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Mares: Listening Is Fundamental

11/25/11 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(Host) On this National Day of Listening, commentator Bill Mares observes that listening to stories is fundamental for learning to read.

(Mares) Tuesday mornings I run with pediatrician Joe Hagan. Our talk roams across books, families, politics, medicine, and usually our respective aches and pains. Recently, he told me about a program called Reach Out to Read. It promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud. At each check-up, every child 6 months through 5 years old in the program receives new, developmentally-appropriate children's books to take home and keep. More than forty clinics in Vermont participate in this program.

Joe asked me if I knew that 34% of kids entering the first grade don’t have the basic language skills to proceed at grade level, that kids can pick up words as early as 6 months, and that reading aloud to a child is the single most effective way to develop language and literacy skills.

Joe warmed to his subject: “This is a great program. For $50 of contributed books you can give a child a lifetime of learning. By prescribing books for reading, we are immunizing kids against illiteracy!”

Our discussion got me thinking about how I had learned to love reading.

One of my first memories of any kind was listening to Mom read to us three boys. On evenings without number, we two younger brothers bracketed our mother while the eldest boy looked down from his perch on the top bunk. At first the stories were all gauzy mysteries to me. When I could look at the pictures, I wanted to stay on those pages, but my brothers always wanted to move on, because they could read!

When I entered my onomatopoeia phase, I was tickled by noise words like gush, drip, fizz, hiss, purr, squeak, mumble, and hush. Dr. Doolittle’s menagerie was next - Gub-Gub, Dab-Dab, Chi-Chi, and Pushmi-Pullyu.

Our favorite was Rudyard Kipling and the Just So Stories. Kipling was a genius at getting into a kid’s head to tell How the Camel Got His Hump, the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, and the Leopard Got His Spots. The alliterative repetitions were magical, “...the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees.…”

From fantasy our family moved to fact. It being wartime, my brothers persuaded my mother to read us the newspaper, where we found a new lexicon of combat: pom-poms, ack-ack, doodle-bugs, bazookas, buzz-bombs, Kamakazis, and May Day.

In time, I would take books off by myself, even hiding under the covers with a flashlight. I would go on to become a most ardent lover of words, to read everything put before me from cereal boxes to dictionaries, from Bartlett’s quotations to encyclopedias, and even the phone book, if there was nothing else around.

At the end of our run, Joe told me that I could be a septuagenarian poster child for Reach Out To Read.
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