When my son was four years old, he read his first chapter book alone: Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims. I did not know how much of it he could understand, but when the ending made him feel sad, I thought it a good sign.
We picked a happier book for his second read.
Most parents want to raise children who read fluently and with pleasure. But while some children take naturally to reading, others need extra enticement. (I’ll admit the one above was a natural–I’m not sure I had much to do with it!) The image of a small reader lost in a chapter book is enchanting. Yet how is it done? How should parents encourage their children toward achievement and excellence?
1. Read yourself.
Your children generally love and make time for what you love and make time for. When Mommy is pushing reading as an assignment, while preferring her own too-busy or screen-oriented lifestyle, children will pick up the unspoken message over the spoken one. But when Mommy loves a good book for its own sake, and can often be found with her nose in one on long winter evenings, when she talks about what she’s reading and tells interesting stories, children are drawn into the fascinating world of the printed page.
2. Fill your home with books.
If children are to love books, there ought to be good ones on hand. Bright, intriguing, sturdy, delightful ones for the early years, and age-appropriate stories as children grow, with ever more complex ideas and themes. Books should be in the family’s public domain, available anytime. Teach your children to treat them with care, but also to be comfortable and engaged and hands-on with them. Send a stack along to nap time. Let them trickle from the bookcase onto the sofa, the piano, the kitchen counters, the bedrooms. In our house, books are taking over the place (but at least they hide the dust).
Making books available means suggesting titles for your children, stealthily mixing up their genres and interests: fiction with nonfiction, poetry with information, pictures with paragraphs. Let them explore books written far above their age level, if appropriate, or far below. Bring into your home the kind of books they can’t help but open, and love.
If you have trouble finding enough books of the quality or age level you want, ask a librarian, a school teacher, or a friend who’s a voracious reader. Most avid readers love giving book recommendations!
3. Start informal phonics early.
“I am writing a J for Jenny,” I tell my two year old. “J-j-j-jjeeennnyyy. See? Oh look! There’s a K for Kelly.”
Find a couple of alphabet books you don’t mind reading over and over (here’s our favorite, with its scrumptious drawings and humor), and start reading them while your children are young. Use all of life as a phonics curriculum: road signs, initials on soles for whose rubber boots are whose, songbooks in church, letters to and from pen pals and cousins.
“Which word says Mommy? Which one says Jenny? Good job, Jenny!”
4. Read to your children.
Reading aloud is arguably the best investment in raising children who love to read. When we read aloud, we are mixing textures and feelings into the printed page: we snuggle together, we hear with our ears while seeing with our eyes, we add dynamic voices and sound effects, we stop for questions, we touch the page, we laugh out loud. And better still, we bridge across natural gaps of reading interest and comprehension. A baby may enjoy a book he does not understand, for the sake of Mommy’s words and hands and sounds. A preschooler may fall in love with a chapter book he could never access on his own. A teenager may rediscover the wonder of a picture book. Best of all, we experience literature together.
5. Let your children read to you.
One step farther, allow your children to read to you. This is done best not as an assignment (“Read this book for fifteen minutes”) but as a partnership. Once your child recognizes a simple word, like “the,” stop each time you come to it on the page and let him supply it. Let him “read aloud” to a younger sibling the books he’s memorized from your repeated story times. When he begins sounding out words, take the time to let him fumble through several pages, as he wishes; cheer and clap and laugh. Take turns reading alternating lines, and then pages – you read on the right, your child on the left. Set up family reading nights, where everyone from the youngest reader up to Dad or Mom picks a story to share aloud.
Our favorite books for beginning readers include the wonderful You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series. Written for two readers, with simple sounds and pleasing rhymes, they’re an amazing way to build reading joy and fluency.
6. Broaden your children’s vocabulary.
When a child is spoken to in only the simplest of words, he will speak in only the simplest of words, and he will understand only the simplest of words. Limited vocabulary equals limited comprehension: the more words a child stumbles over on a page, the less accessible the story is to him.
Nurturing your child’s vocabulary expands his world and substantially increases his reading ability. So change things up. Use synonyms. Throw unexpected words into your conversation and explain them as you go. You can use many many words with him, or you can use varied countless outstanding innumerable delicious phenomenal words.
7. Make time for the library.
The more children I mother, the more difficult library trips become. In a half hour we can emerge with stacks of books higher than ourselves. And then we have to keep track of them all! But the library is an exciting place to a) access more books than could ever be kept at home, b) find books on special topics, suited to seasons or holidays or your child’s unique interests, and c) share books with your community, through story hour, recommendations, and friendships.
Book clubs and reading programs through your library can provide incentives for young readers, and prevent the regression of reading skills over the summer.
8. Use books as a stepping stones to fun experiences.
For children who are reluctant readers (and even for those who are not!), books come alive when adults link reading to real life, especially through sensory experience. After you read Curious George, visit a real monkey at the zoo. After Madeline, get out some watercolors and recreate the “twelve little girls in two straight lines.” After Bread and Jam for Frances, eat her favorite snack. Roll out the magic markers, the dress-up clothes, the whisks and measuring cups. The internet is full of ideas for coloring pages, craft projects, and hands-on applications for classic books.
For older children, enjoy audio books together. Start discussion times based on books. Let your child rewrite an unsatisfying ending, or draw a picture of the happy resolution. Take a day trip to a destination that connects with what you’re reading.
In short: read together, read often, talk about what you read. Most of all, read! And let your children discover the profound, life-changing delight of story.
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CONTRIBUTOR: Shari Zook