Recently I read at the Lower Valley branch of the El Paso Public Library, and my heart leapt when I saw that a few parents had brought their niņos and niņas to my reading. I love reading with children in the audience, and enjoy telling them about how I found my best stories exploring the irrigation canals in Ysleta as a boy.
During the question-and-answer session after my reading, an essential question came up: how do we turn our children into early readers? I mentioned that both my sons, who were in the audience too, had become excellent readers. Aaron, who is eight, reads about two young adult books per week. Isaac's teacher recently took me aside and said my five-year-old is also one of the best readers in his class. An administrator at their school once asked me, "How do we bottle what you're doing? Your children are such tremendous readers." I'm not sure you can bottle early reading skills and sell them at Wal-Mart. But here are a few lessons I shared with other parents at the El Paso Public Library.
Read to your children every day, and start early, when they are one- or two-years-old. We typically read to our kids at bedtime because reading together is an intimate and quiet time for our family. My wife, Laurita, reads to one of the boys, and I read to the other, and then we switch. Now that Aaron is reading novels by himself, I sit next to him and ask him what he likes and doesn't like about the book.
Make reading and storytelling a part of your family's culture. Every other Saturday, my wife takes the kids to our local public library for 'Library Day.' They pick out about fifteen books, with the help of the librarian, to read during the next two weeks. When I take the boys to school in the morning, or over the dinner table, I tell them stories about Lobo or Princey, my dogs in Ysleta, or I encourage them to make up their own stories. Children naturally love stories and have powerful imaginations. Words and stories should become things they use and manipulate like clay. And don't get me wrong. My kids watch television. I just limit their watching to about one hour per day.
At the beginning, read slowly, point to each word, and never force them to read or write if they are not ready. When my kids were toddlers, Laura and I taught them not just their letters but also the sounds the letters make. Phonics. But we would also read whole words and sentences in books for beginners. The makeup of syllables. The rhythm of words. The singsong of rhymes. I also tried to speak Spanish often, so they would understand the sounds, and become at least orally bilingual. When Aaron and Isaac were just beginning to understand words, to look at the text I was pointing to instead of the colorful pictures, I would linger over the word, let them digest it slowly, and even show them how to create other words by just dropping or adding a letter. I tried to make it fun, a game, and I certainly never had the intention of making them into super-scholars. I just wanted to share my love of words and stories with them. You need to be playful and curious about words.
So I don't think it takes magic to turn your children into good early readers. It takes time with your children, even when a million other things demand your attention. It takes patience and warmth, even when you are dead-tired and haven't slept more than five hours the night before. It takes curiosity about the words on the coffee cup, the words on street signs, the world of words all around you, and stories. You can help your precioso or preciosa to decipher these words, if you only take a careful look. Take your kids to the El Paso Public Library. That's a good place to start.
This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on November 10, 2002.
See the video of Sergio Troncoso's speech for the President's Program of the American Library Association: From Literacy to Literature (Real Media Player).