Years ago, I discovered that if I add the word, “party” to an otherwise mundane word, my kids’ eyes light up.
In an effort to get them reading more — and to be reading together more — I invented “reading parties.” We held them about once a month during the school year, but when Christmas break loomed large or (especially!) summer vacation got boring, I pulled out the big guns: we held an impromptu reading party.
They had no idea how good these “parties” were for them, and even better, even when they hit junior high, they didn’t tire of reading parties. I held them regularly until the oldest three were in high school, and even then, the youngest sometimes asked for a one-on-one reading party, just the two of us.
Here’s What a Reading Party Looked Like:
First, I made the party announcement. Cheers abounded.
Next, we climbed into the car. Everyone brought along any library books that needed to be returned, and we headed to our public library. The kids wandered the shelves, looking for books, but often they sought out specific titles based on friend or teacher (or mother) suggestions. Half an hour later (or so), we were back in the car.
Then came the party part. We headed to the grocery store, where each child got to pick a treat to share with everyone: M&M’s or Skittles or maybe gummy worms — nothing expensive.
Back at home, we popped popcorn, dumped the treats into a bowl (note from painful experience: don’t combine M&M’s with Skittles — trying to tell them apart is murder), and we spread out a blanket on the floor. Everyone sat in circle with a stack of books and munched on treats while I read aloud a chapter from our current bedtime book.
After that chapter, I took turns reading something from everyone else’s individual piles: a Berenstein Bears picture book (or two) for my kindergartner, a story from my son’s Choose Your Own Adventure book, and so on. When my throat got raw and everyone started getting restless, we settled in for silent reading time.
The parties lasted an hour or two, depending on our mood.
I suppose I could have done something similar without the treats, but I think the goodies helped. They were the Pavlovian part of the event, making the entire experience positive and fun, so my kids equated reading with reward and a great time, a feeling that carried over to when they were reading alone in their rooms or at school.
It’s probably also significant that I read something from each person’s stack. Of course my teenage son didn’t care care about the Berenstein Bears or another sister’s Barbie book. His little sisters pretty much had no interest his obsessions with Star Wars. But that’s okay. Everyone got a turn, and everyone’s taste was valued.
With our bedtime books in particular, we discussed what we read together:
- What did you like . . . and why?
- What didn’t you like . . . and why?
- What do you think will happen next?
- Why did this character do that?
- What would you do in the same situation?
- How do you think the writer could have made that part better?
I learned that the WHY is just as important as the original question. That follow-up question helped them become critical readers.
Thanks to our reading parties and nighttime reading habit, I discovered unforeseen effect.
Yes, my kids came to love books, and I’m thrilled about that. The three currently in college did great in high school, two graduating with honors and one in the top five of her (very large) class. Fantastic. They all got high ACT scores (and all tied with their scores, a fact that drives them all a bit crazy), and we have several scholarships to boot.
What I didn’t expect is for them to become such discerning readers, or for them to be able to use that skill to become great writers in their own right.
It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to pipe up with, “That scene was too telly,” or, “The author needed to cut that scene down; it slowed the pace too much,” or, “That was awesome. I could totally see that fight scene.”
(Yes, they totally use writers terms; they grew up hearing them!)
Those skills translated to an ability to write excellent papers in high school and college, from rhetorical essays to research papers. Before college, those skills helped them ace the essay portions of AP tests, and more.
I doubt any of my children will follow my footsteps by getting an English degree or becoming a writer. So far my offspring have chosen computer science, math, and advertising as majors; we’ll see what the youngest picks. Medicine? Art? I have no idea.
Whatever they pick is fine because they already have the literacy skills they need to thrive in modern society. Unlike previous generations who could make a living at a blue-collar job without knowing how to read or write well, today’s generation faces a completely different workplace, one that requires virtually everyone to have some level of literacy. Whether an employee needs to be able to read and understanding a manual, email a manager, text a team lead, or putting together a proposal or brief, chances are that they’ll need literacy skills.
In the 21st century, knowing how to interpret the written word and how to write the written word are vital skills for everyone.
In large part, my sneaky reading parties helped encourage my children to love reading and to seek it out on their own, which is exactly what I hoped they would do.
Parents rarely get to see the results of their efforts, but in this case, I’ve happily witnessed the benefits of bedtime read-alouds and our reading parties continue rolling in.
Pass the peanut M&M’s.