All my life I’ve been surrounded by books. They were my friends, my comfort, my escape. How could anybody not love a good book? I credit my mother’s hard work for me reading before I entered kindergarten in 1979. I remember the teacher assistant calling me to sit on her lap in the rickety, slatted golden oak rocking chair saying, “Come here, Josh. I’m going to teach you how to read.” I told her I already knew how. I guess she took that as sass because when I told her a second time that I could read she picked out a book from the shelf and told me if I made a single mistake in reading the words on whichever page she picked she would swat my bottom (yes, that was normal in those days and no, I am not at all scarred because of it). She picked up a book about Dick, Jane, and Spot, turned to a pair of random pages in the middle and told me to read it. I did. Word for word. Not a single mistake. She glared at me and the told me to go back to my blocks. Thanks, Mama!
I was in for a rude awakening when I started teaching in 1995. I assumed my students would love books as much as I did. Boy, was I wrong! The kids let me know how much of a chore reading was for them. It wasn’t fun at all. I tried the Reading Workshop approach to give the kids more control over what they read, but it was still difficult to get the kids to see reading as anything other than school work. As I gained more experience and learned new approaches to teach reading, I recognized two primary factors in kids’ attitudes about books: one, many of the kids weren’t exposed to reading anything at home, EVER, even at an early age; and two, our approach to teaching reading in school left kids drained of any joy in reading. The standardized testing push had just begun and reading proficiency had to be quantified. It wasn’t the kids’ fault. It wasn’t the teachers’ fault. The political climate changed and every single activity kids did in school had to be vetted and measured. Kids had to read and teachers had to be measured. Reading was now the work of school.
After I became a father, I knew I had to do my part to raise children who loved books as much as I did. Well, it started out a bit rough. All of my babies are adopted (I will post our adoption story soon!) and none of my boys had been exposed to books at a young age. When they came to live with us, Phillip was 6, Carl was 5, and Jon was 4. All three boys struggled with any academic task. I bought them lots of books and they saw me reading, but they showed no interest in reading for pleasure. Phillip refused to read at all. Carl and Jon did not yet know the alphabet, so reading was out of the question. I couldn’t even read TO them. I was frustrated to the extreme.
Zoom ahead four years and we are in a completely different place. Phillip is a proficient and avid reader. Carl and Jon still struggle, but they gravitate toward books and do not have to be prodded to read. They choose to read each night before bed. They choose to read in the van on the way to school or to Nana and Pa’s house. Our little girl we’ve had since she was born. Although she is only three, she looks through her books and mimics reading each night. She asks for stories. She asks for new books each time we go shopping. When I stop and think about how we managed this feat, I realize we took several specific steps to make our lives as reader-friendly as possible.
Therefore, I present to you Five Tried and True Ways to Help Your Child Rediscover the Joy of Reading:
1) Choice is key.
Everybody has different interests. While each of us has our own favorites (Harry Potter was my addiction from 1999-2007) we can’t expect our kids to like what we like. Especially if your child has a negative view of reading in general, start with a subject that he or she enjoys. Take Minecraft, for instance. There are many, many books on the subject that will help kids become master creators in that electronic world. There is even a series of chapter books that take place in the Minecraft universe. My boys started off with comic books. The medium is excellent for exposing kids to the rituals of reading. It does not matter if they can’t yet read the words. Comic books combine action-packed artwork with continuous dialogue. Kids figure out what’s going on just from the pictures. Once the boys saw me reading graphic novels, they started looking through those as well.
While I see it as important to help guide kids in their reading choices, in the early stages, let your kids make choices for themselves. You can be a reading guide after you’ve broken the ice. But until the kids see reading as fun, you need to step back for a bit and let them explore their own areas of interest.
2) Give your kids lots of exposure to print materials.
Fewer sights in life make me as happy as walking through the doors of Barnes and Noble. I can’t help but smile when I think about all the treasures hidden in the stacks. My kids are the same way. They love searching the kid’s section for interesting titles.
Going to Barnes and Nobel on a regular basis can be expensive. In reality, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get access to print materials. Consider the following resources:
- Public libraries still exist (Yes, they are still relevant!). A library card costs you nothing. Plus, you may be surprised to learn about all the readers’ services your local branch offers.
- Used book stores are my favorite. You can find popular titles at a fraction of the cost. For example, Carl loves the Wimpy Kid series. We check our local used book shop first. Rather than paying $15 at Barnes and Nobel or $10 through Amazon, we can get a copy that looks brand new for $4. Some titles are as low as $0.50!
- School book orders from your child’s teacher often offer great current selections at a discount. Usually there is at least one special offer for a buck or two.
- Yard sales and flea markets often have great titles for less than a dollar.
- Your child’s teacher or school library may receive donated titles from time to time that are duplicates of titles they already have. The books are often given to kids who ask for them. Just check with your child’s teacher or the school librarian.
Finally, don’t stick just to books. Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, comics, graphic novels, and other forms of print media will work. The more materials your kids see the more like they are to find something they like!
3) Be a reading role model.
Growing up I hated hearing adults say, “Do as I say, not as I do!” Talk about hypocrisy! I swore I would never say that to my children. I read constantly. For me, it’s second nature. Expecting my kids to read feels natural because it’s just what we do. We are a reading family. But for some adults reading is not a constant part of their lives. If we expect kids to read, we have to model it for them. So my sincere advice to you is to follow the same guidelines I gave for kids: Find something you want to read and read it! Make sure your kids see you reading. Our kids look up to us and copy our behavior. If they see reading is important to you it will be important them.
4) Talk about it!
Why do we read? Writers have a unique way of showing us some aspect of the human experience. They are sharing that experience with us. Think of reading as a social interaction. We need to talk about what we read. Read-alouds are great for this! I wrote an earlier post about the importance of reading aloud to our kids. Share in the experience with them. Talk about the characters, the plots, the way an author writes. If you and your child share common interests, read the same book and discuss it together. One of my favorite things to do is talk to my oldest son Phillip about Harry Potter. As I write this he is reading Goblet of Fire. He has noticed the differences between the movies and the books, so he has lots of questions. What a great opportunity to talk about the level of details in the text that he never knew about before! I can see and hear him making connections to the text. For Philip and me, our best bonding moments are when we talk about books. Spending quality time with our kids is a treasure. Make talking about the books you read a part of that quality time. You won’t regret it!
5) Leave the instruction to the experts.
I realize I just told you to talk to your kids about the books you both read. But I advise you not to talk to them the same way a teacher would. You will be tempted to correct your kids when they read aloud and make a mistake. You will be tempted to think and act the way your own teachers did when you were learning how to read. DON’T! Your child’s teacher will spend a great deal of time on the science of reading instruction. Yes, talk about the books. Yes, answer the questions. Yes, help them when they as you for it. But let your focus be helping your child see reading as fun instead of work. The ultimate goal is to raise a life-long learner. Reading is key to that success!
Any parent worth his weight in Lego sets wants his children to grow up to be successful and happy adults. We live in the Information Age. Our kids have to compete in a global society. If we give our children the gift of reading, we give them the keys to world. Let’s make reading fun again!