Raising a Reader

How to get your kids excited about reading.

Nearly 10 million of America's children struggle to read, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Studies have shown that poor reading skills lead to anxiety and low self-esteem in children, and the long-term effects are even more devastating.

New research shows that children whose parents read to them during their critical development years become better readers and do better in school. Furthermore, we know that children who grow up in homes with fewer than 10 books are almost guaranteed to fall far behind in school.

A love of books can be fostered from birth: Babies begin to understand written language when adults read stories to them and when they see their parents reading the newspaper and books for themselves. Parents' reading habits set the stage for their children to become successful readers and writers later in life. This applies to every member of the family, from Mom all the way to aunts, uncles, and Grandpa.

Nothing motivates readers like a good story. "Have you ever heard of a child hiding with a flashlight beneath the covers to read a worksheet?" quips Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 1995). A child must enjoy books -- the tales they tell and the ideas they ignite -- to spend hours reading. And those hours, according to experts, translate directly into school success, as reading for leisure is the best predictor of children's comprehension, vocabulary, and reading speed.

Reading expands vocabulary and saturates the mind with the way language is used. For example, an avid reader has seen a semicolon used countless times; he can learn its usage rules easily. Reading teaches kids to think. It exercises the brain by modeling how a thought is developed and explored. Reading broadens children's understanding of the world and fills them with knowledge that billows into all subject areas. Even math scores rise when children increase the time they spend reading.

According to Mary Leonhardt, author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't (Crown, 1993), there is an incredible difference between the avid reader and someone who just gets through reading assignments. Merely knowing how to sound out words is not the same as following complex ideas through sophisticated writing. Success goes to the child who gobbles up books, not the one who merely nibbles at them.

Leonhardt compares avid reading instead to basketball or cooking, where time on the court or in the kitchen builds expertise. Studies show that the most competent readers read 144 times as much as the least able.

If you think your child is logging enough reading time in school, think again. Time allotted for actual reading practice in the classroom averages less than 13 minutes per day for fourth-grade students, and diminishes from there in upper grades, according to Judi Paul, developer of The Accelerated Reader, a computer program used in schools to measure students' reading. She recommends schools prioritize an hour of daily reading practice, including time a child is read to, read with, or reads independently. Other experts cite 1 million words a year (roughly a 200-page book every two weeks) as a target for independent readers by the time they're in fifth grade.

With guidelines like that, it's obvious most kids need to be reading at home. But reluctant readers will not willingly hand over the PlayStation controls in exchange for a biography. You have to dangle a carrot or two.

  • Read to them daily. Meld reading into their earliest memories, and don't stop when they learn to read on their own.
  • Buy bedside lamps for everyone in the house. Tell the kids it's bedtime, but allow them to read for a few minutes. When one day you find out they're still reading at midnight, pat yourself on the back.
  • Befriend your librarian and ask for a list of current favorites. Encourage your children in their choices, and get to know their likes and dislikes. Selecting books takes practice, too.
  • Nurture an "expert." Does your teen claim (or long) to be an authority on football? Outer space? Music? Buy the books, then encourage your expert to share the knowledge.
  • Plant irresistible books in high-traffic areas. Put them in the map pocket of the car, the bathroom, the kitchen. Display them as if you were trying to sell them. (You are!)
  • Subscribe to magazines devoted to your child's age level and interests. Sports Illustrated for Kids, American Girl, and National Geographic World are just a few of the many publications for children. Two good online sources of kids' books are Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
  • Aim low. Try series books and comic books -- whatever kids can plow through with ease. Children may prefer reading books they've previously heard read aloud.
  • Practice what you preach -- and preach what you practice. Let your child see you reading, and make talking about books and what you read in the newspaper a part of daily conversation.
  • Coddle the reader. Try not to interrupt someone who is inching toward independent reading. When you see him with a book -- brow knit, lips moving -- tiptoe past. Any noise or sudden motion might break the fragile moment, and every minute of reading counts.


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