You’ve heard it all before. Plenty of people have written articles and blog posts about how to guarantee that your child loves reading. But can you REALLY guarantee it?
I am the youngest of four children. Three of us spent many happy childhood hours with our noses in a book. The fourth sibling utterly surprised me when he showed up at our parents’ house as an adult with a book under his arm. Several years post-college and working a job that required weekly cross-country travel to job sites, he said he didn’t have much else to do while he was in transit. “It’s actually not so bad,” he sheepishly admitted.
I hardly think my family was unique, so I find it difficult to believe that there can be a guaranteed way to raise a child who loves reading. I think everyone can enjoy reading a just-right book, but not everyone will want to spend hours of their free time curled up with a book.
So, if you can’t guarantee that your child will love to read, what can you at least do to encourage a positive attitude toward reading?
My number one advice on this front: DON’T panic. You can probably count on one closed fist the number of times that panic has truly helped you. If you panic about your child’s reading, you will almost certainly pass your anxiety along to your child. And anxiety never makes any task more enjoyable.
My husband reminds me that he hardly read at all until he discovered science fiction books in middle school. (He’s now a librarian who loves to read.) And my brother, who never did develop a passion for reading, still managed to earn two Masters degrees, secure a solid job, and acquit himself well as a husband and father. So while you may hope that your child shares your passion for reading, be assured that a) not all passions develop early in life and b) a love of reading is not a requirement for being a successful, wonderful person.
My other big no-no on this front is forced reading for young kids. There is a point at which a student should be required to expand their literary horizons for academic purposes; first grade is not it. My sister reported that her daughters were sent home from school with teacher-selected books that they were required to read, few of which interested them. What better way to ruin any interest in reading than by making it into drudgery?
This brings me to the positive side of things.
Let your child choose what interests him. Some kids are not going to be passionate about reading–and that’s okay. Not everyone loves sports or horses or music or math, and we don’t panic about those differences (even if we might be disappointed that our child doesn’t share a passion of ours). And it’s not as if your child is not doing ANY reading. He is almost certainly spending at least some time reading while doing his school work each day. In addition, he’s busy reading billboards as you drive, instructions on games, text on cereal boxes. He (and you!) may not realize it, but he’s soaking in text all day long. Leave a note taped to the bathroom mirror, a book open to an interesting page, a browser open to a headline he’ll stop to check out. Slap magnetic poetry on the fridge and watch him craft a masterpiece. Sprinkle extra words into his environment, but don’t force him to do all his reading in some contrived, “official” manner.
Let your child choose what interests her. Take her to the library and walk the nonfiction stacks. I guarantee that if she puts a little effort in, she will find something that surprises and intrigues her. Does she like books about real people, cookie recipes, hedgehog facts, flight science, craft ideas, the history of bathtubs, spy information, fables, science experiments? I’m always amazed at the treasures my kids dig up (along with a few inevitable duds) week after week.
Offer variety. Sometimes (particularly with fiction books, in my experience), letting kids choose their reading material at random doesn’t go very well. (I hate to say it, but there are so many truly terrible books out there!) In that case, it’s time for the parent to do some filtering work and select good options for the child. But sometimes we get the idea that our children ought to enjoy reading certain things. After all, doesn’t every kid enjoy [fill in popular book here]? Isn’t it a classic, or a right of passage, or an item on some important childhood checklist? But of course we know that not everyone will have the same preferences. So go ahead and offer those classics or popular choices, but make sure to have some variety–in writing style, in length, in subject matter. For that matter, toss in a graphic novel and some picture books (many of which are pretty text-heavy and written at an advanced level with the assumption that an adult will read them aloud).
Get creative. I mentioned a few ideas above that involve sprinkling text in your child’s environment, providing natural opportunities for him to do little bits of reading here and there. There are probably things your child wouldn’t mind reading, but most of them aren’t novels. Does he love sports? Articles on some of his favorite players, pro tips for improving his performance, or expert commentary on recent games could be welcome reads. Does she love gaming? Plenty of games have Wiki pages or published guides for her to geek out on all the glorious details of her favorite game. Is he into cooking? An edition of Cook’s Illustrated might be right up his alley. Another go-to for reluctant readers: I had a couple of the Bathroom Reader-type books in the class library when I taught, and those things hardly ever hit the shelves. They were non-threatening because they contained myriad tiny bits of information, much of it interesting or ridiculous, and they required no lengthy time commitment. Get a Bathroom Reader! No one ever said that reading had to be limited to serious books.
On a related note, strew your environment. Unschoolers have the corner on strewing. I’m not quite brave enough to unschool, but I definitely see the value in this practice. We have a half-wall between the dining area and the family room. I always have several books of varying types spread on it, and I rotate them frequently. When they’re awaiting breakfast or are wandering around feeling restless, my kids often pick up a book to look at. If I run across a magazine article or even an ad I think will interest one of my kids, I leave it conspicuously on the kitchen counter where they’re sure to see it.
Build reading time into your routine. We most often go to the library 20 minutes away, since it has so much more selection than the nearer branch. As soon as we get in the car after checking out our new books, I let the kids pick a few to look at on the way home. They’re freshly interested and eager, and we’ve got 20 minutes with nothing else going on. Other great times for reading are before bed or first thing in the morning. I have one night owl who is allowed to read for a while after being sent to his room for the night. I have two early birds who are ready to start the day before I am; they have books in their bedrooms and often spend at least half an hour reading in the quiet of the morning before they’re allowed to emerge from their rooms.
Read aloud. You’ve certainly been told that you should read to your child from infancy. You may not have been told that it’s a good practice to continue until she moves out. Not only is it a great bonding time that creates shared memories, but it also provides you opportunities to expose your child to books she may not choose to read on her own, and it allows you to help her stretch her comprehension skills and hone her listening. And good books often inspire kids to look for others by the same author! Keep in mind, though–reading aloud doesn’t mean that your kid has to sit still, raptly listening to your voice. Mine eat a snack, draw pictures, skip in circles around the couch, sculpt clay, do puzzles, flop around on the floor, and generally keep their bodies busy while I read, all while listening intently.
And, on a more traditional note, set a good example. How can you expect your child to value reading if you don’t? If you want your child to read, invite him to get cozy and read alongside you for a while. (My kids call it a Reading Party!) Show your kids that you value reading by always having a book or three that you’re working through or by telling them about a news article or joke you read recently.
I have three kids. One thoroughly enjoys reading, but compartmentalizes it as something to be done at certain times of day (before bed and while awaiting breakfast). One treats reading as a smorgasbord, constantly sampling, starting many things but finishing few. And one child is like the showers at camp, hot one minute and frigid the next: she can spend hours a day devouring books for weeks or months if she discovers a series she likes, but then she’ll go six months without the least inclination to crack a book. I have no idea whether my kids will end up as devoted bookworms, but I’m doing my best to show them the joy and value of reading, and I’m confident they’ll turn into wonderful people either way.