How playing Gollum can boost reading skills

Lydia is in kindergarten now and easily picking up the “sight words” and phonics as they’re taught.  There’s no need to pressure her to pick up reading any faster, but I pounced on this opportunity to help her practice by doing something she was really interested in doing!

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my partner Daniel’s very favorite books.  When we were first living together and he found out that I’d never read The Hobbit, he read it to me as a bedtime story so we could savor it together.  It was pretty sweet getting a bedtime story at the age of 23–and it motivated us to go to bed on time so we could get up early for work in the morning!

But my failure to read the book as a child didn’t mean I was unfamiliar with the story: I’d seen the animated film, and a few years later I got a record album that is made from the film’s soundtrack.  I still have that record!  It’s an excellent edit, presenting all the major parts of the plot in just 40 minutes, with plenty of sound effects and captivating bits of song.  I listened to that journey through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood Forest to confront the dragon Smaug over and over and over again.

Lydia slept in the dining room for her first four and a half years, and that’s where our stereo system is–so at times when she was resisting going to sleep, we’d often play a record or CD for her to listen to in the dark.  The Hobbit became a favorite record when she was around three years old.

Of course, once she was interested in The Hobbit, Daniel wanted to read her the book!  They had many false starts before she got into it just the way her big brother Nicholas first did, with the chapter “Riddles in the Dark”.  Lydia was excited to find that brave hobbit Bilbo’s terrifying intellectual contest with the creepy cave-dweller Gollum is longer in the book than on the record.  The rhyming riddles are very appealing to our little poetry fan.  For a while she was asking to hear just that chapter, or we’d read from the beginning for a while but then she’d want to hear the riddles again. . . .

We recently finished reading Lydia The Hobbit from start to finish!  Since then, she’s been obsessed with the record, wanting to hear it at least once a day for weeks.

About ten days ago, I was taking over the Parent On Duty role from Daniel, and Lydia said, “So you’ll be the one to write the script!  Daddy and me are planning a hobbit show!”  Oh?

She explained that she wanted to enact the riddle contest.  She wanted me to transcribe from the book everything that Bilbo says on one sheet of paper and everything Gollum says on another, and we’d each read from our script.  How would we know when it’s time to pause for the other’s line?  I should just leave a blank space there.

This was a lot of writing–made more difficult by Lydia jumping around excitedly and sometimes bumping into me–but each role fit onto two sheets of scrap paper, and it took only about half an hour to do.

I noticed that this text contains most of her sight words and many other simple words that I’d seen her decode on signs and so forth.  But it also includes a lot of more complex words.  I wondered how well she would be able to read from this script.

The other thing I thought about while transcribing was, where did she get the idea of working from a script?  Well, several months ago, she and Nicholas decided to put on a production of The Wizard of Oz, liberally adapted so that they could do it with only two actors and heavy emphasis on special effects (Nick’s special interest)–and although Nick wrote that script for himself to read and coached Lydia to memorize all her lines, it must have given her the idea that when you’re doing a show, you have a script.

So, I was impressed that Lydia believed she could read Tolkien as a kindergartner, and I was very interested to see how this would work out!

We’ve had several rehearsals now, with Daniel or me reading Bilbo’s part while Lydia portrays Gollum.  She’s definitely reading many words and adding to her personal repertoire of sight words each time!  She’s also using context to figure out a lot of the words–and that’s a crucial skill in reading, too.  Then there are parts that she’s memorized, a little more each time as she becomes increasingly familiar with the dialogue.  She still needs lots of prompting, but in many places she can read/recite several lines in a row without help.

Seeing as we have no plans for an actual performance, we can just keep working on this as long as she’s interested.  It’s making her look at the words, so even when she isn’t literally reading because she knows what it says, she’s noticing things about the words that are valuable to learn.

Here are some comments she’s made on the text shown above:

  • Reading the words this, thing, and birds tells her which riddle is at the top of the page and helps her remember the order of the words in the second line–she’s memorized this riddle, but that second line is tricky.
  • devours and flowers rhyme but are spelled differently.  Same thing with steel and meal.
  • Gnaws and high both use a silent G.
  • iron seems to have its letters in the wrong order; we pronounce it with the R right before the N.
  • She was pleased to recognize ruins, which is spelled just as she thought it would be.
  • It’s easy to recognize the word question because what other word starting with Q would come right after ask us a ?
  • precious is now a sight word!
  • She thinks the yes yes yes and the doubled plurals are very funny and just seems pleased that we can see them in the text–that pocketses, guesseses, and handses are not “real words” yet we can write them such that a reader knows how to pronounce them.

So this is all just flagrantly educational.  But it’s fun!  She’s motivated to keep working on it because she’s enthusiastic about reading this scene and perfecting her Gollum portrayal.  Feeling like she can read the words scrumptiously crunchable is a great confidence booster, even if she wouldn’t recognize them in any other context but is only recalling what Gollum says as he contemplates eating Bilbo.

Is it really wholesome for my 5-year-old to be emulating a psychopathic monster?  Well, that’s a good question . . . umm . . . it’s classic literature!

Whatever your child’s interests, maybe you can work with them to motivate learning!  Get more cheap-and-easy intellectual stimulation tips here!

3 thoughts on “How playing Gollum can boost reading skills

  1. Pingback: 15 Ways to Build a Smarter Kid | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: The Forgotten Garden and books I’m going to read in 2020 | The Earthling's Handbook

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