14 Ways to Model Literacy

As we all know so well, children don’t just learn the lessons we plan to teach them. They learn by what we model for them. So if we want kids to be capable readers and writers, we have to do more than help them learn to read and write. We have to model literacy as a great part of daily life.

1.Read in front of children — If you want your kids to be readers, show them what it’s all about. Let them see you carrying a book or a kindle around. Tell them “hold on, I’ll help you when I’m at a good stopping place.” Bring a book to the playground and read on a bench while they play. Let them come downstairs late at night to find you on the couch with a good book, eating ice-cream out of the carton. Make them jealous. If you don’t like reading fiction, read non-fiction, how-to books, graphic novels, the news.

2. Read aloud — it’s widely known that it is important to read aloud to pre-literate children, but I don’t think it has to stop there. Reading aloud is a great way to spend time with people you love and to pass the time in boring places or while doing other boring things. My parents used to read to us when my sister and I were teenagers. We would be washing dishes, and my dad would read things like The Lord of the Rings and Gone With the Wind. Our younger sister would listen too. It was a way of spending time together even when we were busy. Soon our whole family had a deep wealth of common literary references that came into conversation. Even as an adult, I love reading aloud to friends on camping trips, everyone lying in the dark listening to The Little Prince, or The House at Pooh Corner (which is great with voices).

3. Encourage audiobooks — While audiobooks don’t snuggle like a parent reading a book aloud on the couch, they are a great way to bring more stories into children’s lives, especially children who are late or reluctant readers. They’re great for the car. They can also fill the entertainment niche that screen time fills and are great in the background while kids do art or build things. Reading is an important skill, but listening to stories helps children develop reading comprehension skills, listening skills, a sense of narrative, exposure to the larger world through stories, exposure to vocabulary, and all that good stuff.

4. Pass notes — Make writing and reading a practical skill. Leave notes for each other, or have a central whiteboard message station. Be goofy. Have fun.

5. Use the library — Give a child a library card and regular access to the library, show them how to use the catalog, refrain from judging the books they bring home (though no one says you have to help them read them), and you’ve given them a whole world. Don’t worry if it seems like they pick out the worst books — as a beginning reader I used to bring home the same terrible books all the time (The Berenstein Bears were a favorite). I grew up to use the library constantly — for good novels, for writing research, and for books I’m just curious about that might turn out to be as bad as The Berenstein Bears.

6. Look things up — Look up words you don’t know how to spell. Use Google. Use reference books. Question your sources. Get a second opinion. Show kids that written words, whether in books or on the internet, hold the answers to most every day mysteries and that not knowing something isn’t something to be ashamed of. It leads to the awesome chance to discover something new.

7. Play with words — Make bad puns, play with sounds, make cheesy rhymes, switch words around or substitute close-sounding but different-meaning words (what if you had a moose-trap in your attic?) and in every way that delights you, delight in language.

8. Use your full vocabulary — Speak to children in complex sentences. Then, if necessary, explain more simply. This doesn’t mean explaining ideas that are too logical or to complex emotionally for your child at that point. It just means not talking down to them. When you run into a word you don’t know, model looking up what it means.

9. Speak another language with your children— Whether you are fluent in another language or are just dredging up your high school Spanish, speaking another language with your children opens their world up, linguistically and culturally, and gives them more perspective on English as well. At my house, my dog plays fetch in French. He loves it, and my brain loves it.

10. Go hear authors you like read — In Seattle, Town Hall, Richard Hugo House, The Seattle Public Library, Elliott Bay Books, The University Bookstore, and other bookstores all host author readings, which are often free. There are kids’ readings too. It’s a great way to engage in the literary conversation that is happening here and now, and to meet your literary heroes.

11. Patronize local bookstores — Ebooks are cool, but local bookstores are literature’s nurse logs. Let’s support them for a literate world.

12. Make poetry a part of life — There are lots of ways to bring poetry into your children’s world, and when they are angsty teenagers writing teenage angst poems, they will thank you (well, metaphorically) for giving them a background in poetry. Catch Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR, give children a personal birthday poem, recite a poem as a goodnight ritual, quote whatever scraps of poems stuck in your mind from your English classes, find a new poet you like and leave their book lying around, or memorize a poem as a family.

13. Read myths and fairytales in their un-Disneyfied originals — Like dreams, myth speaks to our psyches in deep and essential ways. The cleaned-up Disney versions are like dreams that make sense. They just aren’t the same. Sharing mythology with children gives them a deep cultural reference point and a metaphorical language for their inner experiences. Religious texts can do the same thing.

14. Talk about what you read and see — Engage your children in discussions about the stories you read and watch. Asking them reading comprehension quiz questions like “What was the animal that jumped out of the woods called?” will probably just close down the conversation, but asking things like, “Was it scary when the animal jumped out? Did you think the girl did the right thing? I wonder what would have happened if the animal could have talked?” and other open-ended questions tend to open things up. Share your own reactions: “I loved the part with the swan. It was like a dream.”  “I don’t think it was fair that only the girl had to wash the dishes. I wonder if the author knew that was sexist?” Bring it back up later: “Oh, those clouds remind me of that story with the swan!” “These woods are like the woods the animal jumped out of, but I know you’re as brave as that girl.” These kinds of conversations engage children imaginatively, critically, and ethically with the media they absorb, making them better readers and better citizens.

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Math + Poems = Swagness

Today, in honor of April Fool’s Day, we pretended to do math instead of writing. We wrote a math poem, where each line had to have an equation but everything was words instead of numbers. It was so fun it felt like a game — might be a great writing assignment for a math-focused kid. It has a comforting structure yet at the same time it gets right into metaphorical thinking.

Our poem went many different places. We had sweet lines like The girls in Frog Hollow + me = friendship, existential lines like  Nothing + nothing = nothing, and factual lines like Purple – red = blue.  There was a great sense of self-awareness and humor, showing up in this line about my dog and his taste in perfume, Squinchy + something dead that smells = he can’t come in the lodge,  and  Frog Hollow – writing = a bunch of kids being crazy in a barn. To sum it all up, Frog Hollow + creative minds = boom.

To see more of what Frog Hollow + creative minds make, come to our Open House, 7 pm, Monday April 6th.

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Dada in Our Hearts: teaching French Surrealism and Dadaism to children

Last week, I introduced the class to French Surrealist poetry and Dadaism. This sounds very highbrow, but actually this poetry is right up the kids’ alley. Why? Because it’s totally nuts. Basically, these poets were responding to the insanity of World War One by deifying nonsense. But lots of it is very lively, wondrous nonsense.

Hugo Ball as a performing obelisk, c/o wikimedia.

I told them about Hugo Ball and his “abstract poetry,” where he would get rolled onto stage dressed as a blue cardboard obelisk and recite things like “gadji beri bimba glandridi alula lonni cadori….” (Which is nonsense in French, too.) They loved it.

I read them poems like “Dada Song” by Tristan Tzara, which has lines like “Eat chocolate. Wash your brain.” and “Hello” by Benjamin Peret*, with images like “my opal snail my air mosquito” and “my casket of sunlight my volcano fruit.” I talked about how one thing these poets wanted to do was bring together images that were very, very different than each other, like an opal and a snail, to make something that was crazy but that made you see something in a new way, like how snails and opals have a similar shimmer.

I read them some in my terrible French and wrote some phrases in French on the board. Then I had the class turn upside down in their seats so they could see the world from a new perspective. I told them they could write while upside down if they wanted. I told them to write a crazy poem with crazy images, using nonsense words if they wanted and French words if they wanted. Lots of enthusiastic, giggly writing happened. But not all of the writing was empty silliness. There was also a real wild sense of wonder and play. I’d like to share three poems.

The first poem is by Isla. She wrote it in English and I am helping her translate it into French. I love the feeling of this poem and its layers of images. I think it was mostly inspired by a poem I read by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. She was writing in the early 1800’s, so she isn’t a Surrealist, but  I wanted to share her work to show a) the dreamy imagery that was already a tradition in France, and b) how beautiful it was. Her poem is titled “The Roses of Saadi.” Isla’s is titled “Ange,” or angel.


White birds in

the clouds. Snow

flakes falling


My feathered


come to me

come to me

my feathered


enjoy warm

air with

your soft feather

wings enjoy


The second was written by Dara in French with no help from me (but a lot of help from the French dictionary) and then translated into English. I like the feeling she writes about of having the whole cosmos in one precious stone, as well as the rhythms she’s using. In it you can see the simple grammar that thinking in a second language encourages. Here it is in English:

Space Rock

My opal is the space

In the night it is the white

Like the moon

In the day it is orange

Like the sun

My space rock

The third poem is by Cadence, and was written upside down. It feels like a direct descendent of the dark humor and wide-ranging images of the Surrealists.

A Life Upside Down

Is a squished

grape not a

ripe lemon. A

shoe stomping

on my heart.

A stranger

upside down

died again.

The end.

Anyways, it’s been a blast. I would recommend the anthology Modern Poets of France, translated by Louis Simpson if you want enough French Surrealism to turn you upside down.

(And if you want more Frog Hollow, come to our open house, Monday April 6th, 7:00 pm, 1919 E Prospect St, Seattle.)

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Homonyms: Fun Four Yew Two

My two classes have been having a friendly competition. Each class has been collecting homonyms of the sounds-the-same-but-spelled-differently-and-means-different-things variety. We set the end of February as the end of the official competition, but neither class wants to stop collecting. As of now, the Carnation class has around 155 homonyms, while the Seattle class was around 275. However, the Carnation class found a six way homonym. (I can’t give it away, but it involves contractions, archaic words and proper nouns.)

The kids are hooked. It’s really fun and both the emerging spellers and the word nerds really like working on it. We let the families help, and some of the parents are hooked too. “I found five more just on the drive over!” said one mom. And even though it sounds like we have a lot, I know there are zillions more. So far in this little blog post alone there are: two/to/too, have/halve, been/Ben (or been/bin — different pronunciations make different homonyms), having/halving (but on our list that wouldn’t count since it’s just another form of have/halve), a/eh, but/butt, mean/mien, we/wee/whee/wii (if you throw in brand names), while/wile, way/weigh/whey, are/r/our, its/it’s, some/sum, more/moor/Moore, one/won, no/know, there/their/they’re — and I might have missed some. It’s infectious. I’ve been editing my novel and I find myself writing them on the margins (sheik/chic, rye/wry).

If you want to try this at home, I recommend making some kind of alphabetized chart (or spreadsheet if you want to get techie). We put them under the first possible letter — so rye/wry would go under “r” — to keep doubles easier to spot. We made columns so we could spot the sets of three and four (and five and six). Once you get going, you might never stop. But it’s worth it. Enjoy!

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