Monday, October 5, 2009

Disney will teach your kids to read for an annual fee

Disney has unveiled a lucrative way to teach children how to read. places part of Disney’s considerable catalogue online for children to enjoy at a subscription rate of $79.95 per year.

The site aims for children from 3 to 12. Younger kids can use the look-and-listen feature, which reads the text to them while highlighting the spoken word. Older children can read by themselves and click on a word if they need to hear it spoken aloud. They can also check the word’s definition with a built-in dictionary.

The site offers more than 500 books featuring Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Hannah Montana, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. (But I don’t think it includes the classic J.M. Barrie or A.A. Milne books — just the later, Disney-fied ones.)

Disney’s new site intrigues me. I don’t know if it will encourage otherwise indifferent children to read, but it might be useful to kids who are already so inclined. It’s no substitute for a grandma’s lap, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

It also got me thinking about kids and reading. People are always talking about it: How to get kids to read? How to make them eager about it? How to guarantee they will be life-long readers?

It seems like kids — between texting and the computer screen — are doing more reading than they have for decades; but that doesn’t mean they’ll care who Margaret Atwood is.

I contacted three mothers who have kids of different ages and asked them how they got their kids involved in reading. (Yes, all the people I spoke to were women, but that doesn’t mean men are not or cannot be involved in the process.)

My first mother is coworker Betsy Scott. She has three children between the ages of 4 and 8. I asked her and the other mothers, “Did you encourage your children to read and, if so, how?” She said:

I encouraged them to read by reading to them nearly every night before bed. The boys loved it. My 5-year-old daughter asks me to read to her, but doesn’t pay much attention when I do. The older two are among the top kids in their class (or at the top) in spelling and reading ... They don’t even want me to read to them anymore cuz they enjoy it so much themselves.

The next mother was co-blogger and boss of bosses Tricia Ambrose. Her children are both in high school. She said:

I think it’s far more powerful for kids to see you reading than for you to tell them how they should be reading.

I never really thought of what I did as encouraging them to read, that makes it sound too much like making them eat their vegetables (something I never did, by the way). I did read to them a lot when they were very young and we went to the library frequently, as you can imagine, but for me, it was more about sharing with my children something I love. Trust me, there aren’t too many things in this world more wonderful than sitting together with your child and reading. We have particularly fond memories of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Love You Forever, the Little Bear books, Good Night Moon, Minnie and Moo ... I could go on and on.

If I would do anything differently, it really would be to have savored those moments while they were happening. They grow up so fast (man, I’m old!) But, we still go to the library a lot, it’s just that now they’re into the Twilight and Lord of the Rings books not Dr. Seuss.

Finally, my mother weighed in. (In case you are wondering, she has four children. The youngest of whom is 22.) She said:

I did encourage all of you to read, but Grandma Swain, even more so than me. Her first gifts to all of you were those cardboard-paged books that babies can’t eat. When Grandma and Papa came to visit, Grandma would sit and read to all of you, while I tried to get as much housework done as possible without distractions. The interesting thing is that, despite probably the most exposure to fiction because he was the firstborn and had Grandma to himself for a while, Ethan never took to fiction reading ... always wanted nonfiction instead.

I also took all of you to every program I could find at the library, which of course encouraged reading. In our home, I don’t remember TV usurping reading time. In fact, I remember specifically letting you watch Reading Rainbow for that reason.

I asked my mother about the Disney Web site and other technology that was not available when we were young. She replied:

Perhaps I’m too old-fashioned to appreciate the benefits of new technology on this one. In my opinion, nothing beats a kid sitting on a parent’s lap, hearing the intonation behind exciting prose, and viewing the illustrations at the same time. Technology can, admittedly, produce the second two, but not the lap.

So there you have it. A brief, informal survey reveals something we already knew. Read to your children. If you also want to enlist Disney's help, that's fine. We also learned that Tricia is old, and my grandparents had to buy cardboard books so I wouldn’t eat them.

-Jason Lea,

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