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Hours of Treasured Repetitive Reading with our Children

By Martin Aungle - 16th January 2012

Our family was camping on the NSW South Coast last week, which is always a great time to do very little apart from swimming, fishing and eating, and reading – especially those books you’ve wanted to read for ages and haven’t had the time.

One afternoon, just back from the beach, I looked across at the rest of the family, and they were all reading books they had been given for Christmas.

Our youngest had just turned seven, and had his head in Morris Gleitzman’s Tickled Onions.

What struck me was that the books our kids were reading were ones they hadn’t read before, which was pretty unusual – even for our 14-year-old.

I thought about my own reading habits as a kid, and I was the same. And I wasn’t reading the same books over and over again because they were the only ones available. I had the local library just up the road, but I often borrowed books I had read before. For our boys, the library is even closer – we can see it from the front door!

As our boys have grown older, that repetitive reading has dissipated, but I have often wondered if there is an underlying reason for it.

And there probably is. Having a quick look online, I found this piece of research published in February 2011 on repetitive reading – saying that contextual repetition promotes word learning from storybooks: “This research suggests that it's not the number of books, but the repetition of each book that leads to greater learning.”

For our kids, repetitive reading was at its height when they were first starting to talk. Thinking about a few of our boys’ favourite books as toddlers – Belinda, Harry the Dirty Dog, Waddle Giggle Gargle, Dear Zoo, Jack its Bathtime, Hairy Maclary – I reckon I’ve read each of them aloud more than a thousand times over the past 14 years. When our 14 year old was in hospital for a couple of days as a two year-old, repetition was a real source of comfort for him. He wanted Harry the Dirty Dog read to him constantly.

At the campsite watching the kids reading, I was reminded of a tongue-in-cheek piece I’d written when our seven-year-old was a toddler:

“Gargle! Gargle!” my eighteen-month-old shouts excitedly at the magpie outside.

The magpie flies away and a minute later our increasingly-battered copy of Pamela Allen’s Waddle Giggle Gargle is thrust into my hands.

He has just discovered books, and discovered them in a massive way.

“This is Jonathon,” I begin. This time, I am only asked to read it once, and my little bookworm launches himself from my knee, discarding Pamela Allen as he runs back to the bookcase.

“Tickle! Tickle!” he shouts, reaching into the haphazardly-arranged paper carcasses, pulling out and triumphantly brandishing the mercifully short and robust Number One, Tickle Your Tum by John Prater, with toddler-proof board pages. Book is handed purposefully over and boy stands expectantly in front of me waiting to start. “Shall we play the counting game?” I ask somewhat rhetorically, starting at the first page, as one should. Without waiting for the answer, I plough on into call and response mode. “Number one…” (pause) “… tickle!” he replies. “…your tum!”

Next book.

“Pider!” This one’s tough. Miss Spider's Tea Party by David Kirk. Quickly get through the pages laden with rhyming couplets, keeping the reading pace ahead of attention span. Too slow! Skip the final few lines as the page gets turned. Keep up the rhythm and expression, then onto his favourite page. “Crying, boo hoo hoo”. Poor little spider. No one wants to come to tea! No wonder, given that she will probably eat any guests.

“Zoo!” he shouts. Miraculously, on its third child, all flip out sections in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo remain intact and ungummed by food particles. Or have we finally moved onto our reserve copy?

“Bathtime!” tolls the little one, reaching for the stack he has conveniently placed within easy reach, to avoid lengthy reading downtime between chair and shelf. “Here’s Jack with his yellow…” I start. “Duck,” comes the confident reply, as I reveal the answer with bated breath. “Quack, Quack,” he says for added emphasis.

Jack it’s Bathtime by Rebecca Elgar is quickly replaced.

“Monder! Monder!” Careful with this one, not too much expression. “There is a monster at the end of this book…” but it doesn’t faze him. “YOU TURNED THE PAGE!!!” I yell in horror. This used to be scary, but after the 120th read, he has become desensitised to the mock violence in my voice. He knows all along that The Monster at the End of This Book is just Grover, so why do I bother with the charade?

Next up, Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki was in for treatment, after having a rest on the shelf to let the masking tape set on its poor, mistreated spine. “Meeeoooow!” came the low cry, and Slinky was yanked unceremoniously from his quiet resting place, and once more forced to steal a number of ridiculous items, including the painting smock from Oliver Tulliver’s den.

Miffy is Crying. She’s lost her teddy again. I can’t believe the torment he is continually putting her through. Oh, what’s that? Teddy was in Miffy’s bed the whole time! Why didn’t Miffy look there in the first place, instead of making a fuss and bothering everyone?

No sooner has the mystery of the missing teddy been solved, when poor Old Tom is subjected to chasing Belinda the cow around the paddock, and suffers the humiliation of donning his wife’s dress. “Moooooooooo!” says the boy, and it’s all worth it because now there is plenty of milk for the dog, cat and pig and butter for Old Tom’s bread. I’d hate to see their cholesterol count.

“Gargle! Gargle!” my eighteen month old shouts excitedly at the magpie outside and reaches back into the pile …


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