There’s a paradox at the heart of reading. It’s one that children can help solve when they’re three or four, if you let them lead the way.
The paradox is this: The most important determinant of your child’s reading ability, especially as she gets into the later years of elementary school, is the general knowledge she already has. At the same time, one of the best ways to get general knowledge is to read.
So which comes first, the knowledge or the reading?
Background knowledge leads to reading comprehension and enjoyment
Before we attempt to solve this riddle, let’s explore why background knowledge matters so much for reading success. Try reading this passage that I took from a 2016 issue of The Times of India:
Mishra bowled beautifully in every game, reminded us of how crucial a quality legspinner can be in ODIs. Flight, dip, guile, turn, he had it all. Mishra, who will turn 34 next month, owned the Vizag ODI, taking 5/18 to skittle New Zealand for 79. His batting and fielding, in particular, were disappointing; never more than in Ranchi where he fumbled a regulation stop and then made a total mess of a catch of Martin Guptill at long-off.1
Got an image of what was going on? I’m betting that, unless you’re a cricket fan, this passage is pretty confusing. It’s hard to understand because, like me, you don’t know what legspinners or ODIs are. And what’s a regulation stop or a long-off? Skittling sounds fun, but I have no idea what it means.
Now imagine being in your child’s shoes, reading this passage from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a favorite in second and third grade classrooms in the U.S.:
“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay. . . . It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. . . . It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. . . . It was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitchforks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in.”
What if you did not know what hay is? Or perspiration, harnesses, axles, grindstones, pitchforks, scythes, and pails? Reading this passage would be difficult and not much fun. So it’s easy to see how background knowledge is critical for both reading comprehension and pleasure.
Now back to our paradox: which comes first, the reading or the knowledge?
Background knowledge begins with questions and dialogue
From a young age, children begin to acquire knowledge from many sources, reading being just one of them. This knowledge enables them to make sense of books when they begin to read independently in elementary school.
And here is where your three-year-old child is an invaluable ally in your quest to build background knowledge: Preschoolers love to ask questions. Many love to ask questions until their parents get annoyed. Researchers estimate that two- to five-year-olds ask between 400 and 1,200 questions per week.2
By answering their questions — and by first using them as a starting point for conversations about the world around us — we help children build the knowledge they’ll need to understand what they read. By answering and by asking our own questions, and sharing the joy of finding answers, we show them that questions and learning are important.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by our children’s question-asking enthusiasm. I remember yearning for peace and quiet during conversations like this one:
My daughter: Dad, where are all those people going?
Me: They’re going home from work.
My daughter: Why are they going home from work?
Me: Because the work day is done.
My daughter: Why is the work day done?
Me: Because it’s six o’clock.
My daughter: Why is it six o’clock?
But here’s the deal: Your child’s natural curiosity at this age is an educational gold mine — and it’s the foundation of learning and reading success. Find your way through the frustrating moments and and keep up with the questions and answers, and both you and your child will be rewarded mightily.
Try to encourage dialogue
If you want to encourage your child to ask more questions, there is a natural way: Ask more questions of your own. Researchers have found that some parents tend toward using language to give direction to their children (“Please stop chasing the cat”), while other parents tend to ask more questions of their children, even when they want a child to change behavior (“How do you think the cat feels when you chase her?”). As Willingham writes, “ If you give a lot of commands, you’re showing your child that the purpose of language is for communicating one’s wishes to others. If you ask a lot of questions, you’re showing your child that the purpose of language is the acquisition of new knowledge.”3
There are even ways to invite questions and dialog when you’re telling your child what to do. For example, by giving a reason along with your request, you’re inviting a counterargument. For example, instead of saying, “Put your seatbelt on,” you might say, “Put your seatbelt on so you’ll be safe in the car.” Your child might respond that she does not need a seatbelt to be safe. Now you have something to talk about (after, of course, your child puts her seatbelt on), and your child is learning new things.
When answering your child’s questions, short answers are best, especially when the subject is complex. Willingham offers a good example: If your child says, “Why are leaves green?”. . . say something like, “The food for the tree is in the leaves, and the food is green.”4
On any given day, you may not have the patience to get into a back and forth with your child. That’s totally fine. But when you can handle it, you’re helping her build the web of knowledge she’ll need to make sense of what she reads as she gets older.
Do this one thing
Answer as many of your child’s questions as you can, and try to get into back-and-forth conversations about mutually interesting topics.
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- Jamie Alter, “India ODI series report card: Virat Kohli, Amit Mishra and then some.” Times of India, October 30, 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/new-zealand-in-india-2016/top-stories/India-ODI-series-report-card-Virat-Kohli-Amit-Mishra-and-then-some/articleshow/55137550.cms.
- Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, p. 45.
- Willingham, p. 47.
- Willingham, p. 45.