If you would like your child to be a great reader, should you give him or her…

  1. A book
  2. A Barbie
  3. A Lego set
  4. A trip to the zoo
  5. All of the above

Well, let’s see.  What are the tools of a really good reader?

A good reader can decode the symbols on a page and make them into words. The more you practice reading, the better you become, so answer one is good.  Give him a book!

But a good reader also needs prior knowledge of the world around him to make sense of the words he has decoded. The more he sees and understands of the physical world the more he can make sense of the imaginary world in books, so answer four is also correct. Give him a trip to the zoo! Or the farm, or the park, or the grocery store even.

But what about answers two and three? Can Barbies and Legos really make better readers?

I think so and here is why.

The other day my daughter’s kindergarten teacher explained to me that the students were beginning their reading program by telling stories. The theory is that a beginning reader will better understand a written story if they are familiar with story structure. They will begin their foray into reading and writing stories by making up stories and telling them to each other.

I have been in a kindergarten classroom enough to know that a lot of those stories will be about how Mommy couldn’t find the car keys and said a bad word or how somebody saw somebody’s underpants (something that I still do not understand is why underpants are funny).

Some of that can be avoided with some really good props. And Legos and Barbies are nothing if not really good props.

The other day I sat and played for hours with two four-year-olds and a huge box of jumbled up Legos. This box has dinosaurs, dragons, sea creatures, space ships, pirates, medieval castles… you name it, it’s in there.

By special request, I was helping them sort out and assemble what looked to me like the Temple of Doom from the Indiana Jones movie. I assumed it looked like that to them as well, but then, ha ha, it turns out they don’t know that story.

These kids took all the parts and made up a whole new story. One where sting rays and dragons mixed it up with explorers and cannibals, space ships landed on the temple and dropped off kittens for the temple pet show, and everyone wore pirate hats.

A lack of prior knowledge was evident here, but rather than explaining cannibals, ancient curses and Hollywood archeology, I rolled with it. And it was fun!  We made up a great story with the help of our jumbled up Lego set.

And we weren’t just goofing off. We were practicing the art of storytelling and building valuable literacy skills.

So, back to our original question: If you want your child to be a great reader, what do you give him or her?

It turns out there are a lot of good answers to that questions, Legos and Barbies included.

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