Power of three

The title of this post might have you wondering if it’s about a mnemonic aid or a literary device (also known as “Rule of Three”). Perhaps you envisioned triangles — the strongest geometrical shape in the context of civil engineering and architecture — or the algebraic exponent, as in “to the third power,” i.e., cubed.  Or maybe even the Trinity.

But today I am pondering the power of three as it relates to the human brain, words, and reading.

As inspired by a little person who’s been staying with me each day for a few weeks this summer.

She is three years old.

Her mom and my son, who’s a newcomer in their lives, read to her each night.

So each day, as she settles for a nap, I read to her from an assortment of books I keep in baskets here at home. Some of these I bought just for her. Most are from my personal collection at school, a few are old favorites of my sons, and a couple I salvaged from stacks discarded by teacher colleagues who considered them too outdated (a worthy topic for a later post . . .).

And each day, of her own volition, my new little girl picks the same three books: Curious George Goes to the Hospital, A Bad Case of Stripes, and Green Eggs and Ham.

That is the exact order in which she insists they be read each day.

I think of myriad things while reading this rather motley selection to my rapt little listener. Two of the books have been in print for over half a century. Their illustrations are simple. The the third has elaborate illustrations and a story that might be deemed too strange or “above” a preschooler’s interest and capability to understand. While she examines various books throughout the day, poring over pictures on many pages, it’s always these three books she clutches in her arms as she climbs into bed for nap. I am reminded, yet again, of the inestimable power of reading aloud, rereading, and familiarity. And of choice. 

I also think about the impact of language on a child’s developing brain. It just so happens that a book in the stack of my own summer reading is Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, in which the author (cochlear implant surgeon Dana Suskind) writes: “By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language development of the young child. This does not mean that the brain stops developing after three years, but it does emphasize that those years are critical” — because the neural pathways for language are being created  only in that window. As a literacy educator, I mull the importance of early phonemic awareness in conjunction with Suskind’s words: “It takes more than the ability to hear sounds for language to develop; it is learning that the sounds have meaning that is critical. And for that a child must live in a world rich with words and words and words.” (Suskind later emphasizes the quality of language in addition to the number of words spoken, the power of affirmations on a growing child’s development. And her first line of her first chapter is “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.”)

All of this swirls in my own brain as I reread the same three books every day to this three-year-old entrusted to me, as we converse about her observations and questions:

“What is a tube?” she asks, during the fifth (sixth?) reading of Curious George’s hospital visit. “Like a hose in the garden, only a lot smaller so it can go down George’s throat. Very small,” I say. “Tiny,” she declares with authority, and we go on with our sixth (seventh?) reading of this book.

“What is broke?” — when, in A Bad Case of Stripes, Camilla “broke out in stars.” This is a bit harder to define. “Hmmm. Has your skin ever had a rash, or a lot of tiny spots on it?” She nods hesitantly, and I say, “Then your skin broke out, meaning it suddenly got spots or little bumps on it for a while.” I can tell by her solemn expression that this information is being processed. A minute later: “What is sob?” When I say it means to cry a lot, not just a little, the light of understanding flickers instantly in her wide blue eyes.

I continue this umpteenth reading of Stripes to the page where the old woman who will cure Camilla arrives, just after the visit from the Environmental Therapist who told her to “breathe deeply and become one” with her room. Camilla became one with her room, all right; she melted into the walls where two pictures became her eyes, a dresser morphed into her nose, and her bed turned into her mouth. Totally abstract. Transcendental. Out there. I read in my best kind-old-woman voice: “What we have here is a bad case of stripes. One of the worst I’ve ever seen!” 


My listener giggles. “It’s not a bad case of stripes. It’s a bed case of stripes.”

A pun so profound that I am at a loss for words.

She’s three.

I make a mental note to tell her mom, who’s clearly laid a magnificent foundation long before now.

This perceptive child notices the letters down the side of the Stripes front cover. She attempts to sound them out, and I let her try for a minute before telling her the words are “Scholastic Bookshelf.” She points to the square between the words and asks, “Why is this one blank?” I am excited: Print concepts! Teachable moments! “That’s a space. They come between words. See, this is a word. Then a space; this is another word . . .” She picks it right up: “And this is a word, this is a word . . .”

Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.

Even though her eyes are growing heavy, she chimes in with the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham.  In fact, she takes over reciting portions without my help now, mimicking my expression and cadence, on all the right pages . . .

I leave her to her nap. I wonder if her dreams will be filled with monkeys, phantasmagorical color patterns, rhythms, rhymes, words, words, words. My husband is compelled to check on her after awhile. He whispers his report: “She’s sound asleep.” Obliviously recharging her power of three for the remainder of the day, and for a future brimming with potential.

To the power of infinity and beyond, one might say.

And I believe it.

19 thoughts on “Power of three

  1. A totally lovely slice, Fran! I love how you showed us story time with this three year old. What a delight! “Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.” What a lucky young lady to be spending time with you, and lucky you to be sharing books with her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this slice, Fran. As a librarian and a mother I am so fond of reading aloud. When I read the power of three, I thought it was a movie, or something religious. But your title is so powerful in so many levels. By the way, I have read also, supported by Suskind’s words, that the acquisition of another language is done by that age also. Thanks for another awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Pia. I keep thinking, as I read Suskind’s book (with which I am not even halfway through), about more that can be done for preschool children on a greater scale … and I am glad you mentioned the acquisition of additional languages! My son, who’s a new part of this three-year-old’s life, is a Bible scholar; the other day while staying with me she burst into a song that he taught her. In Hebrew. It was astonishing. And beautiful. 🙂


  3. I love this story on SO many levels. As a child, I had only a handful of books, but I knew every word in every one! As a mom, my children ask for the same books again and again. As a literacy specialist, I too KNOW the power of having a core of books whose stories we OWN, As a Meme to 5 preschoolers, I read the SAME books again and again and again. I really wasn’t a fan of Richard Scary’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go 35 years ago and I still am not a fan; however, I along with now am rereading it regularly along with Strega Nona, The Little Blue Truck and Football Colors (which is also not my favorite book). It’s that love that grows from repeated readings and familiar words as well as the phonemic awareness that grows from repeated rhymes that makes readers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am smiling about the reading aloud of texts we don’t especially like ourselves – but the value to the child who picked them, who wants to hear them, is beyond calculation. I discovered – much like you – that in pressing on and doing justice to the story for the child’s benefit, even if it’s a hundred readings of that same book, there are rewards in it for us all. I have had great fun changing expression in Green Eggs and Ham and going over the top with characters in the other books … when my little listener laughed and asked why I am changing my voice, I said, “Because there are millions of ways to read a book.” All connected to meaning and interpretation… I am drawn by your early experience with few books and hope you’ll write more about it. Many thanks for your words here. 🙂


      • I was just reading a book called The Happiness Equation and author Neil Pasricha writes this, “I love hanging out with three-year-olds. I love the way they see the world, because they’re seeing the world for the first time. A three-year-old can stare at a bug crossing the sidewalk for half an hour…” (page 119) I was thinking of your post when I read this.

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  4. Thank you for taking us through reading time with this 3-year-old. I’m really struck by all the things she is learning as you read and re-read the books. As a high school teacher, I sometimes miss teachable moments that are related to some of these basic literacy concepts. And yet… they are there if I look. Choice, exploration, repetition: these must remain part of my teaching of reading. Also, I just have to tell you that we’ve been listening to audiobooks as we travel & today, after hearing the word who knows how many times, my son said, “So… what’s a matriarch?” A few hours later the narrator read “patriarch” and my son said, “Wait, so is that a male leader?” HOORAY! Not so many words as your little charge, but another example of why reading and repetition is so important to learning. Enjoy your precious time with this little one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This story about your son reiterates to me how invaluable freedom, comfort level, and time to ask the questions (to even think of them) are in the best reading experiences, for all ages. I keep thinking about how much I still pick up on subsequent readings – repetition is vital, and while I believe it’s generally underused in schools, it could also be torture if the text doesn’t interest the reader! Enjoy your travel and audio adventures and many thanks for these thoughts. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I read this on Tuesday, was a little short on time to comment, but I keep thinking about all that is in the slice and in the conversation in the comments. I love the slice and the feeling of being there that your writing gives. And so much truth about literacy learning. I wonder if you have read The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gordon. Thanks for sharing this lovely, loving story!

    Liked by 2 people

    • How I appreciate your gracious response and your coming back to leave these thoughts! Funny you should mention The Enchanted Hour; I bought it before school let out and haven’t yet read it – I have too many to-read stacks, always! – but I knew it was a must as soon as I heard of it. Hoping to start it by the weekend. Excited that the post brings it to mind. Thank you 🙂


  6. You had me at three! But really…you have fleshed out those moments of simple wonder and awesome learning that can happen almost effortlessly, just by reading a book with a child. I love that the books are her choice (not that I see you having it any other way!), and that she has three favorites, and in order, no less. The power of pictures and words together is often underestimated, especially by parents (and some teachers, alas) who are quick to push children out of the “Everybody” section and into the novels of “Fiction.” She is lucky to have you as a grownup friend this summer!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love how you draw us in to this story and set us right next to you and that sweet three year old. I look forward to watching with new eyes the development of my grandson’s literacy knowledge. I remember when his mother was three she loved the book “I Can Read with My Eyes Shut,” and by the umpteenth time, we could read it with eyes shut. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks, Margaret – I recall sitting on my grandmother’s lap as she read The Squirrel Twins to me over and over; eventually I recited the rhyming lines on every page, long before I ever went to school. Thus a love of reading and language and wordplay is born … what treasures await that grandson. And you.

      Liked by 1 person

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