“Marsh-marshmallow. … Ear-ear-earwax … eww! Mom, it says ‘earwax’! Vom … oh, my gosh, vomit! … Mom! Mom! It says ‘vomit’!”
Something amazing was happening. In the back seat of our car, my then 6-year-old son, typically reluctant to read anything on his own, was reading aloud with no prompting. The subject of his intense decoding? Every last letter written on a small box of Harry Potter Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Jelly Beans.
After years of reading Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry and “The Snowy Day” and “Frog and Toad” together, I had hoped his first independent reading experience would be a little more classic. But his joy was palpable and his motivation unmatched. I’d take it.
Images of kids and reading are among the most iconic of childhood’s film reel, and from the birth of their child, parents are told how important strong reading skills are for life success. Beyond providing a path to academic achievement, reading is correlated with empathy, and even with longevity. And, of course, it opens the world to you. “That’s the thing about books,” author Jhumpa Lahiri once wrote: “They let you travel without moving your feet.”
Unfortunately, abundant research into reading hasn’t necessarily resulted in better outcomes for kids. The latest stats: According to the latest report card by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 40 percent of Washington state fourth-graders are proficient in reading; the national average is 35 percent.
Why? Some blame the fact that reading curricula — which have swung between the poles of whole-language learning and phonics — has often not matched what science tells us about how kids learn to read. For the record, study after study has demonstrated that while some kids might learn to read from exposure to books and language, most learn best with direct, multisensory instruction on the relationship between letters and sounds.
Okay, let’s back up. Though parents can and should be involved in our child’s learning, we can’t hope to turn around the Titanic of reading curricula, right? What’s our role?
Emily Hanford is a journalist who produced a 2018 American Public Media documentary on the gap between reading science and reading instruction. In a follow-up piece, she shared strategies for parents concerned about reading instruction in their kids’ schools. Among those strategies is starting a parent advocacy group.
But her piece also reminds parents that their most important role is to “make [reading] a pleasurable activity for children.”
Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, editors of The New York Times Book Review and authors of the recently published book “How to Raise a Reader,” agree.
“School is where children learn that they have to read,” they write. “Home is where kids learn to read because they want to.”
Luckily, there are so many ways to nurture a love of books, language and stories in children. In the process, you can strengthen family bonds and even practice some self-care. Because if you want to raise a reader, you’ve got to get in on the lit love, too.
Build a home library.
Dr. Seuss was onto something when he wrote, “Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” As documented in “How to Raise a Reader,” international studies have demonstrated that “the statistic most correlated to literacy, regardless of income level or education ... is the number of books present in the home.”
Start collecting books when your kids are young; involve them in the process, with an eye toward inclusivity and empathy. On a tight budget? Garage sales, Buy Nothing giveaways, used-book sales at schools and secondhand stores are great sources of books on the cheap. Take advantage of public libraries’ generous lending policies to maintain a robust rotating library at home.
Read aloud, early and often.
You know this, right? Research abundantly documents the benefits of reading aloud with children, even before birth. One study showed that when parents read to preschoolers, the language regions of their brains are more fully activated. A 2015 study demonstrated that reading picture books aloud, even more than talking, can vastly increase kids’ vocabulary and understanding of grammatical structure.
While bedtime is the classic read-aloud time, look for other pockets of time that work for your kid. Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist in the area of language learning (formerly with the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, she is now an assistant professor with the UW Department of Linguistics), found that when her oldest child was an energetic toddler, he wouldn’t sit down for books. “So, we had to watch him to see what were those moments of the day when he does calm down to read.” Books in the car helped, as did physically engaging books such as lift-the-flap picture books.
Read with, not to.
Just by engaging your kids in reading, you’re sparking pre-reading skills. “How to Raise a Reader” suggests always beginning with the title and the author and illustrator names so kids begin to understand the parts of and contributors to a book. Look at the cover art together and ask questions about it. Let kids touch and feel a book — as well as turn its pages.
With older toddlers and preschoolers, point out features of words and make your decoding — of those lines and squiggles that somehow form letters, sounds and words — visible. Take a leaf from story times, says Brooke Graham Doyle, an educator and project coordinator with WebJunction, a nonprofit that assists in the professional development of library staff, including training in story-time reading skills. “Try really simple things like running your fingers on the text so that kids can start to track the words,” she recommends. “Remind them that what you’re saying is the words on the page and that words are made up of letters, and the letters are made up of sounds.”
Singing, rhyming and wordplay increase kids’ awareness of how words are formed. “Our understanding that words can be taken apart can be built into many fun games,” says Ferjan Ramirez. “Break words into syllables. Try to say ‘pop’; swap the ‘p’ with an ‘h’ — what does that say?”
A is for awesome audiobooks.
When my son was 4 years old, we took a 10-hour road trip with no iPad on board. What saved us was a four-CD audiobook of “A Dog on His Own,” about a clever pooch trying to find his forever home. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my road-trip survival strategy was also helping him learn to read.
“[Audiobooks] introduce vocabulary that [children] might not be using and demonstrate fluency in reading,” says Seattle Public Library children’s librarian Beatriz Pascual Wallace (known as Ms. Bea at the library). Audiobooks can be especially wonderful for kids with reading delays because they expose kids to everything about reading without the work of decoding. But they’re also good for readers who race through books. “Listening forces kids to slow down and appreciate stories for their art,” says Pascual Wallace.
Have them read to you.
For beginning readers, reading aloud increases their fluency and gives you an opportunity to check that they’re not skipping words or guessing at pronunciation instead of sounding out individual words.
“Some kids who are having trouble decoding will insist that they read better when they read silently … but it’s imperative that they read aloud or they’re practicing bad habits,” says Jennifer Bloch Garcia, codeveloper of the Word-Wires curriculum and director of learning services for Seattle’s Bertschi School.
If your kid is reluctant to read, keep sessions short ― just a paragraph at the beginning of a new chapter, or five minutes a day. They can also practice with a low-stress audience, such as a younger sibling or even a four-legged friend through Reading With Rover or similar programs.
Talk about it.
Reading is one thing. Understanding is another. Help kids slow down and absorb meaning by weaving in prompts that help them reflect on what they’ve read. In his book “Born Reading,” Jason Boog sets out a series of best practices for interactive reading, such as asking questions about a book’s structure and characters: What does the title mean and why do you think the author chose it? What’s happening in that picture? Why did that character do that? And the jackpot question: What do you think will happen next?
Don’t force it.
What if you have a kid who actively resists talking about books? Bloch Garcia recommends asking genuine questions that come up for you when reading, as well as connecting the plot and characters to your family’s background and experiences.
She also cautions parents to know when to stop. “If you have a kid who is enjoying reading a book, tread carefully so you don’t change the positive feeling of the experience. Kids will be required to discuss and reflect a lot at school,” she says.
Let them choose.
Earlier this year, my son went through a phase when the only thing he read was the “Big Nate” series of graphic novels by Lincoln Peirce. After a few months, he had moved on to books with more (tolerable to me) characters and story lines (thank you, Rick Riordan and Christopher Paul Curtis).
Claire Scott, formerly a children’s librarian with the Seattle Public Library, now a librarian at Seattle’s Lincoln High School, believes letting kids choose what they read is key to encouraging lifelong reading. “There are a lot of ways in which kids don’t get a lot of choices in their everyday life,” she says. “Being able to come into the library and choose, ‘I’m going to read this or I’m going to read that,’ … Sometimes that book choice is the biggest part of finding that just-right book.”
Worried that they will choose something that’s too easy — or too adult? Keep lines of communication open, Scott says. “Rather than say, ‘No, you can’t read Harry Potter, book seven,’ say, ‘Well, what happens when you get to something in a book that makes you feel uncomfortable or that seems a little too scary? What are your choices?’”
You can also nudge them to expand their choices. Diana Cherry, a ParentMap staff editor, listens to what her four kids are talking about, checks out books on related subjects and leaves them out on the coffee table for easy perusal. “Right now, we have a book out about immigration, a Dorothea Lange censored-images book, a directory about chickens, a how-to on teaching your dog tricks, a book about fashion design and a huge book all about different kinds of exotic animals — all on coffee tables.”
Cherry logs her kids’ reading follow-up questions in a family journal. “I make sure to follow up by providing them with either reading materials or a conversation to answer those questions. That idea was inspired by a homeschooling book called ‘The Brave Learner,’” she notes.
“For a lot of kids who are reluctant readers, [graphic novels] are the one thing they want to read,” says Pascual Wallace. “Having the pictures there can help them understand what’s in the story, the expression on someone’s face. Putting those together introduces an extra level of literacy.”
For her reluctant reader, Seattle parent Danielle Ellingston found the graphic-novel versions of the first two books in Tui T. Sutherland’s “Wings of Fire” series. By book three (which is not available in graphic form), her child was hooked. “Sure enough, just a few weeks later, she is now plowing through all the ‘Wings of Fire’ chapter books.”
Join the club.
It’s now a family tradition: When her older son and daughter hit the double digits in age, Brooke Graham Doyle started a book club with them and several friends “as a way for us to connect over books.”
In the case of her daughter, the books have often focused on a strong female protagonist. With her son, the club has provided a way to stay connected to books and their emotional content. “It’s easier for boys to drift away from reading,” she says. “I thought maybe the book club could be a vehicle for [keeping him going].”
The secrets to their success? Discussions aren’t too long and “we always have food.”
Hit the books yourself.
When was the last time you plopped down in front of the kids and read? “The kids need to see you reading,” says Graham Doyle. “Have reading be part of your life, and your conversations.”
If time feels too pressed, get creative. In our house, we’ve designated Tuesday-night dinner as “reading night” — we each crack open a book and dig in.
“Is it reading night?” my son will ask hopefully, the latest Percy Jackson book tucked under his arm.
Confession: Sometimes I pretend like it’s Tuesday even when it’s Wednesday, and we all feel like we’re getting away with something. But really, we’re just living out the greatest thing about reading: that it is its own reward.