(Originally published as “Raising Readers” in a letter)
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” – Mark Twain
I took three of my kids to the dentist this week- the normal every 6 months habit. We walked into the waiting room, books in hand. (Aside: I really believe if I bring my book, my wait is less. If I forget my book, the wait is longer. It is like a Murphy’s Law for me!) The television had been playing to an empty room, and was set to a morning talk show. A commercial came on with a famous female commentator asking a woman, “Did you kiss her? Did you like it?” I had no idea what was coming, but I quickly jumped up to turn offthe television. When I spun to look at my kids, they were all three looking down at their books. Phew! One more day without that media educating my children’s morals… I think. The silence was refreshing, when an employee sprang into the room, remote in hand. “Oh sorry! Here, let me put it on a kids’ channel.” And with all good intentions, she made the noise begin again, this time with cartoons flying.
From the waiting room, we went to the dentist chairs, where we each had our own personal TV. Mine was set on one of those “insider” shows that tells all of the gossip about famous people. I quietly prayed for my children’s ears…and for the actor about whom they were talking on my TV – who was in trouble for protecting his own children from his paparazzi.
After my appointment, I went to the waiting room, where my children were. Their books were open, while the television continued in the background. The receptionist asked, “How do you get them to do that?” as if it were taught as a dog-trick, like playing dead.
You might remember these words from a previous letter, Expressive Kids, Explosive Words: “Casey, our oldest, was quite a natural reader. He was reading well by the time he was 5.
My next son was not quite the “natural,” unless it was soccer-playing. He was taught to read using the same method: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Only, I had to repeat every lesson at least once before going to the next, so I changed the title to “200 Torturous Lessons” and skipped the writing part of it until he was 7!”
Now, both boys and their younger siblings really enjoy reading. I can’t even pretend to know all of the answers to the question, “How do you get kids to read?” but I thought I would write down some of the things that, by the grace of God, seemed to help them develop into readers. I humbly hope that it helps others grow bookworms in their own homes as well. A list of book suggestions was provided in a previous letter.
Things we have done:
- Model reading for them. Children learn best by example. What you do speaks much more loudly than what you tell them to do.
- Read aloud to them. We were blessed to hear that advice when our children were babies, so we have been reading aloud to them since before they could speak. Even though they are all independent readers now, we still try to read several books a year as a family. We finished Best Christmas Pageant Ever last week (OK- that one was really for ME! I laugh and cry!) and right now are in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as part of our traditions. We try to read aloud the Bible stories daily- as listed in the back of Thomas Jefferson Education (DeMille). When I read The Hiding Place about Corrie Ten Boom’s efforts of saving Jews during Nazi occupation, and her own time in the concentration camp, something that really stuck with me was that her father spent time every night reading aloud to the family- and she was in her thirties!
- Library trips: We aim for minimally every 3 weeks, and they may each get ten books, which they are “supposed” to keep in their library book bag. Yes, that is 40 borrowed books. There have been MANY times that I have literally set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes. We disperse and meet at checkout when the timer goes off. I figure 15 minutes is better than nothing! We recently found our church’s library has a fantastic selection of “pre-approved” series for youth.
- Used-book stores. Wow! This gold-digging began as Chris trying to help me out when I had babies, but it has become almost a “rite of passage” to be old enough (and a good enough reader) to go to the used-book store with Dad.
- Popcorn and hot chocolate. Yep food always gets me. Last summer, when it was 87 degrees here in North Carolina, my 7-yr-old daughter said, “Can we light the fire and pop some popcorn?” She has happy memories of our reading times in front of the fire! She had forgotten that those were in the Michigan winter! At our former home, we actually had a popcorn oil “fog” on the carpet in front of the fireplace, from the number of times we had taken our book bags by the fire.
- Family reading night. You’ve heard of family game night, family movie night, why not family reading night?!
- Book journals: This one goes in and out of our life. We just forget to write things down. Right now, Christine (8) has a poster that she has made, keeping track of the books she is reading.
- Start a Parent/Child Book Discussion: Whether it is just you and your child(ren) or you invite other families to join you, reading a book and discussing it is fun and will draw you and your children together. I am always shocked…always…at the different ways my children see the book.
- Reward with Books/Reading Time: Treat it like dessert, and they will see it as dessert. Treat is like it’s a chore, and they will act like it. Give books as gifts, or rewards. The “trip to the library” is actually a coupon my kids can get for an A+ math test in our homeschool. Some nights, we say prayers and they go to bed, but they can read until _:00. If they get to bed faster, they’ll have more time to read. When they are around age 6, I have often said, “read in bed as late as you want.” They are excited they get to “stay up,” so they push themselves in their reading ability, and then fall asleep.
- Fun! The idea is to make a positive experience with reading. Get a flashlight and hang out in the blanket fort with the books. Put post-it notes with book titles that have been read up on the wall, or put a quarter in a jar every time a book is read; then have ice cream or pizza with the proceeds when you reach a goal. (food again!)
Limiting the “Diet:”
When trying to lose weight or even maintain health, it makes sense to count the calories and make the calories count. Wasted calories of cookies and chips turn to “waisted” calories, with zero nutritional gain. It is easier to turn to the fruits and veggies if they are the most easily accessed items in the kitchen. On the contrary, it is more difficult to get to the chips and cookies if they are not even in the house.
It seems to me that we parents have a responsibility to limit the “electronic diet” of children. Video games, movies and television are like chips and cookies. They take up the calories (hours spent), without yielding nutritional gain.
Look at these statistics:
Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful
conversation with their children: 3.5
Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
Percentage of parents who would like to limit their children’s TV watching: 73
Percentage of 4-6 year-olds who, when asked to choose between watching TV
and spending time with their fathers, preferred television: 54
Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
If I had to say a single thing in this letter that was most likely the biggest impact on our children’s reading, it would be “limiting the electronic diet.”
We are far from perfect. Limiting electronics has been difficult, and continues to be. Reading requires a higher degree of mental participation than watching a movie, listening to music or playing a video game, so it meets resistance. But you are the mom! You can do it!
With new babies, you can start fresh – read aloud; avoid buying electronics. But for those who have been more in the electronics world, it will take more discipline to make the shift. Rome was not built in a day.
- Maybe start with 15 minutes one day each week of popcorn & reading time. Then make it longer, or add another day. Set a goal for which to aim: 1hour/day? 3 hours/day? 3 hours/week? You are the parent.
- Have a daily limit on electronics with or without required reading. Again, have a goal and start toward it with increments that make sense for your family.
- When beginning to increase reading time, allow the children to choose from our selections, or a whole section of the library, so they feel control in the options. Anything we as parents “force” assumes we expect “equal and opposite force.” Our goal is for them to desire it, not necessarily just succumb to it. Making it their idea (or at least partially their idea by letting them choose books) gets them pulling instead of us just pushing. Later, we can add more content direction, such as “1 hour your book and then 1 hour this book I want you to read.”
One note: I went through a time when I rewarded them with video game time for reading. Rewarding them with 15 minutes of “educational computer play” time for every 30 minutes of reading did two things, according to Dr. James Dobson: 1. It labeled reading the chore and computers the fun. 2. It was as though I was saying, “If I eat two salads, I get a dessert” – counter-productive in anyone’s calorie counting. So we separated the electronic game time, and decided to allow it one day/week.
Every so often, I come across something like a math program on the computer that would really help school. I try not to throw this baby out with the electronics’ bath water. But if the electronics (even the educational) adversely affect the reading time, then we adjust.
Finally, I find myself being the “mom taxi” throughout the evenings, going from soccer practice to music lessons, etc. Sometimes, we have talked about everything there is to discuss, and we are still driving- or waiting to drive some more! As a child, I was never able to read in the car due to motion sickness, but my children use this time so productively. Book lights have been a blessing, and if queasiness happens, they take a break with eyes closed. It’s no excuse to turn on the DVD player hanging from the ceiling.
Tomorrow’s leaders are today’s readers. Let’s raise them together, girlfriend!!