Anna — early reader, multi-lingual

I interviewed Anna recently about her thoughts on reading. She grew up in Venezuela so Spanish was her first language. She has lived with her family for many years in Toronto, Canada. 

What are your memories about reading as a child?  I was born and raised in Venezuela. Our nanny taught me to read when I was about three years old although I don’t remember this. My mother told me about a time some people came to our house and she wanted to show off my reading skills so she gave me a book to read out loud. They didn’t believe I was reading ─they took the book away and gave me a newspaper to see if I was really able to read!

Did your parents read to you when you were little?  I don’t remember that they did. But I was reading on my own from an early age. I read so much that my grade 6 teacher told the other students, “If you want to know the meaning of any word, ask Anna─ she’s a walking dictionary.”

Did you have many books in your house?  Yes. I especially recall various collections of children’s books containing French and Russian fairy tales. My father brought books in. Also, next to our parents’ store there was a toy store. The store’s logo was a dwarf with a red hat who was holding a cornucopia with toys spilling out. I didn’t care much for the toys in the store but liked to go straight to the back where the books were. Growing up, I loved to read and was very impacted by what I read. I especially remember a collection of books my parents brought in with small stories about different people and places. One had a picture of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park ─that picture always stuck in my mind. So after I got married in Venezuela, I told my husband I wanted to go to see Old Faithful and we did!

Did your siblings read as well as you?  I’m the oldest of three children. I think my sister read a lot. I don’t remember so much whether my brother did.

Were you reading solely in Spanish as a child? Yes.

When did you start reading in other languages?  We were taught English in high school ─five years of English in high school with an amazing teacher. She was from Germany and very strict. She wore orthopedic shoes with open toes. When she would get mad her toes would move up and down, and the angrier she got, the faster her toes would go! She taught us both English and French. I had two years of French in high school also. I really started reading in English though when I moved to Toronto as an adult.

Do you think learning multiple languages helped you become a better reader or being a good reader helped you learn languages better?  I don’t know. My family all spoke multiple languages. For example, my mother was able to speak Hebrew, Russian, Rumanian, Yiddish and English.

How did your mother learn so many languages? My father believed in educating people so he brought someone into the house to teach my mom and her brother Hebrew. She also had a teacher to learn English. My mother came from Rumania.

What was your schooling like in Venezuela?  My formal schooling was six years of primary school and five years of high school (no middle school). Then I went to the university. We were very fortunate to have many intelligent and caring teachers. Several taught at the university as well as at our school.

What did you study at the university?  I studied biology in Venezuela. Later I went to a university in Canada for my master’s degree in science.

How many languages do you speak? I speak Spanish, English, Yiddish, some Hebrew, some French, and Hungarian (learned Hungarian because my husband is Hungarian). I primarily read though in Spanish and English.

Did you read to your own children when they were young?  I don’t remember reading to them but they all became good readers. They attended private Jewish schools in Venezuela and Los Angeles ─then Toronto for most of their formal schooling. They’ve done very well in life. My daughter completed a baccalaureate degree in English and master’s degree in education. One son studied engineering in Toronto, then went to Chicago to complete an MBA, then went to Japan to work. Before he went to work at the company, he attended an eight week immersion language program at an interntional studies school.  He continued taking classes in Japanese while working in Japan. Later he went to China and learned Chinese. He speaks Chinese and Japanese fluently.

What about his children ─your grandchildren?  His children have gone to school so far in Shanghai. They have to work hard to develop and keep up their English. They are speaking English, Chinese, Japanese─ and some Hebrew. Actually, my son has instilled the importance of reading to his children. When they were young, he would get up at 6 a.m. and read to them before they went to school and again before they went to sleep. My daughter also is reading all the time to her daughter. When she skips a page in the book, my grandchild remembers there is missing text and tells her, “No, there is more to the story.”

What do you think about technology and reading? Do you use e-readers in your home?  I have an e-reader but don’t use it. It doesn’t appeal to me. My daughter is using an e-reader. I recognize that people like gadgets and things ─ and some people want to have things quickly, have things at their fingertips. Technology is useful for that. But I like to have a book. Many times I will underline things that I think are important, that I want to remember to call to my attention.

Final thoughts about reading?  It sounds so simplistic to say that people should read. I’m thinking about my sister who was reading to my nephew a lot when he was young ─she used complicated, adult words with him. I sometimes made fun of her for using such complicated words with him. But now he is grown up and a successful playwright!  So I think the early reading and challenging him so much must have made a difference. I know that my siblings and I were very lucky growing up ─ we had higher quality schools than I see now and had such devoted teachers. I have always enjoyed learning and am always asking questions. I would rather ask questions and sound ignorant then remain ignorant because I am not asking.

This concluded my interview with Anna. I was struck while we talked by how hard Anna worked to find the right words in either Spanish or English to explain her experiences to me (in some cases she began with the Spanish word, then she translated for me into English). Clearly, excellent reading skills developed as a child helped pave the way for her impressive facility with languages. And her children ─and now their children ─demonstrate similar language facility. 


Alison, mom to two sons

I interviewed Alison  recently about her thoughts on reading. Alison works in the public policy arena focusing on higher education issues. Her husband is a lobbyist with a focus on energy issues.  They live in Denver, Colorado.

What is your reading situation at your home?  We have two sons, five and three years old. Both boys are in a full-day Montessori program. The primary program starts at age three and goes to six. Our younger son started in the “infant” room, moved to the “toddler” room, then “primary.” His whole exposure has been in Montessori. Our older son didn’t follow the full progression because we were not living in this city when he was younger. They’re both really inquisitive boys. They retain information to the point that I’ve started to write down my responses to the many questions I answer because weeks can go by and they will ask me the same question ─ and will remember my “original” answer. If I answer it differently, they call me on it! So, I’m on my toes constantly.

What are some of the benefits you’re seeing from their Montessori experience?  Our younger son can count to 300 in Chinese, my boys can converse in Spanish, and for the upcoming Xmas pageant they have learned songs in both Spanish and English. Our boys are talking in Spanish now to each other and my husband and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

When did you start reading to your older son?  We started reading to our five year old when he was an infant. We have never really engaged in baby talk with either of our boys. Recently, we were sitting in a restaurant and just talking as a family. A couple came up to us and the woman told me she noticed we were talking to our children as adults ─ and thanked us for this! I was surprised someone picked up on this. I started to realize that many other couples we know talk to their children as if they are babies and as we have grown up in the same social circles, we notice that some of their children continue to talk as babies. Our older son has been conversing with us for a while and wants to know more about so many topics. I attribute some of this to our early introduction of reading and the manner in which we speak to him. He is really enthusiastic about reading. Every time we’re in the car, he wants to know what various signs say, what is the sound of this or that word. He has a barrage of questions especially around words and letters.

What have you been reading to him? We started off with traditional word books ─ simple words, rhythm and patterns. We got to the point, at perhaps 18-months to two years old, where he could recite the text in the books. He had the rhythms memorized. He would finish the text if I stopped reading to him. He was still in the crib, so had to be less than two years old. We would be in the car and we would throw out a sentence from a book but change it up and he would get angry and then recite it correctly for us!  So we knew that he had memorized the text.

Could he do that with multiple books?  It was basically one of two books. There was a period of time when our older son wanted us to read the same two books to him over and over. One was Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss). It’s kind of a long book and I would want to skip over parts, like turn over two pages or skip some sentences some nights. He had memorized the text and knew I was leaving things out—and would call me on it! With our second son, I learned to pick shorter books knowing we were likely going to have to do the “reread” thing many times.

Once you had your second son, how did that affect reading time? My husband would read to our older child while I was attending to the baby. I have to admit, I have not been as diligent about reading to our younger son. But my younger son’s vocabulary has turned out to be stronger than the older child’s at the same age.

What do you attribute this to?  I think part of it is his exposure to vocabulary, reading and work projects in Montessori at an early age (the education and environment of Montessori). Also, I think it is a difference in their personality. Our older son is more laissez-faire ─ quiet and introspective. Our younger son is “go get-em,” enthusiastic and high energy.

Is reading more of a bed time thing in your house?  Yes, but our boys are in school fulltime and come home at 5 p.m. They’re often working on a craft project from school while I’m getting dinner ready. Then we do bath, reading, and bed. On weekends we have quiet time. The five year old will go to read books before anything else. He’ll go to the sofa and read books. He wants to read a story and work on words. He wants us to be there but wants to do it himself. He’ll ask for help, like for a specific letter or how letters work together. He’s really trying to figure it out now.

What are their favorite books?  Curious George is our all-time favorite ─there’s a compendium of five to six books and they have memorized most of them. We’re also working on “manners” like stories about “please and thank you” and “I’m sorry.” And reading anything about space and dinosaurs. We’ve gotten into more nonfiction lately.  

Is there something that caused you to go to more nonfiction?  Yes. Through conversations with a colleague, I learned about a website called ReadWorks provides free online resources for teachers ─basically tools to help teachers teach more effectively to their students. I have started to use the site to look for materials. The site is set up for age and grade levels. My colleague suggested I try to read nonfiction instead of reading fiction because if my son is interested in a topic, he will become more interested in reading. For example, at school they were talking about space and my son really loves to learn about space. So now we’re reading nonfiction at home about space and he’s very engaged in this reading.

Do you think the fiction vs. nonfiction interests are more about a child’s personality?  I do think it’s much about who the child is. For example, my parents own a furniture store on the east coast and we were visiting recently. Our older son was asking so many questions ─ like how do you get the furniture, how do you move the furniture from here, where does it go? He’s very process-oriented.

Do you think this is his age or more who he is?  Probably who he is although some of it is age. I see many more “tactile” five year old boys. That’s not my son’s personality.

How much attention do you pay to the “performance” factor in your reading to your sons?   I’ll make up voices for the different characters but my husband does not.  And our sons listen to us both equally. Sometimes my older son says, “Mom, don’t do the voices,” whereas the younger one says, “make a scary voice.”

Do you talk about the characters in the books you read with your sons?  Yes. Sometimes in the car, we start talking with our sons about what they think certain characters would do. There are various characters they especially relate to in Highlights Magazine and we talk about them.

Is technology playing a role in reading at your house?  We have not talked too much about the Internet as a tool for learning with our sons, although the three year old is very interested in volcanoes and my husband has pulled up on U-Tube videos on volcanoes and asteroids that they watch. My husband also has an iPad. Our sons have some games and activities they play on it, mostly centered around music. They’ve been learning how to play piano and guitar keys on the iPad. We have a piano in our house but they first learned how to play piano on the iPad! We haven’t done a lot of reading on the iPad. And we don’t own an e-reader. Frankly, I love a book and the newspaper. Probably I’m in the minority now on this …

What was your own experience with reading as a child?  Reading was important. I was an early reader ─ read all of the Baby-sitters Club books, Nancy Drew (all of my mom’s old books), the Choose your Own Adventure stories. I had stacks of books in my room. I remember going on vacation and getting through five or six books. My sister and I actually used to play “library.” We pulled all the books off our shelves and sat on the floor – used my dad’s collection of stamps to stamp the books. And we played “school” with the books too. My boys don’t do this. I’m not sure if they don’t because they’re  in school all day and don’t have that sort of time for imaginative play when they come home, or they’re just different than my sister and I were. My sons  want to do “hands-on activities.”

Did your parents read to you?  Yes, religiously, every night before bed. Dad travelled extensively and we especially loved it when he was home and read to us. We were allowed to stay up for an extra half hour if we were reading, or could stay downstairs on the sofa if we were reading. I remember in junior high school, my dad subscribed to Newsweek magazine – he would tell me that if I would read the two pages of summary news stories in the magazine each week, I would know more than my peers in my class. For him it was a “getting ahead” thing ─ but for me it was an opportunity for a “privilege” (stay up late or stay on the sofa downstairs longer). My nose was always in a book and that paid dividends ─ also helped me to be a better speller. My sister is two years younger and despised reading growing up ─and she always struggled with spelling.

Has your interest in reading continued into adulthood?  Yes, definitely. On our honeymoon I took seven books in my suitcase and read them all! Actually, the only reason I would consider buying an e-reader now would be to avoid overloading my suitcase with books since I travel a lot with my work schedule.

What are some issues you anticipate going forward regarding your sons’ reading development?  I expect there will be changes once my sons are in grade school. Both have late September birthdates so we have held them back so they will be among the older kids in their future classrooms. While they may have some issues around boredom and will need to be engaged academically, we have felt that socially this has been the right thing to do. We struggled with this decision though. Part of the issue is that we work fulltime and need to find full-day kindergarten. We put our names in for lotteries for full-day charter school programs but didn’t get into any. Meanwhile, both boys are doing well in Montessori─they move forward at a pace they determine for themselves, have free work periods, and gravitate to what they’re most interested in.

Do you have some final thoughts you’d like to share about reading?  What makes me most nervous as a parent is thinking that I might not be doing what I need to do to ensure our sons’ forward progression. I’m concerned about whether we’re reading the right thing, are we teaching them to sound out reading words right (the right phonics)? I’m probably overly concerned because I work in the education area and know how important education is─am likely overthinking it.

Does your husband feel the same way?  I don’t think my husband thinks about this at all. He just goes about the business of reading. He knows that reading will calm the boys down and engage them─ and he just does it.

As our interview concluded, Alison showed me a video on her smart phone of her three year old. He was counting to 33 in Chinese, demonstrating impressive versatility in producing the variety of sounds for these numbers. She told me she showed this to a colleague to ask if her son was counting correctly and he said he was. It’s clear that these two young boys are well on the path to becoming good readers with the help of dedicated parents and early Montessori experience.