“I just can’t get her to read!”
I often hear protests like this from parents when I suggest that their child read more for fun. Because it’s an important lifelong habit that I want my students to cultivate and because I know reading more will have a huge impact on their success in school, I encourage parents to become proactive whenever their children don’t read outside what’s required for class.
Once a child hits the middle or upper elementary school years and is still not reading for pleasure, it’s tempting for a parent to throw up their hands and decide that reading just isn’t their child’s ‘thing.’ Or, understanding how important it is for their child’s academic growth, a parent may take the opposite tack and get into a power struggle, treating reading as if it’s some kind of medicine that has to be swallowed and endured: “I said, go to your room and read!”
Neither approach is helpful.
My belief about most children who don’t like to read is that they simply haven’t found their books yet. The good news is there are things we can do as parents to help them find those books and experience the worlds that will open up to them.
Now that summer has arrived, it’s the perfect time to help your child find their way to books they will enjoy and build an important lifelong habit. Here are some tips:
Limit the use of screens. This tip is first because it’s crucial. Not putting a phone or iPad into the hands of your elementary age school child is the best strategy, but if that ship has already sailed you must sets limits. Ready access to screens for a child is like allowing them to indulge in a steady diet of fast food. The easy access and temporary satisfaction that comes from sugar and fat will diminish the appetite for healthier choices and greater variety; in the same way, the addictive instant gratification of screens will kill the motivation to read. Reading requires deeper sustained concentration than anything your child can do on a screen. It’s work that the brain is wired to do, yet must be trained to do.
Do a quick check about your own attitude toward and practice of reading. The truth is children watch and emulate us. Creating a culture of reading in your home will have a huge impact on your child. Has it been a long time since you’ve read a magazine or a newspaper? What about that novel you’ve heard about and been meaning to get to? It’s important for your child to see you read.
Read aloud to your child. Parents sometimes believe this practice is no longer important once a child can read on their own. Not true! Reading aloud to your child is one of the most powerful ways to help them discover and experience the joys of reading. First, you can choose books together that you both enjoy, books your child might not be able to read on their own yet, and second, the time that the two of you spend connecting over a story or novel is golden. The preadolescent still craves the kind of closeness that comes with cuddling up together at the end of a day. Reading together regularly provides a double bonus: Not only will you nurture your child’s appreciation for literature, you’ll nurture your relationship. You’ll be glad you put time and energy into this before adolescence hits.
Visit your public library regularly. Establishing a routine of stopping in every two to three weeks is important. Your library provides the opportunity for you both to browse to your heart’s content. Consult with the children’s librarian there. Discuss your child’s interests with them so they can help direct you to books your child might enjoy. Pointing kids and their parents in the direction of great books is what they love doing. Don’t be shy about asking for help. During summer months, libraries often offer programs to support kids and their reading. Take advantage of them.
If you’re fortunate to have a local bookstore, visit the children’s section. Children’s book authors often provide readings and programs for free. If your finances permit, allow your child to choose a book to own occasionally. Help them build their personal library.
Talk to the parents of kids who love to read—or the kids, themselves—for recommendations. These are the kids who have found their way to books and series that appeal to your child’s age group. They’re an excellent resource. Librarians aren’t the only people who love to talk about great books. Kids who love to read do, too!
Make sure books are readily available in your home. (See above.)
Start a parent/child book club. Sharing and discussing books with friends multiplies the pleasure. Gather together a couple of your child’s friends and their parents to select a book and then meet to discuss. An adult can lead to begin with, but eventually let the kids take over in planning and running the meeting. Don’t forget the treats. (As a teacher, I’d love to have my incoming students do this with their parents and would be thrilled if they chose to read and discuss books from our summer reading list.)
Extend summer bedtime a little for fun reading. A dad I know wanted his fifth grader to read more, so he bought his son a headlamp and told him he could use it to stay up a bit later and read. This little trick, along with a great series (Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians), ignited a passion for reading that continued long beyond the series’ end. If the novelty of a headlamp isn’t quite the inducement your child needs, try to think of something else that might make the pleasure of staying up later with a book special. A reading fort made of blankets and a flashlight, perhaps?
If regular reading at home isn’t a practice that’s been part of your lives, take heart. It’s not too late to make a change. It may not happen overnight, but if you are persistent in pursuing the joy of sharing books and building new habits, you can trust that the impact on your child will reach far into the future.