How to nurture a love of reading in your kids
As school starts up again across the country, kids and their parents are emptying backpacks of forms to fill out, new textbooks and papers that contain some variation of this sentence: "Students are expected to read for 20 (or 30 or 40) minutes every night."
We all know how important reading aloud and independent reading are for our kids. I write books for children and I count sharing books with my kids as one of my favorite parts of parenting. But even in households like mine that love to read, knowing that a teacher is going to be checking up on us makes us nervous about our nightly reading. Are we doing enough? Are we doing it right?
Here are some ways to make nightly reading fun and successful for everyone.
The whole idea here is to help your kids love books. Most teachers I know would rather a kid reads happily for 15 minutes than battle with her parents about the last five or 15 minutes. The idea is to give kids exposure to books and language, practice reading and to get them reading regularly for pleasure. Keep it positive and fun and if it becomes too much of a struggle, talk to your child’s teacher.
You may get tired of reading the same book over and over again, but it's how children build reading fluency, according to Katy Wright, a Montessori teacher in the Helena, Montana, school district. "When your child wants to read the same book over and over again, it is nature's way of building fluency. The best way to build reading fluency is to read the same thing over and over again." Wright recommends making the old standbys more fun by taking turns reading with your child.
Match their interests
"Research shows that children who select what they want to read are more likely to enjoy reading and become good readers," says Duncan McDougall, the founder and executive director of the Children's Literacy Foundation, which provides free literacy programs and new books to thousands of low-income and at-risk children in Vermont and New Hampshire. "You know your kids and their interests," he says. "There are wonderful books on every subject under the sun."
In my home, choosing books based on interests has really helped create enthusiasm about reading. One of my kids is obsessed with the natural world, including bones and skeletons. His grandmother just gave him a book called The Skull Alphabet by Jerry Palotta and Ralph Masiello and it's been a huge hit. As we watched our vegetable garden flourish this summer, we read a lot of books about gardening, including Kevin Henkes's wonderful My Garden and It's Pumpkin Time, by Zoe Hall and Shari Halpern.
We're all resistant to new things. If you're trying to broaden your child's range of reading material, put in a little bit of extra time to hook him on books that might not immediately appeal. I can sometimes be found standing in the middle of my kitchen, shouting the opening paragraphs of a book that I want to read aloud but that my kids have rejected because they don't like the cover or don't think they'll relate to the character. If the book has a great opening and I read it well, I can often convince them to give it a try.
And here's a little secret. I'm a writer. I labor over every sentence of my books, making sure the opening lines are perfect. But you know what? It's okay with me if you skip to chapter two because you think it will get your kid hooked, or if you jump ahead and read a character description that you think your daughter will love. My first attempt at reading the Harry Potter books with my kids failed, but once I'd read them the description of the Hogwarts Express, they were hooked. We went back, read from the beginning, and a love affair with the series began.
McDougall recommends that parents give kids a choice of books they might be interested in. "No kid likes to be told what to do," he says. "Present them with four or five books and say, 'which one do you want to read?'" Parents can find lists of books, organized by theme, awards won or interest areas, at http://clifonline.org/resources/book-lists/ and also on Pinterest, at http://www.pinterest.com/cliforg/. Many libraries maintain lists of book recommendations. Ask your librarian for books that might appeal to your child and then give him a choice.
Katy Wright agrees. "I believe nightly reading homework should be the child's choice. It can include magazines, newspapers, comics, anything."
Keep reading out loud
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Many families give up the bedtime read-aloud once kids are reading on their own. But don't be so quick to pack away your funny character voices. Reading aloud to even older kids helps them develop prosody, or an understanding of the patterns of stress and intonation in language, says Katy Wright. It also exposes them to more complicated stories and plots as their reading skills are catching up to their interests.
My kids are 9, 6 and 4, but I still read aloud to all of them at night. Finding books that appeal to all ages can be tough (some big hits have been Michael Bond's Paddington books, any of E. B. White's children's novels, and the Little House on the Prairie series), but I love that my kids are having that shared experience and I love overhearing them discuss the characters and plots of the books we're currently reading. I also love that my great big 9-year-old still cuddles up with us during that special time just before bed.
Be a model
One of the most powerful things you can do is to show your kids how much fun reading can be. Read books, magazines, newspapers and talk to your kids about what you're reading. Tell them why you liked a particular novel or article and mention any connections you made to other books or movies. If they see you choosing reading over other leisure activities, chances are they will too.
S. S. Taylor is the author of the middle grade series The Expeditioners, about the children of a famous explorer who find themselves on a mysterious treasure hunt. The second book in the series, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's Lair, comes out in September. She loves talking to kids about writing and reading and she lives with her family on a farm in Vermont. You can find her at www.SSTaylorBooks.com.
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