As a middle school language arts teacher, I see every day the difference between those kids who love to read and those who don’t. When a child loves to read, school comes easier for them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are the smartest in the room, but their reasoning and processing skills are much quicker compared to a child who hardly ever picks up a book. Reading is a complex process in the mind of a child. Not only are they visually deciphering images, but they are reading words, comprehending what is being said, and then internalizing and processing that information so that they can understand. What takes a child a quick minute to read is really a massive amount of work going on in their brains.
I think what would surprise parents the most is that kids who read a lot are also not necessarily the most fluent readers. Sometimes, even the best readers struggle, and it’s in that struggle where true learning happens. I hear kids all the time in my own classroom say, “This is too hard!” or “I don’t understand it!” and then they immediately shut the book – and their brain. But kids who are avid readers and who struggle through a book are really pushing themselves. Not only are they learning academically, but there’s so much psychologically that goes on in the mind of a child reading a book. They begin to understand that just because a book takes them a while to read, doesn’t mean they can’t read it. This kind of tenacity translates positively into all areas of their life.
Not only do I have the extreme fortune of teaching and instilling a love for reading in my middle school students, but I also get to share that gift with my own two kids. I am so proud to say that both Bean and Gracie are big readers. They love books, bookstores, libraries, silent reading, reading aloud, story hours, comics, and just about anything else in the shape of a book. In fact, when I asked Gracie what she wanted to do on her birthday, one of her two requests was to go to Barnes and Noble, which instantly made my heart burst with pride. That’s my girl!
As I was sitting in the bookstore, marveling at my kids and their love of running their hands over books, choosing just the perfect one, and then sitting down to devour it before we even left the store (all of these things I can relate to completely, by the way), I realized that there have been some distinct actions we have taken as a family, and I as a teacher, to impress a love of reading on my kids. I thought I’d share them here today.
- Read to your kids every night, preferably as a whole family. Chris and I have been reading to our kids at night since they were born. As infants, it was really just a time to rock in the rocking chair and focus on something soothing and calm. As they entered daycare and preschool, it changed into one of our favorite times of day as a family. Each kid was able to pick a book and we all piled up together in Bean’s room. Then, we read the books together as a family. When Bean started kindergarten, we sort of shifted our reading structure again. Bean was learning to read and so when we all got together to read, he would read both books to us, instead of Chris and I reading them. Then, after those two books, I would go into Bean’s room with him and the two of us would read a chapter book together. So far, The Indian and the Cupboard, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Ralph S. Mouse are a few of our favorites. By the time Bean started first grade, we finally stopped reading together as a family every night. Our schedules were a mess, and it was too hard to get both kids in the same place at the same time. Plus, Bean was now reading chapter books to himself. These days, Chris and I still read to Gracie every night, but Bean reads in his room on his own, which he prefers. I am 100% confident that our family reading together every night is the most important factor in raising our two readers.
- Treat books and reading as the reward. I always cringe when I hear parents say things like, “He was so terrible that day that I made him go to his room and read.” If you treat reading as a punishment, then your kids will see it like a punishment. But, if you treat reading as a reward, then your kids will see it as a reward. The punishment at our house is that you CAN’T read before bed, and let me tell you how many dinners have been finished, chores have been done, and attitudes have been changed with this threat. Why? Because my kids have grown up in a house where reading is the prize.
- Let your kids pick out the books. Always. We have zero classic books in our house. This used to drive me insane. I was always trying to push classic children’s books on my kids, and they were absolutely not interested in them at all. I’d pay $20 for a really nice hardcover book, we’d read it once, and then they never wanted anything else to do with it. By the time Bean was three years old, I realized that I would rather spend my money on whatever it was they actually WANTED to read, and so I never again chose a book for my kids. Even when I buy books for them now, I only buy ones that they have already pointed out at a different time to me. And the reasoning is simple – would I want someone picking out books for me and then making me read them? Absolutely not. I love to read, but I love to read what I choose to read. Half the fun of reading is in selecting the perfect book. Why rob a child of that part of the reading experience? So, while there may not be any award-winning books in our collection, every book we own is beat up, dog-eared, and well-loved because of how often it is read, and that’s worth more than an Amazon rating to me.
- Don’t worry too much about the reading level of a book. This is a principle I adopt in my own classroom, as well as my own home. I don’t care if one of my middle school kids is reading a book way below their reading level. They are a fourteen year old kid with a book in their hands – who cares?!?! Same story with my own kids. Bean is at the point now where he wants to read some bigger chapter books. Whenever he brings me a book from the library or bookstore, I never, ever say that book is too hard for him. DON’T EVER TELL YOUR CHILDREN THEY AREN’T CAPABLE OF READING SOMETHING. Talk about a blow to the reading ego. Instead, I praise the crap out of him for choosing such an awesome book, and then I ask him to read me the first page of the book out loud. Nine times out of ten, he will stop himself through the page if it’s too hard because he doesn’t like stumbling through it so much. If he keeps pushing (today he was really pushing because he wanted this Star Wars book that was just a little bit above his reading level), then I tell him to count. If he doesn’t know more than three words on the page he is reading aloud, then the book is just “not right for him yet.” I hold this same rule with my middle schoolers, too. Three words or more that they don’t know on one page and the book is probably just a bit out of their range. However, this is a teachable moment and a perfect change to incentivize teaching. Today, for instance, Bean struggled through reading me one page of that Star Wars book, but because he tried really hard and he really was very close, I told him we could go ahead and get this book and it could stay on his bookshelf until he was ready to try another page again. And then we talked about how the more we read, the better we become, and that we bet by the summertime, he would be ready to read that book.
- Search out series of books. Series of books are a great way to get a kid reading long term. If they really liked the first book, then now they have a whole series of books to work through. Perfect! That’s reading material for months! Plus, kids identify with things they already know about. I know very few kids – whether they are Bean and Gracie’s age or full grown adults! – who like things that are unknown. There is safety and confidence in things we already know. The same holds for books. Kids get to know characters and storylines, and this connection is what keeps them coming back. No matter how many books I may suggest to Bean, he will always prefer series he already knows about. Also, don’t underestimate the power of peer pressure. One of my favorite questions to ask Bean is what his friends are reading. He has found several series of books this way.
I thought I would also share some of the books and series that are big hits around my house. First of all, “number books,” as we call them (which are any leveled reading book – we prefer the “Step Into Reading” series), begin in my house around the age of three. At that point, they can really begin to recognize letters and even some beginning sight words, which make the Level One books perfect for new readers. Plus, they have them in ALL the popular characters, movies, and TV shows, which is really how you can snag a young reader.
Another kind of book that my kids love are the story book collections. These “5 Minute Bedtime Stories” (which are NOT five minutes, let me warn you…) are favorites, and we read them over and over again. One story counts as one book at bedtime for us.
We also have Bibles and devotionals for each of the kids. I love this children’s Bible because it tells the real stories, but makes them very kid friendly and easy to understand. My favorite devotionals are the VeggieTale ones. They are simple and scripture based, which is nice.
AT FOUR/FIVE YEARS OLD, GRACIE’S FAVORITE BOOK SERIES ARE:
Click, Clack, Moo Books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin.
Llama, Llama Books by Anna Dewdney
Pete the Cat books by James Dean
IN FIRST GRADE, SOME OF BEAN’S FAVORITE BOOKS ARE:
Monkey and Robot by Peter Catalanotto
The Notebook of Doom Series by Troy Cummings (his current favorite)
Secret Agent Jack Stalwart by Elizabeth Singer Hunt
And what elementary boy’s book collection would be complete without Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey?!
Those are my recommendations, as both a teacher and a mom. But what about you? What gets your kids reading and what books are they loving right now? Be sure to include ages in your comments! HAPPY READING!