Monday, August 31, 2009

Spreading a Word Game Obsession

It's said that children of readers become readers themselves. It's always good for kids to see adults reading for pleasure. I realized on our vacation that there is a similar passing down of word games. I love a good word game, and for my husband and me, having a vacation means having time to play Scrabble. With a board always out, it was only a matter of time before the 4-year-olds discovered it and decided to play a game of their own. After making a grid of made-up words and asking us to read their creative spellings, the kids moved on to searching for the whole alphabet.

I shouldn't be at all surprised. On a typical weekend morning, you'll find my husband and I on Facebook on computers across the room playing our turns on Lexulous (the Scrabble-like game that's far superior to the Facebook Scrabble app) and our daughter runs back and forth between us, helping us put our letters on the virtual boards.

Imitating play on these word games is great for letter recognition practice, and for letter writing practice there's crossword puzzles. I love a good crossword, and whenever my daughter sees me doing one she runs up, grabs the pencil out of my hand, and starts filling in letters at random. (Yes, it took me a while to relinquish crossword puzzle control in this way.)

Through these word games I really see my daughter experimenting with letters and letter sounds, and she really shows her curiosity about reading. So I say let your kids into the game, and you never know what they might learn.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

School Year's Resolutions

When my nephew came home from his first day of kindergarten, his mother was excited to hear about his day. In the most dejected voice, Zach said, “It was awful. They didn’t even teach us how to read.”

I don’t remember much about my first day of kindergarten, but I do remember carrying my orange Holly Hobbie lunch box and posing for a “first day of school” photo before I headed to the bus stop.

I distinctly remember feeling very official. I had a great sense of hope and anticipation on the first day of school that carried me through college.

I mostly loved school, but for me, going back to school meant a brand new beginning and a chance to do things differently. I doubt that in kindergarten I had many regrets. But by first grade I treated the first day of school the way some people treat New Year’s Resolutions: This year I’m going to remember to read the cafeteria menu the night before and pack a lunch when they serve beef-a-roni (or barf-a-roni, as we came to call it).

By junior high I was showing a little more intellectual ambition: This year I’m not going to forget that I have homework until I’m sitting at the bus stop the next morning.

By high school: This year I’m going to go to bed early and try not to fall asleep during precalculus.

By college, the words had changed, but the intention was still the same: This semester I’m going to read every assignment the professor suggests…from start to finish…and not wait until the morning before class. (This resolution, I sadly must report, was never achieved. Not even close.)

Every child has great expectations and ambitions for what the year will bring, whether good or bad. Talk to your child and figure out what those expectations are. Really listen and find out if the expectations need a little management, as Zach’s obviously needed, or whether those expectations can be put into attainable goals that you can help your child achieve. Packing a lunch on the days they served beef-a-roni was an achievable goal. Learning to read in one day is not. (But cheers to Zach for having that kind of ambition!)

Fall is a great time to make some new (school) year’s resolutions for you and your kids. What will they be?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bookstore Etiquette

As a writer, I have the luxury of being one of those dads you see pushing a stroller in the middle of a weekday. Living in New York City, I have a wide choice of destinations — playgrounds, a great children’s museum, the American Museum of Natural History, a toy store with a train set, and of course, the prime stop for all parents and kids: Barnes & Noble.

Believe me, I’m not one of those perfect dads who look down their nose at other parents. We all know it’s hard to keep our strollers provisioned and our children in line. I’ve had to borrow a diaper or two from a stranger in my day. (“Uh, excuse me, miss. Is your child a size four?”) But there are times when my inner schoolmarm emerges. So herewith I propose some simple guidelines for how to behave in Barnes & Noble, Borders, Shakespeare & Co., or any other bookstore you’re lucky enough to visit.

Clean Up. We all know how it goes. We let our little toddler out of the stroller and bam! — they’re off like a bull in Pamplona, pulling books off of the shelves, crying, “Read this! Read this!” After four books, make the kid stop — physically, if necessary. Then find a spot in the corner and read. After that, make your child put the books back exactly where he or she found them (this part might be difficult), then let the kid loose for another round of four.

Block Not the Thomas. (Or Dora, or Backyardigans, or fiction, or whatever). As the father of an almost-three year old boy, my son John and I often camp out by the Thomas and Friends books. At 6′ 3″, two hundred pounds, I have often been guilty of blocking these precious tomes from other little boys. Shameful.

To Purchase or Not to Purchase? I’ve found it helpful to let my six-year-old daughter, Cassie, know before we enter the store whether she can actually buy a book that day. (And if she can, that I get final say on what the book will be.) The days I forget to take this precaution, I inevitably find myself at the register, reaching into my wallet to purchase yet another copy of Princess Barbie or Gwen the Jewel Fairy.

Change Your Baby in the Bathroom! Not on the floor. I did this once. The manager wasn’t pleased.

Most important of all: Read, read, read!

[photo via TheAng/flickr]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trip Down Memory Lane

Before the kids run off to school, it's time to answer the age-old question, "What did you do on your summer vacation?" The answer can be the catalyst for a nice memento that doubles as a writing activity to get your young one primed for school. Here are a couple ideas to get you started.

Vacation Journal
Did you take a special trip this summer? Why not make a journal to remember it? Print out some of your best vacation photos and have your child glue them onto sheets of colored construction paper. Encourage your child to think about the order of the pictures–they can be chronological, in order of favorite moments, or arranged to tell a story about the trip. Then have your child write a sentence or two to go with each picture, adding as much detail as possible along the way. Bind with string or staples and
voilà! It's a keepsake to read throughout the year.

Summer Story Starter
Ask your child questions about the summer. Where was her favorite place to visit? Who did he like to hang out with? What did she like to play? What kind of weather was his favorite? Use all of the answers to start a story, weaving your child's summertime favorites into the details, including character, plot, and location. Write down the story then have your child go to town with the illustrations.

Monday, August 17, 2009

End of Summer Reading List

I’ve always enjoyed seeing reading lists. But while I browse through other folks’ recommendations, there’s part of me that’s editing as I go, thinking everything from, “Great choice, love it!” to “What? Are they insane?” So now that I’ve been given a forum in which to spout my views, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh in with a list of my own. Given space constraints, I’ve limited myself to picture books (with a few extras at the end). Here goes:

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler–a rhymed tale of a mouse who cheats death at the hands of a fox, snake, and owl - not to mention the starring imaginary beast.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney–a unique kids’ book about the life and times of the title character and the meaning of beauty.

Time of Wonder Robert McCloskey–a poetic and exciting description of Maine in a hurricane.

Four Famished Foxes Pamela Duncan Edwards and Henry Cole–a rollicking, alliterative tale (every other word begins with an “f”) of three hunting foxes and their chef brother. I love this book.

Train Song by Diane Siebert and Mike Wimmer–sometimes the title says it all. This book is an impressionistic look at trains. Great for vehicle-minded girls and boys.

How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman–a wonderful tale of a girl who travels the world, looking for ingredients to make the perfect apple pie. Recipe included.

Tickety Tock by Jason Robert Brown and Mary GrandPr√©–a brilliantly rhymed and illustrated tale of a tailor who discovers the true meaning of life.

Of course, there are also the old stand-bys. My family is a huge fan of anything Seuss, Go Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman, Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton, and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry.

And now for the extras. If there’s anyone out there looking for a funny memoir about a man’s trials and tribulations as a stay-at-home dad, check out Housebroken by David Eddie, a winning and wise book. You won’t be sorry.

Anyone looking for the perfect, fun, middle-grade novel to read your 7 to 12 year old over vacation? Check out The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks by this guy named Dan Elish. Here’s a link to one satisfied reader, who gives the book a far better description than I ever could.

Sorry for the self-promotion. I couldn’t resist. Happy reading!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Joys of Old Books

I love reading to my kids. But I sometimes worry that it’s turning me into a curmudgeon before my time — like one of those guys you see on the corner of Broadway, ranting incoherently about the good old days.

It isn’t that I don’t like many of the new books published today. For instance, my family and I recently discovered Katherine Tegen's Dracula and Frankenstein are Friends, a truly great read for all ages. But some of the newer selections my daughter brings home (I won’t mention names) bring out my inner grumpy old man — a disgruntled, grizzled guy who thinks, “You call this a book? A tie-in of a bad TV show? A book about a… a toy?!” (This is when the steam generally begins pouring from my ears). “In my day, we had good books! Well-written books! With exciting stories! Each one an original!”

My inner rant complete, I think wistfully of the bookshelf of my youth. Actually, I don’t have to think very hard: As a children’s author, I still own a modest number of worn hardcovers — everything from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (my favorite) to The Trumpet of the Swan (the first book I remember reading in one sitting).

But there they sat, dusty and unappreciated until my daughter turned five. Faced with rereading yet another book about yet another group of helpful fairies, I pulled a faded paperback off the shelf and showed Cassie the cover.

The Cricket in Times Square. Wanna try it?”

She frowned, then shrugged. That was all the opening I needed. With the speed of a cheetah, I had that girl on the couch and the book open in my lap. Fingers trembling, I opened to Chapter One. The pages were slightly yellowed but still unripped.

“What’s this about?” Cassie asked.

I explained: “It’s about a cricket named Tucker who comes to live with a boy by the subway. You’re gonna like it. Trust me! Now sit! Stop fidgeting! Listen!”

I wish I could report on every minute of that read, but it would take far too long. Suffice it to say, Cassie loved the book, and rediscovering it through her eyes was a joy.

Of course, I realize that my kids aren’t going like every book just because I did. Some books from yesteryear are deservedly hard to track down. But the next time you’re stuck for something to read out loud, get in touch with your inner ten year old and reach for your favorite book. Your kids might be happy you did.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Get Ready for Kindergarten Month

Did you know that August is Get Ready for Kindergarten Month? Here are a couple easy things that you can have your child do to get ready for the big transition:

  • Practice writing her name. One fun way to do this is to send postcards to loved ones, and have her "sign" the bottom.
  • Practice letters. While the weather's still nice, go on a neighborhood letter hunt, spotting letters on signs. Spend read-aloud time with great alphabet picture books like Chicka Chick Boom Boom and I Stink.
  • Practice getting dressed by himself. What better way to get dressing practice than by playing dress up? Pull out old Halloween costumes and clothes for different season and while away the hours with some quality pretend play.
  • Practice numbers. Give her practice counting from 1 to 10 with a hopscotch board on the sidewalk, and practice counting while jumping rope or hopping on one foot. See who can go the longest!
As parents, we may never be ready for our little one to go off to Kindergarten, but our kids can be ready.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read: The Unboxing

The day has arrived! This box contains the entirety of Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read.

See? All 8 levels, from Pre-K to 2nd Grade.

Olive, who you may remember is Learn to Read's biggest fan, was excited to help me open everything. She couldn't wait to get her hands on the books.

As she paged through each book, she recounted parts of the stories that she remembered from being the test audience throughout production: "Mommy, this is the one where the boy pretends he's a dog... Mommy, this is the one where the princess lost her crown... Mommy, this is the one with the shark who ate that green glowy thing..."

For me, it was a treat not only to see the books in print, but also the new workbooks full of illustrated stories.

So here it is, Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read, more than filling our dining room table.

And, of course, after we devoured the books we sat and watched the new DVDs. Fun!

Monday, August 3, 2009

The New Learn to Read Pre-K Is Here

…and we couldn’t be more excited about it!

For a whole year we’ve been working on developing a Pre-K program that prepares children to learn to read in a fun and engaging way. The National Reading Panel study found that teaching alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness significantly improves children's reading success. Alphabetic knowledge is knowing the name of letters, the sounds they make, and their shapes and phonemic awareness is the ability to hear—and work with—the individual sounds in words. Rhyming is a big part of phonemic awareness:

Once children know the letters of the alphabet, the sounds they make, and have an understanding of how sounds relate to words, they’re ready to learn to read. Ultimately, this is what we set out to do with Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read Pre-K: prepare children to be great readers of great books—such as this one:

One of my favorite parts of creating Learn to Read Pre-K was developing our HOP kids with the talented illustrator, Bryan Lango. He created a cast of characters that really captures the spirit of our Pre-K program, kids having fun while learning. Pretty cute, no?

Research shows that young children learn through hands-on activities, and what they learn must be practiced over and over again. We designed the new Learn to Read Pre-K with this in mind, but more importantly, we wanted the activities to be meaningful and fun, fun, fun! Our learn-practice-play approach provides bite-sized skills children can master in one session. Each letter of the alphabet has its own lesson filled with great songs, fun animation,...and online games:

Learn to Read Pre-K is a bunch of fun activities that sneak in a lot of learning. Why focus so much on fun? Because children stay on task for longer periods of time when they are enjoying themselves, and this helps them make a lifelong association between learning and fun. Learning your ABCs was never so much fun! You don’t believe me? See for yourself…