How to Raise Kids Who Will Be Readers

By the time I meet my students in the 7th grade, they are already either readers or non-readers. It's easy to tell them apart. When I tell the class they can borrow any of my books, any time, the readers go goggle eyed and attack the shelves. The flip through books, they critically examine the covers, they find favorite and familiar authors, and read the blurb on the back. They recognize books from movies, and they have no problem finding a stack to check out.

The non-readers aren't sure how books work. They will read a word or two on the cover and maybe look at the picture. They don't open the books, or read the back or the subtitles. They are stumped. They cannot operate books-- they don't understand the technology.

What's the difference between these readers and non-readers? What happens in their lives before the point they enter my English classroom? It's nothing big, or hard, or expensive. It requires no expertise or tutoring or grueling work to shape these kids into readers. It doesn't require excellent genetics or an above-average IQ. There are some very simple things that parents do that turns ordinary kids into life-time readers.

Here they are.

1. Let babies play with books

The first thing kids learn with books is that they open, and that there are pages that you turn. There is something new on each page, and for the story to make sense, you should go in order. So let the baby chew on her board books: she's working out the mechanics of narrative coherence.

2. Read books with little kids

Read stacks of books. Fill their heads with hard and interesting words and ideas. Expose them to convoluted grammar and vivid imagery and deep ideas. Let them become fluent in the way that stories can be expected to flow-- how they start and stop. Read every kids' book you can get your hands on.

3. Encourage repetition and memorization

Read those books over, and over, and over. You are building a story library in your child's mind. When they begin reading on their own, they will already know the way that words can be expected to flow across a page. They will be able to fill in the gaps and read fluently if they know that after "once upon" you will probably find "a time." You are making short-cuts for their reading. And if they are memorizing books, they can "read" them on their own. The line between reciting a book and reading a book is actually very fine. And lastly, memorizing books separates meaning from the printed word. Non-readers don't know that those words on the page mean something in your mind. Good readers hold a visual image in their imagination as they read. Memorizing makes a space between the text and the imagination-- and that's a good thing.

4. Go to the library

Let them choose whatever books they want. Let them see that there is a book on anything they could imagine. Let them feel entitled to all of that information-- the library belongs to them. Show them the different sections, look things up together, and then get out of the way.

5. Let them be bored

Give them the time to be alone with their books and their thoughts. Give them the luxury of screen free boring afternoons. Turn off the easy sugar-rush of screen-based entertainment-- allow them to work for their pleasure by falling into their books.

6. Play with language

Make rhymes, puns and jokes. Diddle with grammar and use fancy vocabulary. Use sayings and idioms and quotes. Show them that the language belongs to them, not to somebody smarter or richer than them, and it's theirs to experiment with as they wish.

7. Read out loud together until they go to college. Then continue by Skype.

When I was 13, my mom began reading me a ridiculously difficult but very romantic and exciting series called "The Lymond Chronicles" by Dorothy Dunnett. As an obnoxious teenager, there were times that I couldn't string two civil words together. But on quiet afternoons, my mom read outloud to me and we shared in the safety and excitement of that other world, and left our own difficulties behind. The last thing I did with my mom was finishing the series-- her breathing was painful so I read the last few chapters out loud just days before she died.

8. Read yourself

If you are a reader, you are a window to the fascination and passion and insanity and obsession that can come from books, magazines, stories, articles. Have stacks of books around; have challenging periodicals in the bathroom. Let your kids poke through your books. They might not be able to understand them now, but they'll see that someday they will. They will see that what people do is read.

Reading is something that belongs to us-- it is our great gift and the lifeline we have to the universe of information, sacred and mundane. Any kid can be a reader.




Comments

  1. Beautiful and true. Are you syndicated? That essay should be in the Washington (or at least Huffington) Post.

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  2. I love this! Somehow I need to convince my daughter that she is a great reader! She lacks the confidence that she can actually read. Not sure how to do it...

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    1. Hang in there! I think sometimes non-reading kids just need to be left alone in a padded room with a stack of books and benignly neglected until they start flipping through pages, telling themselves stories, sinking into the pictures. Dee Tadlock's book "Read Right" goes into great detail with strategies for helping kids become natural readers. Good luck!

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  3. Yes, very good and useful and encouraging. I think I can assume that one of my kids is a reader, so I feel thrilled about that. He'll read almost anything I bring in the house. In the first ten minutes after we're home from the library. Haven't stopped reading to/with him, though. The others I can't be sure yet, so we keep at it. The more kids you have, the harder it gets to keep reading lots of books with all of them. Believe it or not. But we still work at it. The three-year-old doesn't want to sit through Harry Potter and Narnia, but the older ones will still (sometimes) sit through his little picture books. So we do both and all. My five-year-old is learning to read and gaining confidence one Paul-epistle-difficult verse at a time in the Bible. But also with Scooby Doo easy readers and classic Seuss and Magic Tree House and, well, you name it. And the baby? She's been shown a high-contrasting colors book here and there...It all begins again with her.

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    1. I've heard of so many youngest kids who read spontaneously because there is such a family-culture incentive to join the Big Kids' Club and read... And doesn't every darn thing begin with the baby?

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