Thursday, April 10, 2014

Making Sure Your Kids WANT to Read

Yesterday, during a lunchtime discussion, my manager asked me a question that has vexed many concerned educators and parents in recent years: How can we encourage kids to read more often?

The importance of this question cannot be overstated. Proficiency in reading, as I highlighted in the previous post, is heavily dependent on the student's ability to link what he reads to what he knows already. And how do we acquire this essential knowledge? In large part, we get it through reading. It may seem rather circular, but the fact remains that habitual readers are exposed to more vocabulary and more cultural capital than are reluctant readers or non-readers, and this in turn leads to more intellectual growth and better test scores. To put it another way, reading is cumulative; the more you read, the more you can read.

Here's another reason why habitual reading is important: It makes you a better writer. I have plenty of students who are basically competent when it comes to constructing grammatically correct sentences but are still lousy writers because 1) they don't have a lot of background knowledge and consequently have nothing to write about, and 2) they are plugging their (limited) ideas into rote formulas and have no instinct for the art of effective rhetoric. Instruction in grammar, mechanics, spelling, and organization are all necessary -- but writing is also dependent on prior exposure to the prose of other expert writers, for without that exposure, what you write will be both empty of content and stylistically unoriginal.

So having established that, yes, Reading is Fundamental, how do we get kids to read? Well, I honestly can't think of a better way to answer this question than to look at someone who successfully raised an avid reader - i.e., my father - and point out what he did right:

  • He started early. I wasn't even out of diapers before my dad started sitting me on his knee and reading me articles from Scientific American. Now, of course, as a toddler, I was completely incapable of understanding particle physics -- but the point here is not the content of what Dad read aloud but the fact that he did read aloud and didn't limit himself to "toddler-friendly" texts. If you want your child to be a habitual reader, you need to start reading aloud to them well before they hit school age, and what you read should be quality prose.
  • He was a good role model. The only days I didn't see Dad with a book in his hand at least once were the days he was out to sea. In order to encourage kids to read, you have to demonstrate through your own behavior that reading is a worthwhile activity. Thus, let your children see you reading on a regular basis, and let the reading and discussing of books become part of your everyday family routine.
  • For the most part, he left me free to choose. Dad would, on occasion, make recommendations - and if I'd ever picked up something that, to his mind, was inappropriate, he probably would've intervened - but beyond that, he essentially turned me loose in the East Lyme Public Library and let me do and read whatever I wanted. As far as transmitting the thought and traditions of our culture, certain books do have to be "assigned" -- but when it comes to free reading, let your child be guided by his own tastes.
  • He didn't over-schedule me or seek to keep me entertained every hour of every day.  This is an especially crucial point. These days, many especially conscientious parents feel obligated to shuttle their children to an array of "enriching" extra-curricular programs -- but in actuality, this makes it even more difficult to convince kids to read because, in their minds, they don't have the time. So instead, do what Dad did. My brother and I did participate in a few organized extra-curricular activities - children's theater for both of us, music and therapeutic dance lessons for me, and the occasional team sport for my brother - but the attitude surrounding these activities was always, always casual -- and most of the time, we were still left to our own devices. Never underestimate the benefits of boredom and unattended play!      
Of course, today's parents have to deal with an issue that really wasn't as much of a problem in my childhood: media saturation. We did have a TV, but our viewing choices were fewer; we had game systems, but they were primitive. Dad was also an early adopter when it came to personal computers and the internet, but by the time Usenet and Prodigy became a part of my life, I had already become a frequent reader and was unlikely to be changed by the new distraction. (Whether I got my homework done, on the other hand, was another matter -- but, of course, my parents were proactive and intervened when my grades dropped.) Today's kids? They've always had sophisticated smart phones in their pockets, net-connected game systems with high-res graphics, hundreds of television channels, and the Web, which they can access through lightning-speed internet connections. And don't get me wrong -- these are all wonderful technologies that I enjoy using every single day. They are also technologies that open up a whole host of possibilities that never existed before -- most importantly, the ability to circumvent our elite and produce cultural content on our own. My brother believes that this democratization of creativity will eventually lead to a new renaissance, and I agree. But the fact remains that the multiplicity of "screens" makes it especially difficult to entice kids to pick up a book. Parents tell my manager and me all the time that their children are spending literally hours every day with said "screens." No wonder they're not reading!

Thus, for today's parents, I would also add the following pieces of advice: limit screen time and delay the smart phone until your child demonstrates that he is responsible enough not to overuse it. This should free up some of your child's time and make it more likely that he will choose to read instead (provided you also follow the guidelines mentioned above). Ideally, you should set media limits from the very beginning so your child recognizes these rules as "just something our family does," but better to start late than not at all. To forestall anger and complaining, explain forthrightly to your older child why you have decided to enforce restrictions -- and consider approaching media time as something your child has to earn through good behavior and good grades. At work, we have one parent who has done this, and her thirteen-year-old son earned an A on an Algebra I benchmark after months of getting C's or worse.

Hopefully, you have found the advice above helpful. Again, frequent reading is a habit we must consciously instill in children if we want to raise proficient readers and writers. So go forth and be reading promoters -- and while you're at it, make sure you give children enough space to breathe.


  1. Hm.

    We have a sample size of TWO with your example parent. One kid who became an avid reader, and another, who, under the same system, eschewed reading nearly entirely for his entire childhood and adolescence unless forced to read by icky humanities classes.

    And this second data point now aspires to be a published author in more than just the scientific literature (where he has already been published twice and is looking for two more very soon)...he wants to write something great and be remembered for it. And lacks the literary capital to do it because he didn't read as a kid...and it's KILLING him.

    So...why did he read as a kid...and how could he have been nudged in the right direction?

  2. Why *didn't* he read as a kid, rather?

    1. See my new post for the answer to your question. ;)