Put yourself in the shoes of your child learning to read

posted in: Åshild Kanstad Johnsen | 21

If you read this blog, it’s likely that you’re interested in supporting children in developing a life-long love of books and reading. We often talk about the importance of reading lots with our children, listening to them read, helping them find books they adore, but when do we stop to remind ourselves of what it actually feels like to be learning to read?

I certainly hadn’t thought about it much until working on last week’s I Can Read celebration when a combination of factors led me to consider what M is actually experiencing as she’s learning to read. It occurred to me that if I could put me feet in her shoes I might be better placed to support her on her journey towards becoming a fluent, literature-loving reader.

Photo: Richard (Tenspeed) Heaven

Of course I turned to M and asked her what she felt about learning to read. Her response wasn’t quite what I had expected: “What I really like about reading is it fills your head with imagination“. A little bit of my hearted melted when I heard that.

It was great to hear her focussing on the end, very positive result of being able to read, but it didn’t get me any nearer to understanding what she feels when she’s in literacy and phonics classes at school, or when she’s reading a new book to me or herself.

Asking adults interested in this, the answers I got when I asked “What does it feel like to be learning to read?” included “Frustrating, especially if comprehension skills are better than decoding skills”, “Powerful, learning to read is like reading someone’s mind”, “Like going to China and trying to order a meal at McDonalds – strange markings in a familiar setting!”, “Frustration was key here, along with despair and anger!”, “exciting, enchanting, enlightening.”, “exciting and frustrating, empowering, a glimpse of freedom and an adventure”. (My thanks to @AliB68, @salmonskyview, @LRKnost, @liveotherwise, @nurturestore, @bridgetheos and @EmmaD77 for sharing their experiences and views.)

As it happened last weekend I read a book in a foreign language for the first time in many, many years (excluding Dutch, which whilst technically a foreign language for me doesn’t feel like it because we’re a bilingual home). Sophie, a fantastic follower of Playing by the book, who has an amazing eye for super picture books, had sent me a new book to read with my girls. A new book in French. I love languages, but I last studied French 21 years ago (gulp!) so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I sat down to read it.

Well, the experience was exciting, thrilling, exhausting (having to concentrate so hard!) and empowering (woo hoo! I read a whole book!). Perhaps the experience of reading this book wasn’t far off what it like for M when she reads a new book? Somewhere between the pages and the dictionary on my lap and the heart fluttering in my chest, I think I really did step into M’s shoes. In some senses I was once again 5 or 6, suddenly witnessing the world opening up a little bit through black words on a white page.

And what of the book itself? Well, it was so brilliant, that even though it’s not yet available in English I want to tell you about the book Sophie sent me. Please don’t be put off by the fact it’s not in English. It’s a truly wonderful book, one you’ll want to know about. And, if you’re a publisher, please go get the English language rights!!

Tibois fait son musée (Block makes a Museum, or Kubbe lager museum – it’s original Norwegian title), a very funny, beautiful, extremely well observed book by Åshild Kanstad Johnsen made us laugh out loud with delight and recognition.

Tibois loves to collect things. Every Tuesday Tibois goes for a long walk through the forest and collects what M (à la Pippi Longstocking) calls “turn-up stuffing”, in other words, anything that is lying on the ground which catches your eye. Tibois collects sticks, leaves, lids, lost clothes, pens, broken jewellery, stones. You name it, he collects it.

He takes his treasures home, delights in looking up what he’s found in his books, groups them into useful categories (“feathers”, “twigs, sticks and branches”, “nice things that bend”), labels them and puts them on shelves and in boxes. Tibois house if full of treasure. But one day, he runs out of space. He calls his beloved granny for some advice, and recollecting a lovely day they shared at a museum, Tibois sets about creating his own museum.

Photo: Åshild Kanstad Johnsen

People come from far and wide to marvel at Tibois’ treasures, which he has taken great care to display beautifully. He loves having a museum, but it is also rather tiring and after a few days he misses his normal activities. But what to do with all the objects he’s accrued?

To the relief of parents everywhere there is a very clever and satisfying denouement to this story, one which will please treasure collectors and treasure tidy-uppers alike. It allows us all to revel in finding and collecting objects which might not look so beautiful and valuable to anyone else but us, at the same time as freeing us and not condemning us to live a life full of clutter, with bedrooms, shelves and any spare surfaces covered with objets trouvés.

Photo: Åshild Kanstad Johnsen

The illustrations,which reminded me a little of work by David Lucas, are appropriately enough packed with details that children will adore exploring and pointing out. The predominantly green and brown palette used in the illustrations is calming and restrained.

So, if you’ve ever come back from the beach with a bucket full of driftwood, shells and polished glass, or from the park with a pushchair weighed down with sticks, stones and other people’s discarded rubbish this is the book for you. And even more so, the book for your kids 😉 Beautiful, fun and with real substance at its heart, Tibois fait son musée makes us question whether it is necessary to have lots of things to be happy; an ever more important theme in today’s world and a super one to explore with children.

Can you guess what we got up to as soon as I read this book to the girls? Yes, of course, we made our own museum…

Here is the Grand Opening, complete with cutting of ribbons:

Here are the museum curators showing us their collection:

Here are some of the cabinets full of curiosities:

And here’s the museum catalogue, available in the museum shop!

You can rightly infer from the catalogue that M and J were pretty proud of their museum 🙂

If you’re inspired to make your own family museum I heartily recommend investing in a few strung tags and some old picture frames – I picked ours up in a charity shop for 20p each (they each had a horrible picture still in them, but I just removed the picture at home, and now, when the museum gets put away, I’ll have three frames I can use for the kids’ artwork).

Whilst making our museum we listened to:

  • Welcome to Museum School by Mister Mark
  • Museum of Natural History by Rolie Polie Guacamole (not brilliant lyrics, but a bit of an earworm)
  • See ’em In The Museum by Gregg Himelstein (big band style swing!)
  • The Toy Museum by Laurie Berkner

  • If you want to listen to some songs for grownups that mention museums, @NickPoole1 pointed me (thanks to @MarDixon) to this round up of songs.

    Other activities which could work well alongside reading Tibois fait son musée include:

  • Creating some land art inspired by Richard Shilling or Andy Goldsworthy – take a look at this post from The Artful Parent or this one from One Golden Apple to get some ideas.

  • Visiting a real museum! Culture 24 is a great website aimed at adults wanting to find a super (UK) museum to visit, whilst show.me is its equivalent specifically for kids. Kids in Museums is a great place to find out about the most family friendly museums in the UK.

  • Playing some sorting games like this one from No Time for Flash Cards, or this one from Salt and Chocolate.

  • There’s an interview (in Norwegian) with Åshild Kanstad Johnsen here (you can use Google translate to find out about her sources of inspiration and how Tibois came to life).

    Finally, returning to the theme I opened this post with, if you’re interested in how children learn to read, in understanding how (some) children feel as they approach a new book with their new skills, why don’t you try to read a new picture book in a foreign language? I can heartily recommend the process and experience 🙂 And here are some great resources to help you out:

  • European Picture Book Collection (One and Two)

  • The International Children’s Digital Library, a (free) digital library of outstanding children’s books from around the world
  • 21 Responses

    1. Ali B

      How absolutely lovely! and yes, I think reading something in a language you don’t know takes you right back to early decoding. I speak French, German and some Spanich, can get by in Italian so when I’ve travelled I’ve usually managed- even in former Yugoslavian countries. But Bulgaria was really stressful, and made me realise how much I’ve relied on decoding for meaning making- trying to find the correct train for Sofia at Plovdiv station, with 5 mins to spare, with a guidebook to translate each letter took me right back- aplms sweating, heart thumping!
      Ali B recently posted..The finding is in me- and the finding finds a way

    2. Zoe

      Even in Australia
      I am on the case to get an English lang publisher to get the rights to the book!

      Ali B
      yes, you’re right, to get the experience of decoding bit really need a book in a different script. But you must have gotten the train seeing as you’re not still in Plovdiv? Thanks for your thoughts when I was working on the post.

      • Zoe

        Oh yes, TheMadHouse, tiredness is a really important factor isn’t it. I sometimes remember – if we try to read a school book too late in the day it becomes transparent very quickly, and then when i read this book in French the level of concentration I needed meant i was exhausted by the end. Your post about encouraging reading is great – and I also like your recent one about encouraging writing.

    3. Isil

      Such a lovely post! Your daughter’s answer about reading got me teary eyed.
      The books looks great and how precious is your girls museum! Thanks for sharing.

    4. Zoe

      Thanks Isil! Yes, M’s response made my heart swell 🙂 Hope you get to make a museum soon!

    5. Library Mice

      Rue du Monde are a great publisher!
      I think the analogy of trying to read a book in a foreign language is very good. The only way I have found to put myself in the shoes of someone (not just children but adults too) who cannot read is to look at the Greek or Arabic alphabets, or look at Japanese or Chinese, because it is impossible to decode anything unless you are learning it. It is amazing how we forget so easily what it is like to learn to read.

    6. Zoe

      Hi Library Mice, I shall certainly be looking for more Rue du Monde books, this one was so good! What ones would you recommend?

    7. JT

      I do love the finger tabs on your French dictionary. Maybe I’ll write about my foreign language dictionaries one day.

      I also love the phrase “turn-up-stuffing”. I constantly battle between my desire to collect and my need for simplicity. It’s hard for those competing pulls to coexist. Tibois Fait Son Musee sounds like a wonderful addition to my children’s book collection:)
      JT recently posted..Longhorn Cattle and Fake Books

    8. Mamabearuk

      I love your posts showing the exciting things you get up to with your girls. Makes me soexcited for my little one to grow up

    9. Wendy Orr

      Lovely post – and I especially loved M’s response, which was very much what I was thinking when I tweeted on reading Proust. It’s not that it feels particularly effortful, but I do need to read each word, and that slowing down is what draws me into his world in that total immersion that I had as a child, and sometimes miss now as I gallop through a book in English. (Hmm, I guess I will still blog on this, even though you’ve done it so well!)

    10. lisainberlin

      Thankyou for showing me this book, it looks delightful. When I first started learning German it was with a children’s book “The Little Witch” by Ottfried Preussler. I remember slowly fumbling along and looking up every second word. The pictures helped. I would like to be a child again and have you adopt me so I can participate in all the tying in activities you offer your girls.;)

    11. Zoe

      Hi Lisa, this is such a lovely book, and there’s another by the same author/illustrator all about music – definitely worth tracking down esp if you can read French. I’m hoping NZ publisher Gecko Press might be getting English language rights…

    12. lisainberln

      Durn it. I can’t read French but I will jot down the title anyway and grab someone to translate for me. Thankyou!

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