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Reading Magic - Book Review

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by Jennifer Muirhead (subscribe)
I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma. ~ Eartha Kitt
Published August 24th 2012

Reading Magic was written by best-selling children's book author and educator Mem Fox. As the title suggests, it is mainly about the importance of reading aloud to your children. This puzzled me at first since reading to my children is one of the things I most looked forward to about having kids. I daydreamed about sharing the excitement of Treasure Island and the warm fuzzy tales of The Wind in The Willows. I assumed that reading to children was just something all parents did. I didn't realise that I was only in the privileged position of being able to take this for granted because my own parents read to me and told me stories all the time. I had no idea how lucky I was. I'm sure it's their influence that not only turned me into such a keen reader but also made me want to become a writer.

It turns out that unfortunately, either because because they aren't willing or able to, or don't know how important it is, many parents read to their children rarely or not at all. This is a real shame since research shows that reading aloud to children regularly helps set up the foundations for learning to read long before they start school, which in turn opens the door to learning about everything from Shakespeare to astrophysics.

Mem Fox urges parents not to waste time feeling guilty about not reading to their children, but instead to get started immediately. She offers tips on which books to choose and how to read more expressively, as well as simple games parents can play with their children to help them understand the text. She emphasises that the experience should be fun for both the child and the parent. It's a great way to bond with your kids while helping them learn.

Some of my daughter's stash of books.

There is something of a debate amongst parents and teachers about the use of phonics versus sight-reading or "whole language" when teaching children to read. In this book Mem Fox sidesteps the controversy, advocating a mixture of both methods. I was initially dubious about the idea of reading the same book over and over until the child can practically recite it since remembering what was in the book didn't sound like reading to me. However, after a few chapters the author had me convinced that this could help to build a child's confidence rather than struggling with each individual word until they slow down so much that they can't remember what the sentence is about. If children understand what the book is about first they can use their general knowledge of the story as well as the pictures to help decode the text, which is far easier than trying to read individual words out of context.

My daughter demonstrated this for me just the other day when she was trying to read aloud to herself from a phonics book I had left lying around. There was a picture of a sleeping dog next to the word nap, so she read "n-a-p spells dog." Not knowing the right sounds yet and lacking the context of a sentence she had only the picture to go on and got it wrong. It was much easier for her to correctly pick out the word "dog" in one of her favourite picture books, Hairy MacLary by Lynley Dodd, because the word is used over and over in context. It was also more fun that way since there were pictures of cute dogs and a rhyming story which we could enjoy together.

Reading Magic is full of practical advice given in a straightforward sometimes irreverent tone and illustrated with cartoons by Judy Horacek. I recommend it to any parent who wants to learn more about helping their children to learn to read.

Rated 9/10
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Why? Because it's never too late to start reading to your child!
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