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What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?

Captive reading is a strategy for increasing a child’s exposure to reading material. Because exposure to print is at the very heart of raising a bilingual child with good ability in the minority language, captive reading can play an important role in boosting this exposure. As a rule, the more exposure to books and other texts a child receives, the stronger that child’s language ability will be, in all skill areas.

Captive reading is essentially the “captive audience” approach to language development. And it comes in two fine flavors: the reading you do with your children, and the reading they do on their own.

What is Captive Reading?Reading aloud to your children

In The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child, I argue that reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to support your child’s language development. It’s a practice that should begin right from birth, looking at simple picture books together, and continue far beyond the time they have developed the ability to read themselves, as you graduate to chapter books, middle grade fiction, even young adult literature. (See Don’t Stop Reading When They Start Reading! for more on the rationale behind reading aloud to older children.)

But a baby, lying there on her back, blinking up at the world, is the best “captive audience” you’ll ever have. After all, when you join a newborn on the floor and hold a colorful picture book in front of her eyes, what else is that baby going to do besides look at the book and listen to your voice? Tear the book from your hand? Run away? Call the police?

Infancy is the “golden age of captive reading” and parents should take full advantage of this time by beginning the habit of reading aloud from day one. Not only will you be increasing the child’s exposure to the minority language, and benefiting her budding language ability, the warmth felt in these moments between parent and child—a reward itself—will also foster a positive association with books and reading in the child’s little heart.

The principle of captive reading can continue to be applied as the child grows. Just think: When are my children the most “captive audience”? Traditionally, this is bedtime, and it’s an excellent time to read, of course. In our case, though, Keiko reads Japanese books to the children then, so we’ve established a different time to read English books.

For us, breakfast became our captive reading time. During the roughly 30 minutes that Lulu and Roy are eating, I read to them. And far from feeling like captives, they’ve come to clamor for it. Naturally, it’s essential to have a stock of suitable books on hand. Without a ready supply of books that will engage your children at the right level, the best of intentions will eventually fall short and the daily read-aloud habit will die off. Don’t let that happen. Make the necessary effort to continually buy, borrow, or beg suitable books for your children. (I don’t recommend stealing.) Remember, reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do for your children’s language development.

Children reading on their own

Once children have developed the skills to read at a basic level, our challenge involves getting them to use this newfound ability. If a child is naturally a bookworm, wonderful, but many children (like Lulu) would sooner leap about with a book on their head than sit quietly and turn the pages. Of course, we could, and should, find the time to read with our children regularly—taking turns, page by page. But wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get them reading on their own, too, increasing their exposure to reading material several times a day while we attend to the other demands of our lives?

The answer, I’ve found, is captive reading.

There may be other times during the day when your children are a “captive audience,” but I bet sitting alone in the bathroom will probably top the list. And if you post some suitable text on the wall in front of their eyes, they will read it.

It’s that simple.

Just think about your own experience in the bathroom. When you’re sitting there, and you see some text within range, you read it, don’t you? It’s almost like you can’t stop yourself from reading it, even when the text is simply an annoying ad posted in a public restroom.

Children are no different, except for the fact that the reading material must be tailored for them in these three crucial ways:

1. It must be reasonably engaging.

2. It must be pitched to the right reading level.

3. The format of the text must be easy to read.

Let’s break each one down.

It must be reasonably engaging
The surest solution is to use stories. Stories induce a kind of “enticing anxiety” in human beings—we want to find out how things turn out to ease that anxiety—and our attention generally won’t relent until we reach the ending. (Try this with your kids: When you’re reading a picture book, stop somewhere before the resolution—like when the main character has had a terrible setback—and tell them that the story is over. Even pretend to close the book. I’ll bet you provoke an outcry. :mrgreen: )

With Lulu and Roy, I first turned to fairy tales and fables. The familiarity of such stories as “The Three Little Pigs” has helped catch their attention, while making the reading itself more predictable, more comfortable. And once they read the first few sentences, that innate drive for resolution kicks in and they invariably forge on to the end.

It must be pitched to the right reading level
Obviously, the text must be suitable for the reading level of the child—not too easy, but certainly not too hard; not too short, but certainly not too long—or the effort will be less than effective. In fact, if the text is too hard or too long, the result may well be counterproductive: feeling frustrated or tired, the child will give up, perhaps even losing some confidence as a reader.

The format of the text must be easy to read
Again, this is common sense, but if the text is small, or the font is unfamiliar, it will be harder for children to read and they’ll be more likely to abandon it. The aim is to make the text as “friendly” as possible, both the size and the font, with short paragraphs and plenty of white space on the page.

Getting suitable reading materials

When I hit upon this idea, I thought preparing suitable stories would be easy. I could just pluck fairy tales and fables from books, or websites, and print them out. But it turned out to be more difficult than I supposed: I found plenty of stories, and they were engaging enough, but they weren’t pitched to the right reading level and they were often too long. I needed reading material at a basic level, and fairly short in length. Even when I did find something that more or less fit these requirements—after considerable searching—I still had to format the text to make it easy to read. Preparing the stories quickly became a tiresome task and it seemed the whole idea would soon fizzle out.

Yet I was convinced this little tactic would work if I just had suitable materials…so I took the plunge and began writing my own. And by writing them myself, I’m able to tailor them specifically, and effectively, for every requirement: the stories are short, engaging, pitched to the right level, and formatted for easy reading.

Of course, writing these materials is an investment of time, up front, but the payoff has been huge: Lulu and Roy are now reading more regularly, on their own, and this increased exposure to reading will benefit not only their reading skill, but their overall English ability. (Because the bathroom is right next to my office, I can even hear them mumbling the stories.)

If English is your minority language—or your children will be learning English in the future—I think you’ll like the captive reading materials that I created for my kids. Not only have they worked well for me, they’ve helped a lot of other parents, too. For full details, just head to My Captive Reading Stories.

How about you? Do you use “captive reading” with your children? Tell us about your experience!

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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