Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Eight
Baby's Active Reading Time 
Incubating a Little Reader: Cracking the Shell
Well, exactly just how do you raise or incubate an early reader? Initially, when your
infant was very little, you created a shell: a protective environment where baby could
enjoy the attention and support of loving partners. Within this early shell you shared
conversations and stories, and reading to baby became as much a part of baby’s day as
eating healthy food, breathing clean air, and enjoying inviting naps.
But now as your little partner grows in curiosity and interest, it is time to gently tap the shell. Gradually, as the shell opens, you discover that your mostly sleepy little listener is left behind and has been replaced by a toddler who is rapidly becoming an active participant in your conversations and in the stories he or she listens to.
The shell does not break all at once. But when baby signals it is time to become actively involved in a conversation or story -- it is incumbent upon a senior partner to be ready to meet baby’s new interests and demands.
As the protective shell cracks open, a little partner’s world widens as well.
Stepping into this new and interesting world, a little partner, like any courageous explorer, quickly discovers an increased curiosity and enthusiasm for taking on the unknown – like sharing in a new and more challenging story, like curiously inquiring about newly discovered meanings found in the stories a little partner has heard so many times before.
Stories will take on more importance now. Now, reading time becomes an opportunity for a senior partner to guide a little partner through the true riches or meaning inherent in every story.
Now is the perfect time to begin to help your child gain a greater understanding of the stories and books you share; to help a little partner develop reading comprehension skills that will serve him or her well all along the journey to literacy.
Meaningful Squiggles
Learning to read, after all, is learning to understand what the writer or author was thinking, or wanted the reader to think, when putting all those squiggles, those letters and words, on the page.
Most of all, successful reading is the ability to glean an author’s message and/or gain new information or knowledge from print. Reading, in all its essence, is meaning
While it may seem contrary to put meaning or understanding (comprehension) first, even before  a little partner can recognize letters or words, it is after all the only reason to even bother to learn how to read. Remember that letters and words in isolation have no meaning on their own. They are merely symbols for something else, but combine them just right and before you know it you have an awesome bedtime story.
Expert Senior Partners take advantage of this opportune time to guide their little emerging reader through the adventures and rewards of reading for meaning.
Time for Action
The first time your littlest partner points to an illustration in a book, like the mean-looking purple dinosaur in Byron Barton’s book, Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs, and asks, “What’s that?” you know that your time and efforts are paying off.
At last your little partner is able to communicate that he or she is engaged in the story, that the little “listener” is now eager to make connections between the story and what is meaningful to them, or in the case of dinosaurs, making connections between a picture and something the little partner has yet to learn about or understand.
For a little partner this is the first step in reading comprehension: making connections between what is known and what he or she still needs to figure out. This is how our minds work, particularly very young and active minds. Each connection is one more step towards knowledge, one more step to literacy. There are just so many steps, so many connections to make, so much to learn!
And there is so little time. Therefore it is important that you make some extra time now, say set aside some playtime, each day to engage your little partner in these new and interactive reading activities. Do not let this opportunity go by.  This is important time – incubation time, so to speak – when your child’s interest and curiosity in the stories you read will become increasingly intense.
Right now your opportunity to further your little partner’s language development and to encourage his or her understanding or ability to comprehend a story will probably never be greater. In contrast to bedtime stories where both partners can reap the rewards of relaxation at the end of the day, this is active reading time – time when the newest and littlest active reader is encouraged to participate in the story itself.
Make It Up
You have already prepared your little partner for this stage of the reading journey when you shared with baby those board books or soft-cloth books. By now baby is familiar with these books, they have become baby’s “friends.”
Consequently, baby will not want to part with these familiar books, but for active reading purposes soft cloth and board books often do not carry enough storyline to keep baby’s attention during this active phase.
As baby grows, however, the value of these beloved board books  can grow as well, especially given their colorful illustrations. It is these illustrations that lend themselves to imaginative and absorbing stories created -- on the spot -- by a clever senior partner.
Remember, you are introducing “active” story time. So, clever senior partner, grab a book, scoop your little partner onto your lap and prepare to “read” or custom fit your story to the illustrations at hand. Point to horsey.  “What is that?” you say. “I see the barn where horsey sleeps?. Horsey says naaaa...  Horsey is big. Horsey eats hay.” “The sheep says baaaa. He has a very warm coat. He likes to eat grass.”
Make it up. You’ll find baby’s imagination is more receptive to your creative authorship than any words that might or might not be printed on the page. Don’t hesitate to encourage baby to join in.
This is early participation or emerging comprehension. “Kitty’s all tangled up in the yarn. What does kitty say? ‘Meow,’ says kitty. Help me.”
Let your simple story play to the sounds and editorializing baby likes best. Butterfly? Ducks? Worms? Point to the pictures as you tell your story and baby will pick up the cue and play along, copying your sounds, pointing to the illustrations. After all, these are baby’s own books and baby should be privileged to “read” them too.
For beginning active reading purposes, use board books with large, simple, and brightly colored illustrations. While many storybooks are now being published in board book editions, leave these for other reading times. It is too easy to simply fall back on reading the print.
For now, it is best to look for books with friendly animals and other everyday objects that baby knows best. The simpler the better. This way baby can enjoy interacting with just one object or animal at a time. Besides, it’s more fun to make up your own sound effects and commentary. Keep in mind that these books are designed to be baby-friendly, to appeal to baby in the same way as other favorite toys.
Actively Building Vocabulary
While you are at it, don’t overlook the possibilities of using soft-cloth and board books to increase baby’s vocabulary, to introduce baby to new words, or labels. Point to the illustrations and improvise: “Chair. It’s just like Daddy’s chair.” “Spoon. Baby’s spoon.” “Bed. Baby goes night-night.” Board books are excellent resources to help baby learn new words.
In the board book, What Is It? by Tana Hoban, baby is introduced to such objects as a brightly colored coin purse and a multi-colored bucket. What a good way to introduce new objects or new words.  The bonus?  Baby can begin to associate the joy and pleasure of learning new information from his very own books. This is learning to read for information right from the beginning.
This had to be what Helen Oxenbury had in mind when she wrote and illustrated her three books, I Hear. I See. I Touch. “Must reads” for toddlers. Oxenbury helps a toddler learn by portraying the books’ subject (baby) interacting with familiar objects. While the baby in the book listens on a telephone, studies a flower, or puzzles over a wiggling worm, the senior partner can introduce each object to baby (vocabulary building) and together explore the sounds each object makes (making new connections).
Rain? A wristwatch? An airplane? Your commentary should find few bounds as you discuss with your toddler the relationship between the objects and the book baby’s reactions to these objects.
Try water, “Drip, drip, drip.” “Flowers. Sniff, sniff.”  “Worm. Wiggle, wiggle.” This is one to two-year-old reading comprehension and vocabulary building at its best.
When the Mouse Says, “Click”
Some board and soft cloth books also double as alphabet books. Early phonics? Well, why not? All in a comfortable and natural sort of way.
As you read each letter, trace the letter’s shape with your finger. “A.” “A is for airplane.” Exaggerate the "a" in airplane while you and baby point to the airplane. Then on to “B.” “B is for bunny” with emphasis on the "b" sound.
If the illustration representing the letter brings to mind other examples of that particular letter sound, include them.  A bunny bounces. A computer mouse clicks. Make a game of it, but don’t be disappointed if it’s a short game, especially in the beginning.
As a little partner becomes more familiar with the alphabet letters, let him or her chose the ones he or she likes best -- even if this means spending reading time on only one or two letters, or the illustrations accompanying them. This is a splendid introduction to what will soon enough become concentrated phonics lessons.
For now, you can simply introduce your little partner to the idea that letters are meaningful not so much in and of themselves but in the fact that they represent sounds which carry over, or translate, into words. And right from the beginning -- right from baby’s first active and natural “phonics” lesson.
How Books Work
While you are at it, this is also an ideal time to gracefully show your active reader how books work.
Adjust your little partner on you lap and introduce such useful techniques as how to hold the book upright, and turn the pages front to back. However, if you are little and not yet able to read it can be just as much fun – and important -- to turn the pages back to front and hold the book upside down. This is okay. After all, the whole idea is all one and the same to a little partner. Soon, however, with your help baby will learn.
Before long, holding a book upright, turning pages, pointing and sharing a story will become a very important occupation. In fact, expect your toddler to correct you.
Still, don’t be dismayed when your small, rambunctious reader tosses the book in the air or chews the edges. Keep in mind that this is, after all, your littlest partner’s active reading time, and it is more important to become thoroughly acquainted with all the qualities of his or her own books rather than to primly hold books upright and read from left to right.
Cloth and board books can withstand this rough treatment -- and so can you. So go ahead, let your young toddler experience and explore every facet of these new and valuable friends.
But like all reading sessions, keep it short. Let baby tell you when enough is enough. Let baby push the book aside to fall asleep, or explore something else in his or her brand new world that unexpectedly captures a little one's imagination and interest.
Happy Reading Time
As a senior partner consider it your job to make active reading time a regular part of baby’s play. What better way to teach baby the value of books and how to become engaged with a book’s message or illustrations than with early and regular sessions with friendly cloth and board books when baby is happiest and relaxed.
Through regular playtime-reading sessions, young children not only learn new words and concepts (connections), but learn that there is important information to be found in a book’s pages. And there is nothing quite as fine as taking pride in owning, holding and sharing one’s own books –even if in the beginning, it is only a small, well-chewed board book
Suggested Titles:
Active Reading Time Board Books
  • Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Byron Barton
  • Trucks by Byron Barton
  • What Is It? by Tana Hoban
  • I See by Helen Oxenbury
  • I Hear by Helen Oxenbury
  • I Touch by Helen Oxenbury