18 September 2007

Review: The Bob Books from Scholastic

The information about this series came into my inbox at a particularly appropriate time. For some time, Sprout has exhibited many of the signs of reading readiness, including the ability to identify the letters of the alphabet in both upper and lower case, basic understanding of the primary sounds of individual letters, and (most importantly) a strong desire to move forward in her acquisition of language. She often asks what words are by spelling them, i.e. when we're driving and she sees a traffic sign she will read the letters off of the sign and ask what they spell. She also remembers many of the words that she's been exposed to previously. All of which is meant to say that, although Sprout is barely 3, I did not believe that it was too soon to try her on something like the Bob Books even though they are intended for an audience of 4-6 year olds.

When the box arrived, I was excited to open it and begin looking through the materials. I had already visited the Bob Books website and was a little disappointed that there was not more guidance from the site on how to get started. The support materials on the website were limited to a single PDF coloring page per 12 book box set. Unfortunately, the box and individual books didn't contain much further guidance.

Sprout did, indeed, read the first book with no problem. Unfortunately, the feeling of accomplishment didn't bring with it any desire to pick up the second book. I suggested that we read "Her Books" at least once every day for a week and she responded every time by saying that she wanted me to read to her and not the other way around. After several days, I tried another strategy, "We'll read the first two Bob Books together and then you can choose any 4 books off your bookshelf for me to read to you." She agreed, we breezed through the first book a second time and then made it through 8 of the 12 pages of the second book before she seemed bored with it and completely uninterested even in having me read the books she was supposed to choose from the shelves. It was beginning to seem as though the Bob Books were inspiring a lack of interest in reading.

I was a little uncertain of how to proceed. Surely I couldn't be the only parent who had ever gotten this reaction from the program. I could really have used more support materials from the website or the packaging inserts. I'd talked to a couple of the other moms on Sprout's soccer team and learned that one of them had tried the Bob series with great success. I asked a few probing questions and realized that she had a much more structured routine with her children than we've ever tried with Sprout. I tried to structure our "study" time a bit more but Sprout interpretted my efforts as a punishment and resisted even more strongly. I got similar responses to bribes ("let's read and then we can go to the park") and attempts to make it into a game by "Playing School."

To make matters worse, she had almost completely stopped many of her earlier reading readiness behaviors. She was no longer reading off the letters on traffic signs to ask what they said, no longer pointing to words that she knew when she saw them spelled out in the "real world." I abandoned the series mid-way through the 5th book for fear that maybe she just hadn't developed the attention span required to make it through the series and we'd be better off trying again in a year or so, once she had reached the target age for the books.

Sprout's soccer coach, "Miss B," has been homeschooling her older daughter for the last 2 years. Miss B's younger daughter, Em, is 4 and will be enrolling in a pre-k class in the very near future. I called Miss B and asked if she thought that she and Em might like to try the Bob Books. She was very interested in giving them a try. We talked very briefly after Saturday's soccer game and Miss B says that they've worked through the first couple of books in the series in the week that they've had them but indicated that she was having some similar problems getting Em to focus.

I've been trying to work out some games and activities that we can do to try to make the books more fun for Sprout. I've added to our collection of alphabet magnets and I'm thinking that we may be able to make the process of reading the books a little more interactive by using the letter magnets to act out the process of sounding out words. I may also try to encourage Sprout's impulse to build on the sentences in the books by composing additional lines of text using the magnets.

Lest you think that my feelings are entirely negative, they're not. I think that the Bob Books have a lot to offer. They're a great concept and the illustrations are simple enough that I'm thinking I can help Sprout write and illustrate new stories or build upon the ones we have. I don't know if my difficulties are a result of Sprout being so much younger than the target audience, or if perhaps our less structured lifestyle has left her ill-equipped to follow instructions and concentrate for a lesson. I'll be continuing to work with her some on the challenge of staying on task for a period of structured activity.

In short, I like the concept of the books, I like the approach and the execution. I'd like to see more support for parents from Scholastic via packaging inserts or web support. I also think that it would be quite simple to develop a series of related activities that built upon the books which could be delivered via the Bob Books website, something more than a single coloring page per boxed set of books.

The series has been around for something like 30 years and a great many people have enjoyed great success with it. If you're concerned that your child might have the same type of attention problems that Sprout has shown, it would be well worth checking to see if your local library has the books in their catalog. That said, the first set is not very expensive and I think that I would find it well worth the investment to have the flexibility to put the books away for a period of time and try again later.

This is the second of the sponsored reviews for Mother-Talk.com that I mentioned here. You can see the first review by following this link.

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