Friday, January 15, 2010

Growing a Reader from Birth by Diane McGuinness

I'm going to have a hard time with this book. Let me say this straight off: I didn't like it. The problem for me now is going to be to explain why in a reasonable way. At first I thought it might just be because McGuinness spends a lot of time refuting other research I have read. It's hard to be told "what you believed is wrong!" (see: Santa) so occasionally my hackles will get up if I read a claim that refutes something I understand to be true, even though my inner academic is rolling her eyes at this unscientific sentiment. However, I think my main problems with this book stem from other things. Her claims have piqued my interest enough that I intend to look into the research myself so as to assure myself that what I understood was correct, or to recognize that I to reevaluate.

I was reading this with professional development in mind. Part of my job involves running baby and toddler sessions at my library, and I tend to be very interested in anything about what is called "pre-literacy" -- that is, the skills that children need to have in place before they can learn how to read. I want to see what I can do to help kids develop those skills.

The premise, which makes a great deal of sense, is that learning to read is a relatively simple matter -- a matter of decoding a code -- if children have the vocabulary, meaning, and understanding of how language works ahead of time. What McGuinness looks at throughout this book is language development in children: how they progress from babies who listen to their mother's voice in utero, recognizing vocal patterns without attaching meaning, to five-year-olds who can carry on a full conversation. Much of this was quite fascinating. Each chapter is set up to explain the concept, the research, and then to offer activities, games and solutions to parents to help their children learn language and learn it well. If you're looking for a book on helping children to read, though, look elsewhere. The information on reading is scanty except for the last chapter, and the last chapter is mostly a damning condemnation of the English-speaking world's education systems when it comes to reading instruction.

It was the way the information was presented that really got under my skin, in two ways. Even if unintentional, these two traits of parenting books are very noticeable and I wish editors would recognize that they're not attractive traits in a book.

First, this is one of those books that can make a person feel a) stupid and b) a bad, bad parent. I got a distinct feeling that if you do not do this right your child will be illiterate for life. I don't even have kids and I was feeling like a bad parent. It's not that she scolds, but there is a very strong "this is the right way, that is the wrong way" dichotomy in the writing. And I don't know how to get around that sort of thing, when she does so clearly believe that there is a right way/wrong way to interact with your children so they learn language. But the feeling I came away with was anxiety; I can't imagine how I would have felt if I was a working mother of two young children who wasn't doing things right. I picture myself throwing the book against the wall, and then locking myself in the bathroom and crying. The how-to suggestions were often vague or unhelpful; very few concrete activities, and lots of "behave this way." I really wanted more.

Second, and this is a huge pet peeve of mine: the caregiver is almost exclusively referred to as "mother." When fathers are included, it's most often parenthetically.

I really, really hate that.

I know it's common. I know that many of the studies are done on biological mothers and their children, and if you're reporting research carefully it makes sense to report on mother-baby relationships. But please, please make it explicit. Say "I can only generalize to mothers because it was only mothers involved in this study." Maybe make an effort to find research on fathers and language learning. If there is none out there, say so.

One of my big goals with my programming as I am moving forward is to get fathers more involved in the literacy lives of their kids. Books like this, where it is assumed that Mom's the one who wants baby to learn how to read well, do not help. It's exclusionary to the extreme. It will not make fathers interested in being involved.

I know the reasons for doing this are to make it easier to read, that having to say "mother and/or father" all the time doesn't work, and I know personally that saying "caregiver" all the time is awkward. There are ways around all this. The major problem I had here aside from the parenthetical dads was that I suspect that in some cases there are times being the biological mother might make a difference, where an adoptive parent or a father might not have the same result. Or, there might be nothing at all different about a biological mom. But I don't know. Everything is mashed together under "mom."

I get riled up about this stuff.

Anyway. So there, in a very large nutshell, are the two big reasons I didn't enjoy this book. They're common problems in parenting books, but I really noticed it here. Then add in the last chapter, which ended up making me wonder how the hell any of us can read at all. I can appreciate that in a society where, at last check, 60% of children have difficulty learning to read, there are problems with the way reading is taught. But 40% of children don't have trouble learning to read and presumably those children are in the same classrooms. Is it because parents teach them at home? Possible. But those 40% who can learn to read easily weren't in evidence at all, so I don't know what the difference is.

I did learn some things that I thought were interesting, particularly about communicating with children and especially about how parents communicate with children. I appreciate now that when the toddlers in my classes speak to me, it's a gift, and something they have had to work hard to do. I'll be treating those interactions as such now.

This book wasn't a complete loss, and I stuck with it for that reason. I think there's good information in it, and I can tell that McGuinness really cares about kids learning to read and become good communicators. I agree with her essential premise, that kids who have the proper language foundation will be literate as opposed to just being able to read. I have a hard time recommending this book, though, because of the issues I had with it. I am probably hyper-sensitive to them. If you're interested in the topic and the issues above don't bother you, go for it.

For the perspective of a mother, check out Rebecca Reid's review. I think she got more out of this book than I did. I'll be getting the second book she mentions in that review if I can find it.


Nan said...

Sounds absolutely horrible! The worst books I read when my kids were little were the ones who said this or that was the ONLY way to do things. I liked writers who realized all kids were different and all families were different. As for reading, well, I have two kids - one was a huge reader, always had a book going, loved books, and still reads at 27 - and the other never liked it, never did it, still doesn't. Okay, I suppose this author would say it's because I'm not the 'biological' mother, but I know other families where some of the kids read and others don't. And frankly it is mostly the boys who don't. Recently I read somewhere that we just have to accept it. Some boys will read, but the majority of readers, child and adult, are female. Anyhow, you wrote a terrifically fair and excellent review!

Unknown said...

Thanks Nan! I'll tell you why I think boys don't read as much as girls: where are their reading role-models? Librarians are mostly women (and especially children's librarians), primary school teachers are mostly women. And then, we have a lot of books like this assuming that it's mom who is the only one interested in getting kids to read. Most of my library programs involve Moms and kids and I'm working really hard to change that. I don't believe that fathers don't take an interest in their kids' literacy, and I want to encourage them to become role models for all their kids.

I don't buy the "biological mom" thing, by the way. But there's no way to separate it out from the general "mom" in this book, so I have nothing to base my skepticism on.

Katie said...

I really hate parenting books that have that right way/wrong way dichotomy. It's just wildly incorrect.

And I hear you about not having fathers involved in library programming. It is frustrating trying to encourage boys to read when there aren't males around to serve as reading role-models.

Don't have any answers, of course, to these issues. Rather just agreeing with your points about this tangled topic.

Rebecca Reid said...

I think I'd read one parenting book before the Growing A Reader one so I wasn't sure what to expect -- and it was only after reading the second book that I realized how much better it could be! I'm with you on all you said, I just was rolling my eyes as I read, although I did love reading a bout the studies and tests on language acquisitions.

I do hope you find ABCs of Literacy. I loved it so much reading the library copy I went out and bought my own copy.

Unknown said...

Katie - I don't have any answers, either :S I figure it's largely trial and error. And, actually, I have noticed that making it explicit in the program title ie. "Dads and Tots" makes them much more willing to come -- but then is exclusive, and I don't always like that either.

Rebecca - The studies and info on language acquisition and communication were what I found really interesting, too. I'm looking forward to the other book - I was able to find it at the library!

Jill said...

I had to laugh about you feeling like a bad parent! Too funny. There are books that have made me feel that way, too. I appreciate that the author feels passionate about the topic, but not giving concrete activities, etc., and making people feel helpless and ineffective, is a huge mistake. I'll skip this one - thanks for the thoughtful review!

Unknown said...

You're welcome! I think that, especially when it comes to talking about children, people can get very adamant about doing things "right." So I understand where it comes from -- I'm just not wild about reading it.

Unknown said...

As a side note, for others interested in boys and literacy, the Government of Ontario has released some great info and reports:

Cara Powers said...

I'm not a parent but I think my parents did a great job on my brother's and my literacy - by modeling. We were born before the boom of parenting books. My mom stayed home with us until we were in school. She talked to us like people and every night she or my dad would read to us. Plus, my dad was always reading in his free time. I was reading (not just decoding) before kindergarten without any more than that.

Unknown said...

One of the things early literacy experts seem to agree on is that talking to kids frequently even before they can talk back is one of the best ways to help kids develop a couple of the different pre-literacy skills. And modeling is definitely seen as an important step, too. :)