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