July 29, 2010


Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7. By J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D. Da Capo. $14.95.

The Preemie Primer: A Complete Guide for Parents of Premature Babies—from Birth through the Toddler Years and Beyond. By Jennifer Gunter, M.D. Da Capo. $16.95.

     All children are special, each in his or her own way. And all deserve special treatment, from coddling and love and demonstrations of affection to guidance in their earliest years in the directions in which parents most want them to grow. Becoming an adept reader is surely one such direction: reading is even more important in today’s information flood than it was when all material flowed through print media. Today’s kids will need to cope as they grow with an ever-increasing amount of information disseminated through an ever-larger number of methods. Web sites and eBook readers are, it is fair to guess, only the beginning of tomorrow’s methods of connecting content producers with content consumers. The basics of how children read, though, are unlikely to change, although absorption may accelerate as the human brain adjusts to the need to pull in more material from a larger number of sources. J. Richard Gentry, who has spent more than 30 years working with beginning readers, suggests in Raising Confident Readers that parents guide children in a variety of ways through four “phases” of reading – or five if you count “Phase 0,” which starts right at birth as parents read aloud to their infants. Perception of reading material actually starts in utero, Gentry says: “Even before birth, if you are reading a children’s storybook aloud, baby’s brain responds to the musical quality of the sound, which she can already hear from inside the womb.” Phase 0, says Gentry, is E-A-S-Y – a perhaps overly cute acronym for “Early start, Activities, Stimulation and You.” Creativity that goes beyond recitation of words is crucial at this stage: “One parent I know stimulated large motor skills by walking around with her toddler like a penguin because they were reading about penguins.” Parents need to be careful not to get into competitive mode as Gentry gives examples of all the wonderful things other families have done to inspire kids to read. Parents also should take the author’s book suggestions as guidance, not as “musts.” Phase 0, for instance, gets such books as Goodnight Moon and Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book; Phase 1, which focuses on letter learning, includes (among others) The Napping House and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom; Phase 2, in which kids learn to map letters to sounds, has such suggestions as Green Eggs and Ham, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are. In addition to making specific suggestions for parents, Gentry gets into some of the more technical aspects of teaching reading – perhaps a little oddly from a parental perspective, since his discussions of (for example) “comprehension, fluency, sound awareness, phonics, and vocabulary” can make reading with your kids seem like less of a pleasure and more of a job: “Remember to include modeling, telling, explaining, and thinking aloud in your conversations during read-alouds and retellings.” To complicate matters further, Gentry includes drawing and/or writing exercises in every phase he discusses – yes, even Phase 0 (because “art begins at birth”). Like his reading ideas, his ones about writing are well thought out and can be very helpful, but they can also be a touch on the complex side for already-busy parents. The biggest flaw in Raising Confident Readers is that it may undermine parents’ confidence by showing just how complex and multifaceted the teaching of reading and writing can be. By the time parents are told that (in Phase 4) a child “shows evidence of chunking knowledge [and] stabilizes the concept of how words work and integrates the use of letter-sound cues and grammar cues,” the whole read-with-your-child idea may start to sound like a chore rather than a pleasure. Parents need to lighten up when reading Gentry’s book, not worry themselves unduly about hitting all the suggested guideposts and making it through all the many recommended exercises.

     Recommendations for premature babies are an entirely different issue, and Jennifer Gunter is especially competent to discuss them: in addition to being an OB/GYN, she is herself the parent of two preemies – and was pregnant, after fertility treatments, with three babies, the first of whom died within minutes of birth. Gunter is very, very parent-focused in The Preemie Primer, giving many examples of her own feelings and worries (her harrowing story about breastfeeding concerns, for example) as well as providing sound practical advice on everything from preemie car seats to insurance and billing issues. This mixture of medical advice and personal experience works exceptionally well. For instance, Gunter discusses hospital-acquired infections statistically, explaining that “the risk of a baby catching an infection while in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] ranges from 6-33 percent.” On the same page, she details her own experiences with an E. coli infection that she passed to her babies – and quotes her OB/GYN colleague telling her, “‘You know this is not your fault.’” So when Gunter adds, in her own voice, “I just needed to hear someone say it out loud,” readers know this is one doctor and mother who has really “been there” from both a medical and a maternal perspective. It is hard to say whether the personal stories or the medical analysis is more valuable here; they tend to intermingle closely. In the section on hearing loss in the NICU, for example, Gunter explains that babies who spend more than two days in NICU have “10 times the risk of hearing impairment compared with a baby born at term,” and then presents tables showing types of hearing loss and decibel levels of common sounds. She also explains that “I was careful to observe quiet time while [my boys’] incubators were covered with a quilt, but I could hardly wait for their day to begin.” And she talks about what she said to them while caring for them. This is really quite wonderful, and provides a nice counterbalance to the potentially disturbing data about what can happen to preemies shortly after their birth. And Gunter by no means stops the book after her boys and other preemies go home – she continues the story into the toddler years, just as her title promises, although it is true that as the book goes on, there is much less in it that applies specifically to premature births and much more that relates to children in general. And for some, Gunter’s reliance on medical statistics may start to pall after a while: “Pertussis is a serious infection for children: 10 percent get pneumonia, 2 percent will have seizures, and more than 50 percent of babies under the age of one will need to be hospitalized.” “The 3rd percentile in height translates to a predicted adult height of 5 feet 4 inches for a boy and 4 feet 11 inches for a girl.” “Approximately 1 percent of children have a disorder in the autism spectrum.” Like many medically oriented books for nonmedical readers, The Preemie Primer is too jam-packed with technical information for most parents to be able to absorb it all. And of course the book is not for everyone – its focus on parents of preemies is quite intentional. What sets it above many other books in the “medical aspects of parenting” genre is the effective interweaving of Gunter’s personal and emotional experiences with her no-nonsense medical knowledge about premature babies and the families that raise them.

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