How To Raise a Reader

I meet with hundreds of parents each year who are trying to improve their kids’ abilities to learn. We talk about hopes and dreams and hindrances and fears. One question that comes up almost every session is this: How do I get my kids to love reading?

Most of us hold dear memories of adventures we took through the pages of books. We sailed with pirates in Treasure Island. We lived the highs and lows of Victorian England’s society in The Prince and the Pauper. We dueled valiantly for the King of France in The Three Musketeers. We sympathized with Ramona Quimby, Age 8, as she tagged along behind her older siblings, trying desperately to be big. We can still see Tom Sawyer, peeking through the window at his own funeral. We envision The Littles living their tiny, ordinary lives just under our noses in our very own homes. 

And we learned valuable life lessons, as well.

Lucy and Aslan taught us to be brave, and to love with an open mind. Pippi taught us to look at the world through fresh eyes, and to challenge the status quo. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys taught us to investigate, question, and keep trying until we solve the problem and make things right. The Ingalls taught us that family sticks together, no matter what. And Mrs. Frizzle taught us So.Much.Science!

The concern of modern parents is valid. Learning has always involved reading great thoughts from great minds, pulling them all together and formulating one’s own opinion. Throughout history, many societies have restricted who is allowed this privilege of learning to read, on the basis that those who cannot read have limited access to knowledge and are thus more easily subdued. Make no mistake, reading is a gift!

But, in an age of microwave meals, fast-forwarding through commercials and ten-minute shows, how do we teach our kids to love reading, so they can gain knowledge and think deep thoughts? Let’s look at a few ideas that worked for my family.

1. Read to Them! I know, this sounds basic, right? But here’s the thing. You really can’t read to your children too much. Read books that vary in topic, setting, subject, time period, structure (poetry, prose), narration (1st person, 3rd person), artwork, length and cadence. Use voices. Use props. Have old favorites and introduce new adventures. Every. Single. Day. Much like hugs, books are integral to crafting a well-rounded individual, and read-aloud time just cannot be skipped.

Don’t worry if they aren’t staring at you with rapt attention. Let them wiggle. They can still hear you if they are lying on the floor, or upside down on the couch. They are still listening when they are playing with Legos or Littlest Pet Shops as you read. Let them color or doodle. Your goal is to keep reading fun and exciting! 

2. Make Them Read! You know that assignment every elementary school student gets, where they are supposed to read for 20 minutes each night? This is NOT optional! It trumps play time, soccer practice, piano practice and certainly TV time. Now, educators have been pushing this since Nagy & Herman tallied up those daily 20 minutes in 1987 (see chart below), but I know how it is. The nights get busy. The days pile up. And you turn around and realize your kid hasn’t sat down and read an actual book for three weeks. No judgment here. Still, with all the love in my heart, I need you to understand this is a must, an absolute must, if you want to raise a competent and competitive student who loves reading and can run with the best of them. Stand firm on this one!

3. Hang Them Off a Cliff! Okay, to clarify, you should not ever, ever, ever hang your children off a cliff. What I mean is that when you read aloud, you should stop at a cliffhanger. Don’t conclude your read-aloud time at the end of a scene, tied up with a nicely-resolved bow. Instead, stop right in the middle. Leave the character dangling. And your children wondering! If you stop reading and the children say, “Noooooo! You can’t stop there!” then you have stopped at the right place. When the issue is unresolved, this builds their comprehension and creativity as they wrestle with the character’s struggle and guess at how the situation may be resolved.

4. Let Them Pick! For a child learning to enjoy reading, it’s okay to let them read only in areas of interest, or below their grade level. Have a basket of books they can read and enjoy, and let them build confidence by exercising those reading muscles in a way that allows them to succeed. Remember that comprehension takes mental energy. If the act of reading the words is too difficult, they don’t have any juice left to devote to comprehension. So they select books that are easier, familiar, or in an area of interest. Don’t worry, they won’t be stuck here forever. As their skills develop, so will their book choices.

5. Make A Mental Movie! Kids who can read beautifully, but still don’t enjoy it, often suffer from weak Visual Processing. They simply do not have the ability to “make a movie” in their heads as they read. While severe Visual Processing issues require more intense intervention, you can help your child to develop this skill by asking questions about what they “see” and encouraging visualization. For picture books, you might look through all the pictures before reading, making up a story that makes sense, then see if you were correct by reading through the book. 

6. Mix It Up! Work hard to vary the books you read. It’s great to have favorite authors, but be sure to pull from different genres, time periods, authors, styles and subject matters. You never know when you might meet your child’s next favorite author or topic!

7. Read only Excellent Books! I hear you, “I thought you just said to let them pick?” Hear me out. I do want you to let them pick, but they can only choose from the selections you offer, right? So only offer excellent books. That doesn’t mean difficult. Yes, The Odyssey is an excellent book. But so is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Here’s the way to avoid “twaddle”, as famed educator Charlotte Mason called waste-of-time books: If you, as an adult, can enjoy the book, it’s an excellent book. I like to test by reading the first page. If it catches my attention, I read a page somewhere in the middle. If I’m still interested, I read a page at the end. If a book passes this test and holds my interest, it makes the “yes” list.

8. Find a Series! Series are your best friend. The beauty of a series is that you don’t have to help your child find a new book every few days. Instead, you just point them to the next book in their favorite series. Talk to your librarian about your child’s interests and he or she will certainly be able to point you in the right direction.

9. Model It! Yes, yes, I know. There just doesn’t seem to be any part of parenting that falls into the Do As I Say, Not As I Do category, is there? Just like manners and prayer and cleaning up your own dishes, the best way to get your kids to enjoy reading is to let them catch you reading. Model a growth mindset that continues to seek knowledge every day. Let them catch you reading, learning, discussing, debating things you have read and learned. They want to be like you, Momma!

10. Know When You Need Help, and Seek It Out! Listen, we moms just can’t do it all. Most students who struggle with reading suffer from one or more weak cognitive skills. Reading requires dozens of decisions that must be made in microseconds to achieve comprehension, deduction, assimilation and learning. If even one of your child’s core cognitive skills lags the others, you will likely see a similar lag in reading ability, comprehension, or both. The only way to tell is to have your child’s skills tested. The most accurate and economical place to test would be at a cognitive training clinic like LearningRx. After testing, the clinician will recommend a reading intervention program that is customized specifically to your child’s needs. The LearningRx brain training program averages over 3 years’ gain in reading in only six months, making it by far the best bang for your buck. If you know, you just know, there is something deeper going on, I suggest you pursue this avenue.

Implement these ten steps with your family, and create an atmosphere of learning and reading in your home. If this has not been your past atmosphere, that’s okay! Start today. Don’t put it off. You have a book. And a local library. And a couch. Start reading!

<3 Julie

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