Summer is here, which is lovely (well, actually it’s a little hot), and as we know most of our kids relish their long-awaited break from school. Of course many of us parents worry that our kids are going to fall behind in their academic progress, forgetting much of what they learned and practiced the year before. Well, I can’t really speak about academic enrichment centers or camps or summer tutoring, but I can give you some good suggestions for helping your kids practice their reading and critical thinking skills. One of the main reasons I loved teaching English Literature was how readily the subject lends itself to teaching critical thinking. Now, through my reading experiences with my preschooler, I’m learning that many of the exercises I used with my high school students work just as well (scaled down, of course) with younger students. Here’s a sample:
1) With beginning readers, use illustrated books to ask what he/she thinks is happening on each page. If your child is hesitant to engage with the book or not quite verbal enough yet, ask pointed questions about the illustrations. For example, “What is that cow eating?” “What are those kids playing?” “Why is that girl laughing?” “Why is that boy crying?” As your child ages and progresses, you can ask higher level questions, like “Do you think it’s hot or cold in this picture? How do you know?” “How does this girl feel in this picture? What makes you say that?” “Why was that man late for his bus? How does he feel about being late?” “Why did that girl get angry with her mother? How do you think her mother feels about their argument?” Asking your kids to reflect on what motivates the characters’ feelings and actions strengthens their observation and critical thinking skills. You can do this exercise with your older kids too (with books and movies); asking them to think about why a character feels the way he/she does or why he/she acts in a certain way is what we English teachers call character analysis.
2) Along with asking your kids what is happening in a story and why it’s happening, you can ask them what he/she thinks is going to happen. With younger kids you can ask them what happens next in familiar books. Younger kids love to show you that they know the story, and to them the end of a story is like the punchline to a joke. My preschooler used to blurt out the last page of a story when I was only halfway through, and he looked at me with such glee that I couldn’t bear to correct him if he was wrong. With older kids, ask them what they think will happen next in books that are new to them. Then to stretch them even further, ask them why they think something will happen. This exercise will strengthen their imagination as well as critical thinking. For all you scientifically-minded parents, what you’re doing is asking them to consider the evidence they have before them, use it to make a prediction, and then defend their prediction. And all of this merely from discussing a storybook.
3) Summer time generally means a lot more time at home which can mean a lot more time in front of a screen (I was going to say “television” but I guess those days are numbered, huh?). This can produce a mixed bag of emotions for parents. My children are quite young so sometimes I need to plant them in front of the television so I can make dinner or do laundry or, you know, go to the bathroom. But of course I also feel guilty if I think my preschooler is watching too much television. Parents of older kids might wonder how to get their kids away from the screens and outside to play. Well I can’t solve that problem, but I can suggest that you entice your kids to watch shows or movies that are also books. Then you can read the books to/with your kids before or after they watch the show or movie. And if you’re feeling really motivated, you can ask simple compare and contrast questions. There are a lot of shows for preschoolers and early elementary school kids that are also books, like Olivia, Curious George, Dora the Explorer, Go, Diego, Go!, Sofia the First, The Berenstain Bears, and a whole host of others. The other day my preschooler was watching Olivia and called out: “Hey Mom! Olivia is trying to sell lemonade and she can’t sell as much as Francine. In the book we read before she couldn’t sell as many cookies as Francine. What’s wrong with Olivia?” Okay, so not exactly the higher level comparison I could have hoped for, but it’s a start! I was thrilled that he was connecting the book to the show. And for older kids, there are tons of movies that started as books to read, view, and discuss.
Just give me a holler if you’d like more suitable examples by age, and I’d love for any of you to share your own examples or ideas in the comments below! Enjoy a lot of wonderful books this summer! And remember: if your kids can’t read yet, studies show that the best pre-reading activity is for you to read to them as often as possible. These same studies show that even if your kids can read, reading aloud to them will strengthen their love for reading and motivate them to read more on their own.