Children’s learning patterns can seem quite mysterious to an adult. The meanings they take from stories, for example, can be different from the meanings we think they take. In an earlier post I described how children need quite some time to work out what is real and what isn’t; and to come to understand the conventions of form and illustration in picture books – all processes which affect how they construct meaning.
Here are some further things to note:
A child’s logic may not seem logical to an adult. For example: A child might ask the following slightly off-track questions during a reading of The Three Little Pigs:
The Three Little Pigs
Why don’t animals eat themselves?
Why don’t wolves blow people’s houses down?
Do pigs wear hats?
Can pigs walk?
The adult sees these questions as irrelevant to the story being read. But the child has to work through many different connections between ideas and how things work in the world before they come to a similar kind of understanding. Their ‘own’ logic is very precious because it is based on seeing the world through new eyes.
What should you do? Should you interrupt your reading so that the thread of the story is lost and try to answer the questions asked as best you can? I think so. If the child’s mind is actively seeking answers then they really need to know what those answers are.
Of course, some children get so caught up with the questions that you never get back to the story. Maybe if this happens you can suggest you have a turn of just listening to the story. But on the whole questions shouldn’t be discouraged – it means the child is learning to think independently.
Children do not have an automatic understanding of idioms, homonyms and word play. Language has many encoded mysteries which adults understand without consciously thinking about them.
For example, a simple word can cause confusion to a child because it has more than one meaning. I recall the word ‘feet’ causing this problem for my daughter when we were reading Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Oh, help!’ said Pooh, as he dropped ten feet to the branch below him.’
But in the picture, as Juliet pointed out, Pooh only drops two feet, not ten! She was convinced the author had got it wrong. This kind of confusion is also caused with idioms.
What should you do? It is probably better to talk about these concepts outside of reading time. You could play word games to help this kind of understanding. Then when they do cause confusion in a reading it will be easier to explain what is meant.
Progress in a child’s learning is not continuously forward and may seem to get ‘stuck’ at times. A common learning pattern for a child is to take a step forward, then a step backward, pause there for a time, then move forward again.
Sometimes, a story a child seemed to understand suddenly raises questions from them suggesting they’ve missed the point entirely. There can be many reasons for this but one is that they become temporarily obsessed with something – not necessarily for reasons we understand. Subjects that regularly come under children’s scrutiny in this way include hands; feet; fathers; mothers; who/what looks after who/what; stealing; eating animals; death; and what’s real or pretend. A child will endlessly test out what can be known about their current fascination – they relate it to everything else – both successfully and unsuccessfully, they imitate it, and they see connections that may or may not be there.
What should you do? Understanding that there are common, seemingly irregular, learning patterns that most children work through means there’s no need to feel anxious when a child seems to ‘go backwards’. It is a part of their learning even though it looks as if it’s the opposite!
Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present
Children build on what they know of the world by relating it to their books and their books gain in meanings as they learn more about the world.
This is a reciprocal process which reinforces understanding of a whole range of things. In other words, the books you read to children aren’t only offering them the pleasure of story and enrichment for the imagination. They also help build and consolidate ways of understanding and knowing.
What should you do? You can look out for books that might be helpful for situations relevant to your child. There is almost certainly a book that explores every new situation a child will face such as their ‘first time’ experiences – the dentist, the doctor, kindergarten, school – the death of a pet, the birth of a baby brother or sister and so on. It is best though to try to choose well written books that achieve their purpose in imaginative ways as books of this kind can be of poor quality. Do you have any recommendations?
The Children’s Book Council of Australia has announced their short listfor the book of the year in various categories for 2016.
There are some wonderful choices in each category. You could encourage your children, grandchildren or class to read books from the shortlist and make their own predictions as to which book deserve to win. I’d love to report any comments children might have about any books on the short list.
The winners are announced in August.
Picture book of the year
(You will notice that Aaron Blabey made it into the Early childhood category with Piranhas don’t eat bananas.)
I had a very nice surprise this week when Zoe’s mum posted a video of her reading my I Like Poems book on facebook. The best thing was that Zoe said the poem ‘Counting’ was ‘perfect’ for her as she is eight and is in the soccer team. Thanks Zoe!
Has anyone tried to read The Book with no Pictures by B.J. Novak to their children? It came out at the end of 2014 but I hadn’t come across it. I was intrigued by the title and got it from the library this week. I decided it might work on a parent child basis but I don’t think it would work with my Kindy class.
Then I found this Youtube of a teacher in America reading it to her class. The children seem to be enjoying it but I’m still not convinced I want to try it. What do you think?
Here’s an outline of a few useful sites to help you find advice about children, reading and books on the web. Most sites have some commercial base so you need to read with discrimination – but then that is true of anything you read, especially on the web!
Do you have any sites you’d like to recommend? Please add them to the comment box for others to see.
Purpose: Pinterest is a visual bookmarking tool that helps you discover and save creative ideas. You can save anything you find around the web to a board you set up for yourself or you can look to see what other people have collected on topics of your choice. I looked at Children and Books here but most topics have a swag of suggestions.
Purpose: Established in 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) is a not-for-profit, volunteer run organisation which aims to engage the community with literature for young Australians. The CBCA presents annual awards to books of literary merit, for outstanding contribution to Australian children’s literature.
Organisation: Reports lists of notables, short lists and winners of awards by year. Publishes Reading Time online which presents news and reviews of children’s books.
Start the practice of visiting the library at a very young age. Let them choose their own books – a bit of subtle guidance and even sleight of hand may be needed, but children love to choose things for themselves.
Cooper reading with Patch
I have two special memories of libraries. I was introduced to the Kew library in Victoria when I was 8 (way too old). I can still remember how astonished I was to find you could take books home. When I left the library with my books I kept looking back to see if anyone was following me to take them back again.
My other memory is of Juliet, my daughter, lying on the floor of the library and refusing to get up when it was time to leave. ‘Come on, Juliet,’ I said. ‘I can’t,’ she replied. ‘I’m a library book. I’m waiting for someone to take me out.’
I am often found in the children’s section of our local libraries looking for books to read to my Kindy group. That is where I met Cooper with his mother, Lyn. Here he is reading a book of his own choice with his bear, Patch, beside him. He was completely absorbed in his task.
These days libraries offer many different free programs and events to inspire children’s love of books. It is worth checking out what is on for children, especially in the holidays. One program some Queensland libraries have been involved with is First Five Forever which is about how important the first five years of a child’s life are in terms of brain development and learning.
Make books for your children.
You can use your computer to make something that will be special just for your child. It can be done quite simply as a power point or pdf, run off and stapled together. That is a method I used for a book I made called ‘The Great Strawberry Mystery’ for my step grandson, Max. We were visiting in KL and at the time he was very fond of strawberries . You can look at the story The Great Strawberry Mystery.
The Great Strawberry Mystery
Another approach is to purchase a photo book from a commercial firm (eg Snapfish, Photobook) and then paste your text, photos or pictures into it. They will print your book and post it to you. Watch out for their special offers – sometimes they waive postage or offer up to 80% off.
Making up the story need not be difficult. You can take the plot from any story and change the details if you don’t want to invent your own. Or you can write about your child’s daily life and introduce a visit from a storybook character.
I made a book for my niece, Chilli, called ‘Chilli’s secret tea party’ using Photobook. I knew she loved the Olivia books by Ian Falconer and I had gathered lots of information about her sayings, her friends, what she liked doing and so on. Then I fitted these details into a story that showed Chilli having a secret tea party for Olivia. You can watch her listening to the first part of her book right here on thisFacebook video.
It was great fun for me to make and you can see Chilli was very involved right from the start. Her mum says it is a favourite. And it will be interesting for her to look back on when she is older.
Make books with your children.
This can work well with most ages. It is often good to start with something a child draws. Talk about the drawing together. That is how The Rainbow Dragon and The Rainbow Dragon’s Revenge began. My grandson, Oliver, drew a beautiful coloured dragon and it was our talking about his dragon that got us started. Oliver and James, his brother, were soon involved in telling me about its adventures. This gave me a plot to work with (a bit weird and wonderful) and I wrote the stories while the children added illustrations. I made two books with my grandsons in this way. I recently put them on Create Space and made them available online (see my website).
Look out for books about things that chime with your child’s current interests.
As children develop, they move through many different experiences, passions and stages. Tapping into what a child is experiencing at a particular moment and finding books that explore similar things is a great way to capture a child’s interest. An example that brought me a lot of pleasure recently was sparked by a poem in my book, ‘I Like Poems’. Molly had spent many years of her young life wanting a dog and then she finally got one. When she was reading my poetry book, given to her by her grandparents, the poem ‘If…’ about not having a dog really struck a chord. She wrote a poem in response to show what it meant to her to own a dog, a poem full of feeling and empathy.
If . . . If I had a dog
I’d feed it every day.
I’d brush its coat,
I’d check for fleas,
We’d walk and run and play.
If I had a dog
I’d sneak it in at night.
I’d pat my bed,
I’d make a space,
We’d sleep till it was light.
If I had a
I’d train it to obey.
I’d give commands,
I’d give rewards,
‘twould do just what I say.
If I had a dog I know that in the end We’d be a team, We’d be best friends. Till then – I’ll just pretend.
Molly wrote a wonderful poem in response.
Now . . . Now I have a dog
His name is Harvey bear
He’s black and white
And very cute
Of him I take good care
Now I have a dog
He can dance and run and play
He licks and barks
He sneaks our food
He loves us everyday
Now I have a dog
He often goes to sleep
He lies on my bed
He sleeps on my couch
Maybe he’s counting sheep
Now I have a dog
His name is Harvey bear
He’ll be my friend
Until they end
We’ll always be a pair
Molly’s Harvey Bear
Finally If I can be of any help with your own book-making experiments please email me. I am far from expert with any of these things but I am willing to help if I can.
Young children take time to learn whether things are living or non-living, real or pretend. In their world these categories are not yet well defined. It may make for a world that has more exciting, even magical, possibilities but it may also at times be more bewildering, frightening or threatening.
Adults bring to picture books a well-defined set of understandings about how the world works and how the picture book format interprets experience. It takes considerable time for a young child to acquire a similar kind of understanding and ‘background’ knowledge.
They may know, for example, at one level that illustrations aren’t real and that they represent things from the real world. But at another level they believe that the characters or animals in their books are real. ‘Where did the tiger go?’ asked a boy at kindergarten yesterday when I had just finished reading The Tiger who came to tea. For him, that tiger was out there somewhere. He might even come to visit his house and stay for tea!
Young children take time to learn how illustrations represent things. Adults understand that a partial illustration or a side view of, say, a fox represents the whole fox. A child on the other hand will ask ‘Where are his other two legs?’ and turn over the page to see if they are on the back of it. When I was reading Noah’s Ark to my daughter, Juliet, many moons ago, she thought the ostrich, who had only one leg showing, ‘must have his other leg at the animal hospital where they fix legs.’ (I only remember this because I kept a diary of our reading when she was three until she turned five.)
‘What’s the matter with Mary Jane?’ from When we were very young by A.A. Milne. Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard
From I want my tooth! by Tony Ross (A Little Princess Story)
A child’s background and experience can also colour what they see. As a child I was sure that the thing buzzing around Mary Jane’s head was a fly. As an adult I came to realise it was her shoe she’d kicked off because of that rice pudding. This had never occurred to me as a way of venting my frustrations as a child though I am sure I hated rice pudding just as much as Mary Jane.
Size in illustrations is another convention that needs to be understood. Children do not always recognise the rules of perspective, for example. A figure who is small and a long way off may, in fact, be larger than a figure in the foreground. Very confusing if you don’t know the rules.
From The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Rhyme Book. Er . . is that a real horse?
Size is also used for other purposes than representing reality in children’s books. It can draw attention to something as does this wonderful illustration from I want my tooth by Tony Ross. The Little Princess’s mouth and teeth fill the left hand page yet on the facing page her mouth is the same size as everyone else’s. Size exaggerates, distorts, creates fear – it achieves all sorts of things in picture books. Children respond enthusiastically to these techniques without necessarily understanding them.
Young children will not yet know the meaning of many of the words they hear when listening to a story. They may not understand enough to ask for meanings and it may take time for them to recognise what they don’t know and to learn how to ask. This plays some part in why children love to hear the same story over and over. As you know, young children love repetition, rather more than you do! ‘Repetition Rules’ has more to say on this subject.
Knowing that each part of a story contributes to the whole takes time for a child to appreciate. It isn’t immediately obvious to a child that a story has a beginning,a middle and an end. After all, many of their earliest board books are not structured in this way. For reasons of their own, young children may be more impressed with parts of a story or its pictures than with the story as a whole.
Children also notice things in a picture book that an adult may not notice or find unimportant. They are attuned to illustrations in ways it may be hard for us to anticipate. I recall, for example, my daughter’s obsession with the fate of a bird that had nothing at all to do with the plot of the book I was reading her, Mrs Tiggiwinkle by Beatrix Potter. At each new page she would ask ‘Where is that bird ? What is he doing now?’ It is disconcerting for the reader but it helps if you understand that a child’s logic is often quite quite different from your own.
Children need time to come to grasp the concepts that shape what we hear and see which we take for granted. They will find their own way, and they don’t need to be hurried, but it does help if we can support them along the way by understanding the complex processes involved.
Do these observations chime with any you have made? Comments most welcome.
Future blog topics: Please send any topics you’d like me to talk about either by posting here or by emailing me your thoughts (firstname.lastname@example.org/).