Poor Mem Fox. On my edition of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Foreverthere’s copy on the cover that implies that if you follow Fox’s advice your child WILL be reading by the time he or she goes to school. I couldn’t bring myself to read yet another “get your baby to read” scheme so I put off reading this book despite advice from people I trust that it’s a good, rapid read. I’m sure the implication that your child will read before school sells more books to the average, freaked-out parent, but teachers will be put off by such a statement. Since I’m pretty sure Fox wouldn’t want to make such silly promises, I give you permission to ignore the front copy and read the book anyway.
Of course SOME children who do what Fox says WILL be reading before school. But this book isn’t about teaching them to read, it’s about providing the foundation for reading. Whether the reading happens at home or at school for the first time isn’t really the important thing.
So here’s the big fundamental: reading isn’t about decoding the sounds but about decoding the meaning. This is an important distinction because we often make it difficult for children to comprehend what they’re reading by making them read aloud. Yes, they’ll eventually learn to read all the sounds. But if they can’t get any meaning out of their reading, then they aren’t really reading.
According to Fox, there are three “secrets” to becoming a fluent reader. The first secret is the “magic of print.” The second secret is the “magic of language.” And the third secret is the “magic of general knowledge.” Let’s look at them quickly.
The magic of print is really just about how fun print is. You have to get familiar with the printed word. Many people call this “print awareness.” It’s about recognizing the print that’s all around us, such as in signage, as well as the print in books. Fox points out that only 50% of English print language is phonetic, so there’s only so far phonics can take you. Children need to learn the patterns of the printed language in order to decipher the meaning.
The magic of print is about playing with language. Nursery rhymes are covered here as well as how to play with language as you’re talking with young children. Fox encourages us to talk with our children a lot, describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. Children won’t be able to read if they don’t have any language skills. She also talks about how reading aloud can help our children learn to apply language skills. Even if they can’t read a certain story it doesn’t mean they can’t understand and enjoy it when it’s read to them. But things you read to children should be fun for you to read to them and fun for them to listen to.
The magic of general knowledge addresses how a child who isn’t reading words strictly phonetically can figure out what the words are. The child with a large vocabulary and knowledge of many topics will be able to figure out a new word in print if he or she has been exposed to it in speech. It’s all about context.
So, should you read this book? Critics have pointed out that Fox doesn’t exactly cite the “experts” she uses for her source material. That’s true. But I think everything else I’ve read does back up her opinions and I didn’t read anything that struck me as unreasonable. I think if you’re a teacher you may not need to read this book unless you’re looking for something to recommend to parents. If you’re a parent and you’re uneasy about how to get your child to become a reader, this is a great book for you. It’s easy to read (heck, read it out loud to your kids!) and it’s upbeat enough to be motivating.
Just do me a favor and ignore any claims about getting your baby to read!