Build a Reading Family: How to Share Reading with Your Kids

With so many distractions available to them — cable TV, DVDs, MP3 players, PlayStations, MySpace, and the vastness of the Internet — it’s getting harder and harder to turn children on to reading. The idea of sitting down with a good book and losing yourself in it seems to be a casualty of today’s instant-on, entertainment-saturated culture.

It’s not just reading skills that are being lost. It’s possible that, adding together all the webpages, advertisements, in-game storyboards, and other bits and pieces of text that surround us, kids are reading as much as or even more than they were in the pre-digital era. But with reading, it’s not just raw figures that counts: it’s the quality of experience that’s being missed out on. Reading books teaches comprehension and vocabulary, certainly, but it also teaches the pleasures of slowly-building anticipation, the importance of lingering and reviewing to draw new meanings and connections, the projection of self into imagined worlds of our own making.

So how do we get kids interested in reading? As all parents know, children usually aren’t swayed by the “try this, it’s good for you” argument. Although none of the children in my family read as much as I do, I have had more than a little success getting them to read — and, perhaps more importantly, to like reading. Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Take them to the library. I go to the library every Saturday morning, sometimes with just one child, sometimes with the whole family. We make an outing of it, and I spend at least a little bit of time with each of them brainstorming subjects to look up and reviewing books with them. It pays to talk to the librarian, especially if your library has a children’s books librarian, to see what special resources your library has and what they recommend for your children. Get to know the children’s section, too; our library has a section specifically devoted to Newberry award-winners, any one of which is guaranteed to be a hit.
  • Get them their own library card. Even if your children only go to the library with you, get each of them their own library card. Having a library card gives children a sense of ownership, a sense of investment in their reading choices. It’s something they own, a marker of participation. Our five-year-old, who doesn’t have a library card (library rules) but got a card for signing up for the summer reading program, told everyone he met for a week about his card: “I have a library card!”
  • Ask for a commitment. I come from a family of salesmen, and one of the first rules of sales is to make the customer commit him- or herself. So I tried it with my kids, and it works pretty well. Here’s what I do: at the beginning of the week, I ask each of them, “What are you going to read this week?” If they’re in the middle of something, they hold it up and I ask a few questions and we move on. If they’re not reading anything at the moment, I make a few suggestions and let them pick something. The idea is, once they’ve made a commitment, it becomes theirs; they’re not letting me down if they don’t keep reading, they’re letting themselves down. Since nobody wants to do that, they’ll push themselves — and I don’t have to. Reading becomes something they do for themselves, not for me. Excellent!
  • Read with them. Set an example for your children to follow. Ask your librarian if they have “family packs” (usually several copies of a book plus a reading guide), or if you can check out multiple copies of the same book. Have each member of the family, or at least a couple of you, read the same book at the same time. This way, you can discuss it, ask questions, and generally help your child get the most out of their reading. If you’re worried about reading “kid’s stuff”, don’t be; as it happens, some of the best writing being done today is in the early reader and young adult sections. There’s incredible stuff in fantasy and science fiction, as well as horror, mystery, and family drama stories. Again, look for Newberry winners, like Lois Lowry’s amazing book The Giver. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions of these books — most books for young readers are more than able to sustain deep analysis.
  • Know the awards. Unlike the Oscars and the Grammies, awards for children’s books are generally a marker of excellence, not merely popularity or name recognition. The Newberry and Caldecott medals are awarded by the professional association of children’s librarians, the Association for Library Service to Children, for outstanding contribution to American literature: the Newberry is for novels, the Caldecott for picture books. Other major awards include the Boston Globe – Horn Book award, given for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and illustration; the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and the Hans Christian Andersen medal, awarded to an author from any country for a distinguished body of work. Look for the medals or other indications of award status, and if you’re not familiar with an award, ask a librarian or look it up on the Internet.
  • Aim high. I regularly bring home “young adult” books for my 11- and 12-year olds, after screening them to make sure there’s not anything I don’t think they can handle. Kids can handle quite a bit, though, if we let them; far too often we under-estimate their abilities and either bore them or acclimate them to mediocrity. Give them a chance to push themselves — most kids will rise to the challenge. Obviously this doesn’t mean giving War and Peace to your first-grader, but books by John Steinbeck, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and other major authors can certainly be shared with middle-schoolers. And getting them used to reading challenging literature outside of school can help prevent a merely average English teacher down the line from leaching the joy out of reading these books — or worse, instilling in them a fear of the classics.
  • Discuss amongst yourselves. Ask questions about their reading, whether at the dinner table, in the car, or on lazy weekend mornings. Ask them questions. If you’ve read the book they’re reading, test them — gently. Tell them how you felt about it when you first read the same book. Ask them what books it reminds them of, or how they feel about the main character. Let them tell you the whole story, “oh wait, I forgots” and “no, that was laters” included. Get them to talk about what they’re reading, to make it their own.
  • Ask older kids to read to younger kids. Reading out loud is an important skill in its own right, but it’s also an opportunity to bring siblings together, and to get older children in the habit of explaining in clear and simple language what they’re reading. And, of course, it will help instill a love of reading in your younger children. Along these lines, you might consider playing audiobooks in the car or around the house for younger children to listen to.
  • Limit screen time. This is hard. Extremely hard. As much as possible (without being draconian about it), limit time spent playing video games, surfing the Internet, or watching TV — not because they should be reading instead, but because they should be doing anything else instead. Maybe they’ll read. Maybe not. At least they’ll have a chance, though.
  • Don’t disparage other activities. Make reading compete against video games, and you’ll lose. Reading a book isn’t a substitute for TV, XBox, or FaceBook; it’s its own thing, with its own rewards. Encourage a healthy balance of activities, reading among them.
  • Don’t rush them. Kids read at their own pace. What takes me an hour and 45 minutes to read might take my step-daughter a week. That’s fine. Reading isn’t a race to see who can read the most pages a minute or the most books a month. If they’re dawdling, set reasonable goals (finish this chapter, read 10 more pages, whatever seems reasonable) or figure out why they’re stuck; otherwise, let them set their own pace.

Remember, reading should be fun, not yet another chore to get through. It is something you and your children can share, not something they do for you. That said, be firm. Sometimes it’s necessary to apply a little pressure, but only when you’re absolutely sure it will pay off. When my partner asked her son to read a book she had loved, he balked; we told him he had to read the first three chapters, “or else!” I don’t think it was wrong to push him, but only because we knew he’d like it once he got started; a couple days later, he started telling us excitedly about some scene or other, and in the end he loved the book. If he’d still been uninterested after chapter 3, though, we’d've let him off the hook.

It bears saying that if you don’t read, your children won’t either. This isn’t a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of thing. Which isn’t to say that if you do read, they will; it’s only the first pre-requisite. Try some of the tips above and see how they work. Or share your own tips with the rest of us below.

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