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The Larger Arc of Captive Reading—and Our Lives As Human Beings

July 6, 2016

The Larger Arc of Captive Reading—and Our Lives As Human Beings

For nearly a decade, I’ve pursued a strategy I call “captive reading” and this tactic has made a tremendous contribution to my children’s language and literacy development. At this point, as my children are getting a bit older (they’re now 12 and 9) and their ability in the minority language has reached a fairly advanced level, I’ve now taken what is probably the final step in my captive reading efforts, one I’ll try to sustain through the rest of their childhood.

But before I share that final step, let’s look back at the larger arc of this strategy since my daughter was 3. Obviously, from age 3 to age 12 there has been great growth in her language development and, in line with this growth, I’ve used a progression of captive reading forms and materials over the years.

Below is the broad chronology of my efforts, based on the main blog posts that have described these ideas. For full details, please turn to the original posts.

Chronology of captive reading

1. What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Children? (September 3, 2012)
This article describes the basic concept of captive reading, which involves posting suitable text in a “captive location”—like the bathroom—on a persistent basis in order to activate a budding reader’s “automatic reading response.” The greater purpose of this strategy is to increase the amount of regular exposure in the minority language—without your presence even being required—which will, over time, strengthen both literacy development and overall language ability. The earliest efforts at this can involve the letters or characters that make up your minority language, basic words and word combinations, and simple messages or riddles.

2. Don’t Read These Words! (October 5, 2012)
This post provides a concrete example of how my son, at the age of 5, was already in the grip of that “automatic reading response.” Having become a reader, he moaned to me about being unable not to attempt reading whatever text came under his gaze. Of course, in my devious desire to nurture his language ability, I took full advantage of his little plight by expanding my captive reading efforts, such as placing appealing picture books by his side as he played quietly on the floor. Once he saw the covers, and read the titles, he was often lured into opening the books and reading more.

3. Why You Must Put a Whiteboard in the Bathroom (October 22, 2012)
A useful tool for captive reading is a whiteboard, and in this post I describe how I made use of a large whiteboard-like sticker that I simply stuck to the wall next to the toilet for the first stages of this reading input. Once we progressed beyond short sentences and riddles, I then began to post sheets of paper instead which featured basic stories, both fiction and nonfiction, written myself or copied from books or the Internet.

4. Turn Your Kids Into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy (November 21, 2012)
To me, the most fun and effective form of captive reading involves writing zany “serial stories” that feature your own children in starring roles. Such stories have been so appealing to my kids that they even race to the bathroom to read the next installment. In this post I explain, in detailed steps, how to go about creating your own serial stories. If you give this idea a go, I guarantee you’ll be rewarded with a really fun, productive experience!

5. How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability (May 14, 2013)
Children’s poetry also makes valuable material for captive reading (and for language input in general: see How to Use Poetry with Your Kids (And Why You Should)). This article describes my efforts with poetry, which has long been a staple in our diet of captive reading material because of its suitably short length and powerful language properties.

6. If This Isn’t a Big Part of Your Strategy for Raising Bilingual Kids, It Really Should Be (July 2, 2013)
Here I recount a trip back to the United States and the conclusion I made about creating a “print-rich environment” in the home, one that might mirror the print environment of the minority language country. And, of course, captive reading can play a major part in fulfilling this aim. As I wrote in this post: “An environment that’s rich in print has a profound impact on a child’s language development simply through the persistent exposure it provides. When a child who has begun to read is continually exposed to examples of that target language in her environment, and her eyes unconsciously take in that text throughout the day, this regular ‘practice’ offers powerful fuel for boosting language ability.”

7. My Favorite Way to Get a Bilingual Child Reading More in the Minority Language (November 29, 2013)
This article returns to the idea of “serial stories” by sharing my personal experience with my own children. I describe the stories I had written up to this point, and even offer my story “Bad Baby” as a free download for your own use, if you like. Again, I highly recommend taking fun advantage of this “advanced” form of captive reading for promoting engagement in the minority language.

The final step in my efforts

Nine years after I began this captive reading routine, changing the reading material in our bathroom every couple of days without fail, I think we’ve reached the final step: reading entire books, a few pages at a time. Although I’ll also continue to use poetry and other fiction and nonfiction material—particularly, I think, as a “break” between books—my first attempt at posting a whole book, three copied pages at a time, has been quite successful.

The book we’re now reading is titled The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck. It’s a good choice for my kids, I think, because it’s written at a comfortable reading level for them and spins a strong tale (about a tsunami) that takes place in old Japan. Plus, it’s a lean 78 pages, which, for this first attempt, won’t risk taxing their endurance like a longer book.

As I mentioned, I post three pages at a time (and I enlarge the text to fill each copied page). For each installment, though, the third page always goes to the top of two new pages to help maintain continuity. In other words, there are always only three pages on the inside of our bathroom door, but the top page is the third page from the previous installment—and so on, as I faithfully change the text every two or three days and we gradually progress through the book.

“Someday you will wonder why you were afraid…”

The other day we came to these two pages from The Big Wave and they struck me as a very wise way of viewing the larger arc of our lives as human beings. (In this part of the story, the boy Kino and his family have just survived a great tsunami that brought death and destruction to their village.)

This excerpt also illustrates how captive reading material can become a source of stimulating themes and important ideas about life itself.

I hope you find Pearl Buck’s words as beautiful and soothing as I do…Excerpt from "The Big Wave"

How about you? Are you taking full advantage of captive reading in your efforts? If not, there’s a challenge at The Bilingual Zoo waiting for you! See Challenge #4: Make Use of Captive Reading.

1 Veda September 11, 2016 at 7:50 am

Ending a long day with this very soothing excerpt, thanks so much Adam! I can’t wait to explore the possibilities with captive reading with my kids. They are now 14 months.

When I was at school, I would stick math formulas or German verb conjugations on shower doors and bathroom mirrors. I’m glad I wasn’t the only bonkers one doing things like that! 😉


2 Adam September 11, 2016 at 11:26 am

Veda, you’re welcome! Captive reading can be great fun—and very productive for our bilingual goal—but making effective use of this strategy does demand ongoing persistence. The payoff is well worth the investment, though!


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