In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reading routines with multiple children? Help!

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When we put out a call for readers' questions last month, our friend and guest blogger Faith asked a few good ones. You wrote to her about horse books for kids, both picture book and chapter book level. Faith also asked for advice about reading with multiple children of different ages:

Strategy question: How do people manage bedtime reading with multiple (say, 4) children at different levels, when some are ready to listen to chapter books, but also when the oldest child has to read a book from school aloud to the family each night???

She elaborated:

I'm okay with not having the full attention of all audience members -- we've been doing that for years. I'll just add in our personal wrinkle, which is that our 1st grader comes home every night with a book that she has to read out loud to us (and I have to sign off on her "reading log.") These are books like Amelia Bedelia and Frog and Toad, so they take a substantial amount of time to read. And, she's a pretty fluent reader, but if you've ever heard a 1st grader read (I know you all have), you'll understand that there's NO WAY that this is keeping her sisters' attention. 

So, by bedtime every weeknight there's usually no time (or attention span) left for Erick or me to read to them. And this is particularly frustrating because our kindergartener and 1st grader are at the perfect age to start listening to some really great chapter books, but how do we structure time for that after the read-aloud? Also, all four girls share a room, so separate bedtimes would be challenging (though not necessarily impossible.)

My first thought was to ask some other parents of multiple children to weigh in on Faith's question. I emailed two other friends/guest bloggers: Cyd, mom of four girls between the ages of 7 and 1, and Matthew, dad of a girl and two boys between the ages of 6 and 3.

Cyd goes the highly structured route, with separate reading-with-mom times for Rebekah (7) after her sisters are in bed, and Ellie and Klara (almost-6 and 4) early in the morning before their sisters are up:

This works pretty well, except for the cries of "She *touched* me!!" Klara has always been precocious in terms of her interest in listening to higher-level books and her ability to understand them (she was obsessed with Ramona before she turned 2, showing interest in chapter books well over a year and a half earlier than either of her two big sisters) so books that work for Ellie work for her.  I have to have several books going at a time, as if one of them gets up before the other, I can't read her a book that both of them are listening to....

Luckily Anna (age 15 months) is asleep both early in the morning when I read to Ellie and Klara, and at night when I read to Rebekah, so I can focus on reading without trying to prevent her from climbing stairs, eating dog food, or tearing other books to pieces.  When I do read to everyone in the afternoon, she's pretty happy to toddle around from sister to sister and play with Legos or pat the dog.  She is just starting to be interested in books (current favorites: "Peek a Who" and "Dear Zoo") but she doesn't have a prolonged attention span so she doesn't have a designated reading time -- yet.

Matthew tends to keep everyone together:

For the most part, I read to all three kids at once, even though there is almost a four-year gap between August and Alden. This means sometimes August listens to us reading pretty sophisticated middle-grades stuff and sometimes Alden sitting in on Berenstain Bears, but I think there's value all around. August gets to absorb the syntax of language even if he's not retaining it all, and Alden gets to practice her reading as we go through the simpler stuff. 

Though he, like Faith, does separate out the learning-to-read time:

As Alden gets more and more into independent reading, I do more one-on-one reading time with her, so that we can really take the time she needs to work through the language (the pace tends to frustrate her brothers' interest in the story moving along a bit more briskly). Also, Kato, who is a pretty advanced reader, sometimes knows words Alden is still puzzling through, and so I need to remove him from the equation so that her pride isn't bruised. 

I remember that your routines with Lizzie and Mona were of the more structured variety, with one read-aloud book going for each girl with each parent, and maybe also one you'd read aloud together -- is that right?

In the weeks since I started thinking about this question, Cyd and Faith have been emailing, and Faith has developed a new reading routine:

Either Erick or I (we'll try to alternate) takes Fiona into our bedroom where we can snuggle up while she reads to us. The other girls each choose a short book, which is read to them by the other parent. Then, everybody convenes in the girls' bedroom, where I read them one chapter of a longer chapter book (Fiona chose A Bear Called Paddington to start). It worked really well last night (some whining over Fiona's private read-aloud aside), and I felt so much better knowing that everyone was at least getting read to at their level at some point! The down side: It's LONG -- usually 50 minutes to an hour from start to finish.

As these responses rolled in, I started to think about the reading routines in our house. This question felt timely for me, because in the last couple of months, our regular routines have been changing in drastic and not altogether welcome ways.

We've had a pretty stable system for years: I read to the girls first thing in the morning for about 15 minutes, while they're waking up, and we have a second official Reading Time every evening, with everyone in pajamas and brushed teeth. In between, there are books scattered around the house, and the kids pick them up and read on their own or grab me or Jeff to demand that we read them.

Three major factors have recently begun to torpedo this routine. First, Eleanor's independent reading has skyrocketed to the point where she often just wants to read to herself at bedtime -- there's no reason to compromise on a book with Isabel if Eleanor can just keep reading what she wants. Second, Will now has definite opinions about what he wants to read. He's no longer content to play while I read to the girls for any length of time (and it's been many months since he was the baby nursing on my lap under the book). Now, if I try to read something he doesn't want, he'll yell and try to rip it out of my hands. Finally, we moved from an apartment into a two-story house, and getting ready for bed has slowed exponentially now that it requires moving between floors. We start at our usual time, but by the time everyone is ready for bed, Reading Time has dwindled to 10 minutes or less.

Like Faith, my three kids share a bedroom and a bedtime -- there's no chance for regular bedtime reading to one kid without the others being involved. And because of Jeff's often late work hours, there's no guarantee on any weeknight that I'll have a second parent in the house to take one or two kids into another room. I wish I could set up something as structured as what both Cyd and Faith now have -- I really miss sustained chapter book reading time -- but that feels like an impossible goal in my current life.

What to do?

What to do, when you add in Isabel's kindergarten reading books that she's supposed to read aloud to us every night? When Eleanor, who is ripping through books on her own, resists reading aloud, we think because she's unsure of how to pronounce some of the words? What to do, when Will insists on reading Chugga Chugga Choo Choo 6 times in a row? (Which, by the way, is a terrific train book -- great rhythm and totally appealing illustrations which make the train set in a kid's bedroom seem enormous.)

I guess the answer is the same as with so many other aspects of parenting: we muddle through, and try to do the best we can for everybody, and then it changes again. I'm trying to be more conscious of getting the bedtime routine started earlier. I'm trying to get Will interested in the books Isabel has to read aloud (and often holding another book for him as she reads, toggling my attention back and forth). When Jeff is home, I'm trying to eke out more chapter book time with both girls, as we get close to the end of Inga Moore's gorgeously illustrated version of The Secret Garden. I'm trying not to get frustrated by the impossibility of giving every kid what she or he wants.

But man, if anyone else has suggestions on how to achieve a better balance of individual and shared reading time, I'm all ears.

Love, Annie

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