In the past two weeks, I have had the privilege of visiting our library’s system’s two nationally-recognized “mock” Book Award clubs, the Mock Newbery and Mock Printz clubs, and I am always impressed by the rooms full of avid readers. These kids have so much fun sharing and debating, munching on snacks and teasing back and forth across the room, each with a stack of books in front of him. The clubs run from April to January, so by this time of year, they are good friends and their opinions are well-known. Since it’s a great honor to get a slot in one of these groups, I thought I’d examine what it takes to grow such an avid reader.
Not every child will enjoy reading to this extent just because personalities differ, and that’s fine. It’s important for all of us to become experts in our gifts, so we do want kids who will shoot hoops, paint great pictures, cure diseases, or invent the next big thing. (I am particularly in favor of the inventor, since I need a way to access television without paying Time Warner Cable.) However, it is valuable for all kids to read proficiently and to see reading as a positive, enjoyable activity. No matter the area of expertise, if a person can read well, she can learn anything.
Over the years of being a homeschooling mom, a teacher, and a children’s librarian, I’ve gathered up some wisdom about what parents can do to help their children to love reading, as well as a few common activities that will kill any interest they may have ever had.
- Read. In the same way that you would model healthy eating and good manners, you should model a love of reading for your kids. Let them see you reading for information—magazines, newspapers, etc.—but at least some of the time, let them see you reading books for recreation. This way, they will aspire to read so that they can be just like the grown-ups.
- Read aloud to your little ones. I have been surprised to find that the time-honored habit of bedtime stories is withering away. Families are so busy, and more and more children have televisions and electronic devices in their rooms. Not only is reading before bed a wonderful way to wind down and prepare for sleep, it is a precious bonding time for parents and children. Furthermore, children effortlessly learn all of the elements of reading that we often consider instinctive. Not every culture reads from left to right; that is a learned skill, although we never think of it. Reading from top to bottom, turning pages: all learned on our parents’ laps. If possible, have a story time during the day, as well, perhaps before naps, if you are still so blessed. Older children can listen to stories that are well above their reading level, and will learn proper pronunciation of words not often used in daily conversation, as well as appropriate diction and cadence for reading aloud.
- Read aloud as a family. Many, if not most, families stop reading to their children after they become proficient readers. What joys are missed in this way! It was probably in my research of the L’Abri Fellowship that I was encouraged to read classics aloud as a family. Those books have become precious to all of us, even though Michael is now an adult. We read through all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the All Creatures Great and Small series, and Fields and Pastures New, to name a few. I believe there were some Ralph Moody books in there, too. If we had had girls, there may have been some Frances Hodgson Burnett, but all of our books were high in testosterone. I particularly remember sitting on the floor of David’s temporary apartment when we were moving from Georgia to Kentucky, passing around a paperback volume of The Hobbit, taking turns reading. We didn’t have enough chairs to sit on, and we didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but we were having rich experiences as a family far, far away in Middle Earth. You may want to provide two books, one for the younger children to read and one for the older. It will be important, of course, for the older siblings to provide loving support for the younger. Establish a judgment-free zone!
- Create a reading environment. Your home should be a place where reading is an everyday activity. Although some of your books should be precious and beautiful (and on a high shelf), it is even more important that reading material is readily available to pick up and put down at will. Kids’ magazines are beautiful and cheap. Ditto board books. Even though it is important to teach children to handle books carefully, no toddler or preschooler is perfect, and there will be ripped—or even chewed—pages at times. This should be treated as a tragedy, of course, but learning can take place more affordably if you’re prepared. Having books around all the time means that your child can tromp into the house after an exhausting baseball game, flop down on the floor, and travel to Narnia at a moment’s notice. Studies show that children who live in a print-rich environment enter school (or formal education) with a huge advantage over children who do not.
- Go to the library! Yes, of course this is self-serving. I am building up my market! In my defense, I will say that it will cost you nothing that you’re not already paying in your taxes. No one can afford all of the books that they would like, especially young children’s books. It is the parents of young children who leave the library with armloads of picture books, and the public library’s success in children’s circulation is very much tied to the local schools’ success. We happen to live in an area with an above-average level of education, and the parents really value what the library has to offer. However, we have all heard the success stories from Dr. Ben Carson and others, children from impoverished backgrounds whose regular trips to the public library enriched their educations beyond what the local schools had to offer. There are truly so many treasures to be mined at even the smallest libraries. I will offer a word of caution here: public libraries are not school libraries. They are not operating in loco parentis, in the place of the parent. Public libraries are open forums that provide information and materials to serve all of the diverse opinions and values in a community. There will be books in the collection, particularly in the young adult and adult collections, that may offend you and that you will not want your children to read. It is the parents’ responsibility to oversee their children’s reading. You may be surprised to find that your next-door neighbor is eager to have her child read exactly the book that you want to keep far from yours.
- Be thoughtful about screen time. Scientists and doctors are now reporting that viewing an electronic screen within an hour before bedtime makes it difficult for the brain to enter sleep mode. It’s something about the backlighting. Also, embedded hyperlinks, while often informative, can contribute to shortened attention spans and compromised focus. Finally, too much time at a computer or television robs the child of physical activity and social interaction (although the same can be said for books). All that being said, I am not a reactionary when it comes to electronic reading. Our children will live in a culture in which more and more of their reading is done on screens, and we should provide them with that experience—in healthy doses— while they are at home. For fiction reading, a dedicated e-reader (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) without a backlit screen should be easier on the eyes and can be used before bedtime without problems. Font size can be adjusted in order to accommodate vision difficulties. Many e-readers have note-taking and note-sharing features that are very useful for homeschoolers.
There are a few common habits that will destroy your children’s enthusiasm for reading. Some of these practices are widely used by schools that follow certain corporations’ reading programs.
- Don’t reward reading with other things. If someone convinces you to perform a certain task—say, painting fences— by promising you a reward of money, ice cream, or— oh, say—pizza, what does that tell you about the task? It tells you that you would not want to perform the task for its own sake, since it is distasteful or difficult. Reading should be its own reward, and if you follow the advice above, your children should view it as such. Of course, if your children already love reading, a little extra pizza never hurt anyone.
- Use levels for instruction only. Droves of children are being corralled into narrow compartments called “reading levels,” which are numbers or letters that someone, somewhere decided can accurately describe how your child is reading at this moment in time. Schools jumped on the bandwagon, painting the entire school library in red, blue, and green stickers, assigning points to books that should be read for their own sake, and filling children everywhere with unwarranted pride or shame. Every classroom has a poster displaying each student’s level and point count, and the high-level students learn to consider reading as a means to power, while the late bloomers learn to hate reading forever, nipping in the bud any chance that they could later become very proficient readers themselves. Parents who want their children to succeed sometimes force them to read only at or above the level that the teacher gave them, not realizing that this instructional level is the level at which the child is struggling to learn, not the level at which they can enjoy reading fluently and develop a love of reading. It is such a shame to see children skipping over books that should be a precious part of childhood because Accelerated Reading has placed them at a lower level—or, for competitive children, assigned them too few points—only to read advanced books that they cannot appreciate, since they were written for older children. It is not just the difficulty of the vocabulary that makes books appropriate for a certain age. More importantly, the difference lies in the emotional maturity and life experience of the reader. The book that would have been perfect for the eight-year-old is missed forever while she reads a book written for a twelve-year-old. She can read the words in the book, but she is not equipped to think like a twelve-year-old, and so both books are lost. If there is one issue that saddens the children’s staff in a public library the most, this is it.
- Don’t keep your kids from reading non-traditional materials. I had to stop myself from laughing when the mom told me how upset she and his teacher were that her son preferred nonfiction to novels. (Of course, that was before Common Core.) Until fifty or so years ago, novels were considered a lower form of reading, and proper young ladies were often forbidden from reading them. Nonfiction was the only approved form of reading. Granted, these days, nonfiction has changed quite a bit. Gone are the long, dull tomes with tiny black-and-white photos or diagrams scattered sparingly through the text. Dorling-Kindersley led the way to photo-filled volumes with text arranged in dizzying patterns around the pages, pulling the reader in to browse the various beauties—or, more likely, terrifying snakes, spiders, etc. Likewise, so many male authors reminisce about how the libraries of their childhoods never had anything as low-brow as wrestling magazines or comic books, which were all they wanted to read at the time. As a result, these boys considered themselves “non-readers.” And now they are authors! Today, there are graphic novels that talk about Lincoln’s assassination or quantum physics, and boys happily devour them. Girls, too. Libraries pay thousands of dollars every year for access to databases that provide your children with peer-reviewed research that goes far beyond what any encyclopedia could offer. While the extended, focused reading experience of a novel is important, all sorts of reading methods are valuable, and parents can work to tailor all of those kinds of reading into the best ones for their children. What is important is for your child to think of himself as a reader, no matter what his material may be. If he has this self-concept, he will be open to picking up more traditional reading materials when his needs change.
You are probably already doing many of these things to help your children to love reading. Through books, they can master new concepts, meet people from other countries or other times, or imagine life in a totally new way. They can develop compassion or scientific theories, become theologians or doctors. They can even join award-winning book clubs and grow up to become librarians.
Disclaimer: These are my opinions only, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.