Saturday, November 24, 2012

Strategically Buying Books for Angel Tree

I assume most people are familiar with Angel Tree and similar programs. For the few who aren't, it's a chance to buy Christmas gifts for a child or a family. You get a little piece of paper that tells you the child's name, age, sex, clothing sizes, and wish list, and you go shopping. 

In addition to the toys and clothes, many people also opt to get books for their Angel Tree kids. Having books at home is important.
For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.
So then the question becomes, what books? One can always pick a few personal favorites. One might also try to pick strategically. So what are some ways to pick strategically?

One way might be to focus on imparting background knowledge. E. D. Hirsch Jr. has written on this extensively. Here is an excerpt from an article where he has explained the importance of background knowledge:

Consider the following sentence, which is one that most literate Americans can understand, but most literate British people cannot, even when they have a wide vocabulary and know the conventions of the standard language: 
Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run. 
Typically, a literate British person would know all the words in the sentence yet wouldn't comprehend it. (In fairness, most Americans would be equally baffled by a sentence about the sport of cricket.) To understand this sentence about Jones and his sacrifice, you need a wealth of relevant background knowledge that goes beyond vocabulary and syntax—relevant knowledge that is far broader than the words of the sentence. Let's consider what we as writers would have to convey to an English person to make this sentence comprehensible. 
First, we would have to explain that Jones was at bat. That would entail an explanation of the inning system and the three-outs system. It would entail an explanation of the size and shape of the baseball field (necessary to the concept of a sacrifice fly or bunt) and a digression on what a fly or a bunt is. The reader would also have to have some vague sense of the layout of the bases and what a run is. By the time our English reader had begun to assimilate all this relevant background knowledge, he or she may have lost track of the whole point of the explanation. What was the original sentence? It will have been submerged in a flurry of additional sentences branching out in different directions. 
The point of this example is that knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children's reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either. 
So with that in mind, what books? These are some of the books I would pick, selecting an age-appropriate title for each point. (Note that I live in Arkansas, and so I am not part of the Amazon affiliate program.)

  • The Bible. I am a Christian, but even if I weren't, I would consider this a necessity. If a person is unfamiliar with the Bible, he is culturally ignorant in the Western world and poorly equipped to read Western literature. There is no getting around that. The same goes for the next two suggestions. However, I would probably not get a standard Bible. Most people have at least one of those already; they just don't read it, or they find it too difficult to understand. I'd go for something that imparts the basic stories, like this. Knowing the basic stories makes it much easier to read the real thing.
  • Grimm's fairy tales. 
  • Greek myths. ADDED: This, for example.
  • Survey of art, including major artists and most well-known works.
  • A concise history of the world. That sounds like a tall order, but there are plenty of options.
  • Survey of science, probably an engaging science encyclopedia.
  • Math beyond computation. Schools often distill math down to computation, but that's not what math really is, and it's important to know that. Plus, a student is going to feel more confident about mathematics if he knows some interesting things about it, maybe even cool things he can share in his math class. I particularly like this book.
If I had to pick only three, I'd go for the Bible, the Greek myths, and the survey of science. 

What would you pick with the goal of background knowledge in mind?

ADDED: A collection of Aesop's fables.


FleetUSA said...

As you are a home schooler I really appreciate your thoughts and we will try to give books this year. GREAT IDEA.

I would like if you gave a recommendation for each category especially the science one. Also, your link to the Bible worked but the one on math did not! I especially like the idea on math because without decent math ability a child is handicapped for life.

FleetUSA said...

I went back and the math link works.

FleetUSA said...
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