Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Raising Readers

I love reading. I've always known that I wanted to raise my children to be readers. It's a great frugal form of entertainment, and the most critical skill for success in school. In my career as a high school English teacher, I have helped convert hundreds of reluctant, phone-addicted high schoolers into teens who voluntarily read novels. I've convinced students that Will Shakespeare was a pretty cool dude. Yet, when it came to my own children, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to equip them to view reading in the way that Harper Lee once described in To Kill a Mockingbird:

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."

In the library, pre-Covid; still one of our favorite places to hang out!

Luckily, I need not have feared. My son just finished a five book series of 500+ page novels he received as a Christmas present and my daughter is making her way through several different series. Their most recent test scores from school peg their reading levels at 3+ grades above their actual grades. They are readers! Helping my kids become readers was easier and more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined. I come from an education background, so of course I advocate that families read to children early and often and model literacy. Turns out, that actually works!

Lazy summer deck reading.

As a parent (who feels like she's making it all up as she goes along...), I've also discovered that reading to your kids stops meltdowns in their tracks and provides instant family bonding.  Here are some specific ways to develop young children's literacy:

  1. Make the time. Before I had kids, I was understanding about how hard it was as a parent to make time for reading. After all, I love reading, and I don't always make the time to do it. Parents are even busier, right? Y'all--I timed it. Reading one of those little board books takes less than five (yes, FIVE) minutes. And often it's the five minutes during which my child is most cooperative, loving, and attentive. No one screams. Everyone cuddles. Five minutes. It's better than meditation--no lie. How do you not make time for that every, single day? If I hadn't read to my kids, none of us would have made it past age two.  My worst nightmare is a bedtime without books. *shudder*

  2. Make books accessible.*  Studies show that being surrounded by books in childhood promotes literacy.  We own a lot of children's books (way more than adult books, thanks to my decluttering efforts). Most of them were gifts or hand-me-downs, but books are the main "toys" we have purchased for our children. However, you don't have to own books to surround your children with books.  Our local library lets patrons check out unlimited items, doesn't charge fines, and allows you to renew materials online. We usually have at least 60 books checked out at any one time--and only like 3-5 of them are for the adults. You can also buy used books or source them through Buy Nothing and Freecycle.

  3. Make it a habit. Every time my kids beg for "one more poem" or to be allowed to choose one more picture book or read one more chapter in our novels, I feel like I've won the gold medal of parenting. However, that joy comes from many, many times of being willing to read the same book over again, or pause and read whenever one of my children asks. We treat nagging for books different than just about every other kind of nagging--we indulge it.

  4. Give kids choice and agency. Sometimes, I get lucky and my kids are interested in the books I enjoy reading, and we'll have great fun with the works of Roald Dahl, Narnia, and Mossflower. Other times, they want to read endless, technically-oriented volumes about Pokemon (J) or the terribly-written picture book re-telling of Disney princess movies (H).  When the kids are interested in something (be it Kung-fu Panda, or space, or unicorns), we ask the librarians if there are any books about that topic and use Goodreads to find similar recommendations.

  5. Model reading books. I think many adults read more on screens (Kindle, smartphones, etc.) than they did just a few years ago.  However, children don't know whether you are reading on your tablet or watching a video.  Be intentional about modeling your reading to your children. Min had to get some Korean books so that the kids could see him reading on paper, not just on the screen.

Snuggly winter couch reading.

Some other tips? Teach letters and sounds, but not to the point that you are sacrificing story and fluency. Readers read content, not phonics.  Don't freak out if your kid who loves listening to you read doesn't transition to reading independence right away. It will happen eventually. The boy who just tore through those 500+ page books didn't read anything but Dog Man independently well through second grade.

* Not every family can afford books. I encourage using the library to fill in the gaps, but that's not always enough.  While compiling this post, I did some research into charities that provide books to kids. I elected to make a donation to Reach Out and Read, an highly rated organization that encourages literacy by integrating books into pediatric care.

We also donate monthly to our local library. We get way more value from it than we do from any streaming media service.

Any other tips from parents out there? How do you foster a love of reading for your children at any age?

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