Anne Fishel, Harvard Medical School As a young child, I loved to imagine myself as a pioneer girl in Little House in the Big Woods, eating fresh snow drizzled with maple syrup. I even pestered my mother to make this treat with the dirty snow that fell on our Manhattan sidewalk. Not a chance. Years later, I honored my young sons’ request to try a coconut after reading the adventures of Babar. Who knew that even a hammer and chisel won’t crack these nuts? I resorted to clearing out the sidewalk below and then pitching the fruit out a third-floor window. It worked, but thankfully there are many easier ways to bring food and reading together than hurling coconuts or eating dirty snow. Here are some of the connections I researched while working on my book, Home for Dinner. And remember, none of these requires a gourmet meal or a trip to the bookstore. Library books and a takeout pizza are just as good.
Dinner conversation builds vocabularyFor starters, there is the linguistic pairing of reading and eating, shown in such common expressions as “devouring a good book” or being a “voracious” reader. Those sayings reflect the reality that children who have regular family dinners have a real leg up on being good and early readers. Years of research from the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development have shown that dinner conversation is a terrific vocabulary booster for young children – even better than reading aloud to them. Rare words, those that go beyond the 3,000 most common ones, are 10 times more likely to show up in dinner conversation than in storybooks. When parents tell a story at the dinner table about their day or recount a funny family anecdote, they usually include many words that a young child hasn’t yet learned but can understand from the context of the story. Children who have rich vocabularies, packed with less common, more sophisticated words, learn to read more easily because they can make sense of the words they are deciphering.
Encourage children to tell storiesThe benefits to children don’t just come from listening to stories. Children who know how to tell stories are also better readers. In one large study, kindergartners who were able to tell stories grew up to be fourth- and even seventh-graders with higher reading comprehension than those kindergartners who lacked narrative skills. Dinner is a prime time for children to tell stories and to be encouraged to tell better stories. Researchers have found that children can be taught to tell longer, more information-packed stories with a few simple instructions.
- Reminisce with your children about past experiences you’ve shared with them. “Remember when we forgot to take the brownies out of the oven?”
- Ask a lot of open-ended questions, including plenty of “how” and “why” questions rather than questions with yes-or-no answers.
- Encourage longer stories by repeating what your child says or by elaborating on her story.
- Instead of deciding what story to tell, follow your child’s lead on what she wants to talk about.