I get it. Some days you just need to plop your kids in front of a movie. The last thing you need is some literacy lady telling you that you're going to ruin your kids for life.
Well, this is one literacy lady (and mom) who understands the challenges of Phoenix summers. I won't dish out any guilt. In fact, I'll even help you justify the time your kids spend in front of those screens.
While studies do advocate limiting passive media consumption, there can also be some benefits to a steady diet of well-written stories played out on screen.
Though children should be exposed to all different genres of text, fiction is a major part of the canon of literature they will read in school and beyond. In order for children to successfully navigate fiction, they need to know a few things about how fiction works. When children are familiar with the common story elements that occur in most works of fiction, they'll better comprehend the stories they read, and they will enjoy a deeper understanding of the stories' themes. Like children's books, not all children's movies are well-crafted, but some (especially Disney movies) include clear examples of these predictable story elements: Character, setting, problem, solution and theme.
The trick to making movies powerful for literacy is to take an active role yourself. Help your children learn about story elements by talking about the movies you watch together. Looking forward to seeing "Cars 2?" On the way home, ask your child to tell you his favorite character and ask why he or she made that choice. Watching "Princess and the Frog" for the 18th time? Discuss the setting, find it on a map and make some beignets. Have an adventure fan in the house? Talk about Hiccup's main problem in "How to Train Your Dragon" and how that problem gets solved. Strong themes are plentiful in good movies, too. Consider Tiana's work ethic, Mulan's bravery, Jasmine's sense of justice and Pinocchio's ultimate refusal to be seduced by the world's more sinister temptations. Each of these examples provides parents with excellent opportunities to discuss how life lessons often appear in stories as themes.
Older children can go even deeper than simple story elements and explore other literary devices like symbolism or foreshadowing. Who does Aslan in "The Chronicles of Narnia symbolize?" What do books symbolize for Belle in "The Beauty and the Beast?" What are the similarities and differences between "The Prince of Persia" and "Aladdin?" How does "The Lion King" compare to Shakespeare's "Hamlet?"
Invite your child into these discussions eagerly, and I promise your kids will catch your enthusiasm. Teach your kids to question and really think deeply about the movies they watch. Honor their opinions. This can mean the difference between an active, engaging experience and an emotionless response to these rich stories, which will eventually translate to the way they interact with the stories they read in books.
So this summer, stay cool and enjoy quality movies guilt-free! Just be sure to talk about them, too.
• Debbie Lera is executive director of LitLife West, a literacy consulting firm based in Ahwatukee, and the author of "Writing Above Standard." She consults with local schools and families, and can be reached at email@example.com.