Getting Kids Psyched about Books
I got lucky with my first child. At three, when he started reading billboards aloud as we drove along the freeway, I had no idea that it was normal. I was a new mom; what did I know?
I’d like to take credit for his insane reading skillz (and I can take credit for the things I did to expose him to reading and words and books), but truly, he just came wired ready to soak it up.
He didn’t learn much in kindergarten, as he was already reading at a fourth-grade level. Rather, he was decoding at that level, meaning he could pick up just about any book and read aloud to you quite fluently. Comprehension, inference, and some other accompanying reading skills weren’t quite that high, meaning that if the book was ahead of his maturity, he had no clue what it meant.
During his pregnancy, I was finishing up my English degree. I spent hours reading aloud as I paced the apartment so I could finish assignments and not fall asleep from pregnancy fatigue.
(I resorted to this after opening a volume of Dickens or Whitman or Chopin and then waking up two hours later. Not cool when you have hundreds of pages to read a week.)
As a result, he literally heard volumes of classic literature in utero. I can’t help but wonder if that helped form some brain connections or something.
His younger siblings certainly heard plenty of books read aloud in utero, but those were about Sneetches, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Arthur, not adult fair. Link? We’ll never know.
Some things we did to expose him (and his siblings) to reading early:
- Read aloud. A lot. My kids all got several books read to him before every nap, before bed, and at lots of other times. (Granted, the oldest got more books than the youngest, but you do what you can do.)
- Point out easy words to help them learn. I started with the classic sight words, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they’re called. As a toddler, he knew to expect me to point to about one word per page for him to read, whether a simple the, you, or car, or something a bit more complicated. I had him read more words as he got older.
- Let them help with shopping. Kids love finding “apples” on the list and crossing it out. They enjoy searching for words on labels. Even little kids can learn to identify the signs for the bakery and deli and figure out what the sounds in the letters mean. (The store is another great spot for practicing numbers and easy math.)
- Cook together and point out ingredients, labels, and instructions.
I had a couple of challenges getting my son to read actual books, though.
Challenge #1: Most books on his age level were too easy for him.
The first books he really took to, thanks to their humor, were the Captain Underpants books. I know some parents cringe at those (potty humor, intentional misspellings, etc.), but to me, hey, he was reading.
Those books hooked him, which was all that mattered.
He read them all so much they fell apart. I got a few comb-bound, but eventually, we had to buy a new set.
Which led to my second challenge with him.
Challenge #2: He didn’t like trying new books.
Around 4th or 5th grade, he had two series he loved . . . and heread them over and over. And he read nothing else.
I found that boys at that age are particularly hard to find books for. It seems as if there are far more “girl” titles for the in-between reading ages than for boys.
I’ve since learned two things: so-called “girl” books are likely to appeal to boys, and there’s no reason to avoid introducing boys to stories that are about the other 50% of the population.
Examples include The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, which is a Newbery Honor book, and which many boys have come to love after “getting over” the idea of it being a “princess” book and realizing that hey, it’s an awesome story.
The other thing I learned is basic perseverance. Introduce one book after another until your child finds something that catches their interest. There are far more children who believe they are bad readers than who actually struggle with reading. Most of the time, they just haven’t found the right book or author. They assume that because they couldn’t get themselves to finish a book, they must be a “bad” reader. Not so!
Finding new books that sparked my son’s interest took time and effort — including asking just about every mom I could find what their kids liked and spending hours trolling the internet for ideas — but it was worth it. Eventually we broke through the block, and he discovered a bunch of other writers and books keeping up late on school nights.
My second child introduced a new problem.
Challenge #3: “I hate readiang.”
According to all of my daughter’s tests at school, she read at or above grade level.
But she hated actually doing it.
Which about killed me. Getting the required 15 or 20 minutes of reading per day for school was pure torture (for both us), especially as she got older. By fourth grade, I’d succeeded in getting her to read a stack of picture books, but she refused to an easy chapter book. Forget suggesting a novel.
I was terrified that she’d never enjoy reading. Aside from the joy that reading can be, I was afraid she’d lose out on the critical skills literacy provides.
Two things finally solved the problem:
- Audio books along with the hard-copy book. She read the text as she followed along with the audio. I got this idea from my teacher-writer friend LuAnn Staheli. The trick technique helped take away some of the intimidation factor of long books. After reading a few titles this way, my daughter was no longer afraid of chapter books.
- She complained of headaches in her forehead after reading. I remembered that when my dad was young, reading always felt like work because of eye issues that made reading painful. When reading literally hurts. of course you’ll avoid it. A trip to the eye doctor with her confirmed my suspicion: while my daughter had 20/20 vision for distance, she had significant astigmatism, which made her eye muscles work harder to keep the text in focus. That, in turn, led to headaches — in her forehead. A few days after getting her glasses, I found her curled up on her bed with a novel. I walked away with tears in my eyes.
Challenge #4: The Perfectionist.
This was my third child. When she first started to learn how to read, if she couldn’t sound out a word the first time around, she fell apart:
“I’ll never get it!” she’d wail, then throw the book to the floor. Then she’d melt into a ball of tears.
Trying to comfort her by saying that no one can learn a new skill without mistakes made any difference. We had to back up, go to easier levels that she’d already mastered, and let her have lots of success with those easier books.
Only then, when she felt ready, we worked up to more advanced texts.
She didn’t like doing that (“going backward”), because in addition to being a perfectionist, she’s also an over achiever. Of course, she wanted to be on the higher levels, faster.
She eventually managed to jump ahead of her class, but not until she had the skills and confidence she developed early on by taking it slowly. And that required a parent who put in the work to make sure she kept practicing.
Challenge #5: Fluency and Comprehension
When my youngest struggled with the transition to chapter books, I turned to something that had helped my older children: reading aloud, taking turns reading one page each.
Doing this helped her get through harder books with support, and she wasn’t as intimidated; after all, she was reading only half of the book, while Mom read the other half.
This technique also helped me find out what words and concepts she struggled with, so I could help her over some of those hurdles.
With her brother, this technique helped me notice a tendency he had to skip words he didn’t know. It also provided an opportunity to encourage his pronunciation to overcome a minor speech impediment.
Challenge #6: Less Time with Picture Books for the Littles
By the time my fourth child was a toddler, I was reading longer chapter books aloud to the older kids before bed.
She still had picture books to her, but far fewer than the other kids got, mostly because, well, I had split up my time among more kids.
Even so, at a young age, she was listening to much longer, more complex books at night. She didn’t always follow the stories or understand them (and often spent reading time on the floor next to us, doodling with paper and crayons), but all of that exposure the middle-grade and young-adult novels helped her comprehension, vocabulary, prediction skills, and more.
In fact, a neighbor used to crack up at her vocabulary and enunciation because both were advanced for preschooler. I believe that her ability to think, speak, and process at a high level today (in high school) is a direct result of being surrounded by big words and complex stories at a younger age.
Other things we’ve done:
Participate in library story times for toddlers and preschoolers. Go to the library regularly. If your library allows it, get your children each their own library card.
Participate in library summer reading programs.
Buy from book orders and book fairs. I nearly always bought something. The only rule is that it must be a BOOK, not a toy or game, something that became a challenge with so many random toys and knickknacks offered.
Give books as gifts. My kids are guaranteed to get at least 3 books as gifts during the year: at Christmas, birthdays, and in their Easter baskets. (This is where having Amazon Prime and/or a Barnes & Noble membership comes in handy; you’ll save money!) One Easter when my third child saw her basket, she cried, “Oh, cool! A book!” Not, “Oh, cool! Candy!” I cheered inside. They save their gift books and treasure them.
Read and listen to books as parents. The more kids see Mom and Dad reading, the better. Model it.
Have books with reach at home. Let it be known that books are to be loved and cherished; it’s okay if a book gets a little beat up!
Talk about books: what you like; what you don’t like. Ideas. Recommendations. Predictions. Why you liked one book over another. And so much more.
Read the same books independently and then talk about them. This allows for great conversation and connection.
Introduce them to ebooks. Early on, I let them borrow my Kindle. I made this into a very big deal, so they knew it’s a treat. Later, for Christmas one year, they all got inexpensive ereaders, and grandparents gave them gift cards to by ebooks. Older kids with smart phone can download ebook apps (Kindle, EPUB reader, Libby) and read right on their phones.
Every child is different, and every child will have his or her own challenges when it comes to reading. These are simply a few things that helped each of my four unique children with their individuals challenges as they embarked on a life of becoming readers.
- Find out what the underlying cause might be for why your child doesn’t like to read. It could be the difficulty level, subject matter, eyesight, a learning disability, or about a hundred other things. Diagnosing the problem is the first step to overcoming it.
- Search out the right book. Keep searching. Wash, rinse, repeat as needed.
- Expose children to reading in as many ways as you can.
- All reading counts: audio books, graphic novels (comic books), scientific magazine articles — anything.
- Don’t force classics on a child, or they’ll come to hate them — and by extension, they’ll come to hate reading itself. Worse, they may think they’re dumb because they just can’t sink their teeth into Charles Dickens.
- Look for free and inexpensive places to get books. Your local library is #1. You can also use your library card to digitally checkout ebooks through services and apps like Overdrive.
- Make reading FUN and something to look forward to.
- Make books and reading valuable, something kids can own.
Most of all, never, ever give up. Reading is a key skill required in the modern world to have any kind of success. Fiction reading in particular is connected with increased empathy and compassion.
A child doesn’t need to be a total bookworm to get into college or find a good job, but they should be a reader of some kind.
None of my children so far has chosen a reading- or writing-related field of study, but their reading skills and and enjoyment of reading have definitely helped them in school, in landing jobs, getting scholarships, and more.
I’ve worked hard to make books and reading a priority for over 23 years with four kids. Three of them are adults now, and as I look both back on that work and as I look forward into their futures, I know that the effort is definitely paying off.
It’s not easy. But trust me; it’s worth it.