Reading with Kids

September 25, 2009 at 9:30 am | Posted in Reading with Kids | 5 Comments

This week a coworker asked me for advice on how to get his third grader to read.  We talked about it for a while, and I realized this might be my calling in life.  I’ll share with you what I know.

We have half custody of my step-daughter, and so on alternate weeks we have Family Reading Hour.  This was meant to be a single chapter a night, but that didn’t work, and somehow we’ve crept up to two solid hours.  It would probably be more, but we’re forced to choose books we can finish in 6-7 nights, so we pace ourselves.  I first met our little bunny when she was nearly 11, so I missed the early years, but I feel like I know how to shape a reader.

First, be a reader.  Both my parents and all my grandparents read for pleasure, so I just took it for granted that this was a desirable activity.  We were surrounded by books – Grandma carries them in her purse, which is cavernous – and someone was always saying, “Just a minute, let me get to a good stopping point.”  My coworker admitted that he “tries to do his reading during lunch,” meaning his kid doesn’t see him indulge.

Second, treat it as a privilege.  Nobody ever had to plead with me to get my daily assignment in.  I used to sneak into the bathroom after bedtime with a book hidden under my pajama top so I could turn on a reading light without arousing suspicion.  (That didn’t last long).  My coworker says his son “has to do” 20 minutes a night.  You have to treat it like a reward, not a chore.  Incidentally, this trick also works to get kids to eat new foods – my parents would always say, “It’s for grown-ups; you wouldn’t like it,” and we all favor exotic ethnic foods to this day.

Third, build your schedule around reading time.  Take it from me – if you want to read 500 books in one year like I’m trying to do, it doesn’t happen by accident.  In practice, this means making it awkward or impossible to watch TV or play video games.  We have a TV, but no cable, so as far as I know we don’t even get reception on basic channels.  (Nobody has tried in the five months we’ve been a family).  On occasion someone will watch a DVD, but the single chair in the room with the TV is not very comfortable.  We no longer allow the GameBoy in the house.  If your kid isn’t reading, look around for things with plugs and batteries that are most likely too distracting – and get. Rid. Of. Them.  On the other hand, if your kid is actually outside getting exercise and interacting with other kids, you may just have a natural athlete, so don’t discourage that.

Fourth, let your kid decide what to read.  As I advised my coworker, if the kid wants to read a tractor manual or the phone book, let him!  Manga and other comics are fine, too.  The single important factor for young kids is that they learn to enjoy sitting and focusing on the page.  Boys may find non-fiction more interesting, so I listed off topics I thought an 8-year-old boy might like: pirates, sharks, ninjas, monkeys, space travel, NASCAR, construction equipment, dinosaurs…  Just set the kid loose in the library and see what he brings back.  Here’s the other thing.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be a book.  My friend said he reads the news online in the evenings.  Why not have the kid read that for his 20 minutes?  If he’s browsing for stories about glow-in-the-dark puppies or cybernetic limbs, you’ll probably have trouble getting him to go to bed, much less stop when his 20 minutes are up. 

The dark side of this coin is that sometimes your kid will stumble across something you’d rather he didn’t.  It’s always something.  I discovered Stephen King when I was 8, and there was no turning back – I’m still a horror fan.  My family’s preference seems to be sci-fi, though I’d prefer non-fiction or “improving classics of children’s literature” for our reading time.  There’s some stuff out there that would certainly seem to be inappropriate, and you have to walk a careful line when you decide to censor something.  I’m in favor of it, though, if it’s not draconian, because there’s no spice like the excitement of sneaking off to read a forbidden book.  If that won’t make a reader of your kid, nothing will.

My parents grew a young reader in all the right ways.  My mom would drop everything to read to me whenever my toddler self asked.  She took me to the library until I reached school age, when I could go myself.  Both my parents read as if their lives depended on it.  I had free run of our few bookshelves, and everyone in the family knew to send books for gifts.  Most of all, we always played with language, punning and inventing word games.  If you heard a word you didn’t know, nobody would define it for you – you had to pull out the big dictionary, look it up, and read the definition to everyone.  We spent plenty of time rotting our brains in front of the cable box and the Nintendo, but it was in the context of a vocabulary-rich environment.

When you read aloud with your kid, take turns.  It’s much more natural that way.  You’ll stumble and stutter sometimes, and that helps take the pressure off.  Stop and discuss whenever anyone starts wiggling.  Sweetie Junior will practically hop out of her seat sometimes when the suspense is building.  She has to chime in with her speculations about where the plot is going.  The other reason we stop, though, is for unfamiliar words.  I have to watch her because she won’t say anything when she doesn’t know a word.  Sometimes we only get through ten pages an hour, but hey.  It’s the journey, not the destination, right?

Happy reading!

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