I got involved in an internet conversation the other day about the use of competition in summer reading programs and it got me thinking about the right and wrong ways to encourage kids to read. Then, yesterday, I happened across a speech Neil Gaiman gave for The Reading Agency on the same subject. Those two things together inspired me to note my own ideas. This is quite a long post, but I hope a few people find it helpful.
My qualifications in this field: I homeschooled my own child through primary education, taught her to read in two languages and encouraged her as a reader.
First, about Neil Gaiman’s speech
Neil has two main ideas about how to encourage children to read:
- Kids should be allowed to read whatever they like. Adults can turn them off reading by imposing high-brow literature on them ~ Very true. Also, adults can really, seriously turn kids off reading by pouring scorn and contempt on their preferred choices. You pretended to be into Sesame Street when they were three years old, didn’t you? Make an effort for Manga!
However, as an educator as well as a parent, I sometimes (often) felt the need to introduce books my daughter might not have chosen herself. Later on, I talk about how I managed that and why it isn’t easy.
- Libraries are important ~ I couldn’t agree more. A proper reading habit is potentially expensive enough to exclude children from lower income families.. We need ways of getting books to children for free.
The thing I liked best about Neil’s speech was the drug metaphor he used. We’re talking here about getting our kids hooked on something like smoking – they may not like it at first, but eventually they won’t be able to stop! Prepare to be evil….
Create a habit….
- The old ways work just fine ~ Read to them at bed time from birth onwards, until they can’t even think of getting to sleep without a story. Let the stage where they read those stories to themselves creep up gradually ~ Don’t be too quick to dump the read-aloud stage.
Create other times in which reading is the normal and expected activity, perhaps the car, or on Saturday afternoons after lunch – whatever works for your family.
- Help them to the ‘reading drug’ supply ~ one way or another, we have to keep up a steady supply of books, through libraries, purchases, friends, free classics… and teach our children to use those sources independently.
- Overcome resistance and bring them to the point where they can’t stop!!! Authors know how to create page-turners for us. The key is to get started. The secret to overcoming book resistance is to read the book aloud to your child up to the point where they absolutely HAVE to know what happens next, then think of something else you needed to be doing. Cruel, maybe, but it works every time!!!
… at the expense of other habits.
- Because it requires peace and quiet for relatively large amounts of time reading is in competition with other activities. School, I’m afraid, is not conducive to reading, because it’s noisy, busy, filled with people to talk to and very time-consuming. Some children’s spare time is so filled with social, sporting and other activities that it’s pointless to expect them to do much reading. It’s a choice.
- Because reading requires a certain amount of autonomous mental effort, it’s in competition with activities which provide stimulation gratis – The solution is to prevent TV, computer games, etc from becoming habits in our lives. In our house, we never had regular times or days for watching TV or playing computer games but we did have them for reading – and a number of other things I thought more valuable than screen-time.
Make it look cool!
Reading is just like smoking… people start doing it because their peer group does it, the people they look up to do it, and they know they look so flash with that book under their arm!
Encourage children to exchange books, talk to them about their books, talk to them about your books, let them hear you talking to other people about books, talk about kids’ books in mixed groups of adults and children, read together, read books about books, talk about what the characters did and the places you want to see because you read about them, talk about authors and what they do, how they changed your life or your mind, talk to authors, let kids talk to authors, write stuff and read it to them, listen to the stuff they’ve written… basically, just go right ahead and brainwash them.
Above all, just because reading is something we typically do on our own, don’t let them think reading isolates them, or that they’re isolated in their reading.
Remove any negative stimuli
I am sad and astonished at this long list of realistically likely negative stimuli. When I finished writing it, I no longer wondered why some children don’t care to read. Think on these things…
- Don’t humiliate them by telling them they’re reading garbage. Don’t worry, they’ll eventually figure it out on their own and you can listen to them pour scorn on what they liked ‘when they were little’.
- Don’t humiliate them (really) by putting them into competitive situations they can’t do well in: e.g. competitions for who can read the mostest/hardest books over the summer. Or situations where it’s readily apparent that they don’t read as well as some of their peers, such as being forced to read aloud to a group. Remember, our status is an important matter to all of us. Competition drives children… – away from activities they know they can’t do well at, while gratifying a few at the others’ expense. If your child falls into the non-gratified group, remove them from competitive situations without a second thought.
- Don’t insist on high-brow, demanding or ‘improving’ reads – Similarly, don’t insist on fiction if they like reading encyclopedias or vice versa. (But see further on for some ideas on challenging reading.)
- Don’t insist on non-regressive reading at all times – Kids are as entitled to their nostalgia trips as adults are, so if they want to read Seuss when they’re twelve, let them and be sympathetic.
- Don’t insist they finish every book they start - If they hate it, let them walk away and find one they do like as quickly as possible.
- Make sure there is no work attached to finishing a book intended for recreational reading - I mean things like recording obligations or the need to write a book report. School work forms an exception and stickers and ‘rewards’ may be okay for some children.
- Protect them a bit but not too much – I’m the last person to believe in censoring young people’s reading, but especially when they’re quite young or not hooked on reading, keep an eye out for books which may disturb or upset them greatly.
I know nobody has time to read everything their kid is going to read, so accept that at some point, whatever our beliefs, our children are going to happen upon something they and we find upsetting and/or offensive. A willingness to ‘pick up the pieces’ and an expectation of having to do so are better than attempts at outright censorship which won’t work anyway.
- Avoid ‘choice’ overload – especially with younger children. One of my friends had the very sensible idea of keeping only a few of her children’s books out at a time and rotating them. I’ve seen my own child go into a choice overload meltdown at the library. Sometimes it can be better to just bring four random books home FOR THEM and let them choose one.
- Manage the learning-to-read phase – even if your kids are at school, you probably need to put in some work as assistant educator during this time – actually the school will probably tell you this and try to guide you according to their methods. Children at this stage need short, daily, practice sessions of reading aloud to an adult who is giving them, and only them complete attention. Some children need this more and for longer. Admit that it’s a bit tedious and hard work if it obviously is.
- Don’t take reading difficulties lying down – it’s true that children develop at different rates and we shouldn’t push them, but sometimes they also have problems with their eyesight, tracking, or various kinds of dyslexia. If an otherwise bright child seems slow, I would say do a little research and try to get them checked out. Don’t wait for the school to tell you there’s a problem if you already think there is. Also, consider the possibility that the school has a teaching method for reading which is not suiting your child (if you don’t know already, learning-to-read methods are super-controversial).
- If a child has a reading difficulty such as dyslexia don’t let them be confined to written literature which is developmentally too simple and immature for them. For these children, all reading falls under the head of ‘work’. So let them have the audiobooks and films, read aloud to them assiduously. Make sure they’re not cut off from all the good things reading brings us and know what they’ll be getting when their work eventually reaps rewards.
Introducing heavier literature and/or books you think your child OUGHT to read
Despite the suggestion that we should let children read whatever they like, there is no point pretending this situation won’t arise, especially since the schools quite reasonably leave us the responsibility of introducing our children to our religious/spiritual/political/ethnic and regional cultures and beliefs all by ourselves.
For me as a homeschooler it was a relatively easy task. We just kept an absolute distinction between the varied, challenging, educational ‘school’ reading chosen by me, and the vast spaces of near total freedom of choice outside of that…
Now my child is in secondary school, I realize how difficult it can be to introduce ideas or literature I think are important and know won’t be covered there. The problem is that our school-children also quite justifiably recognize the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘play’. At some point, the most studious of them feels they’ve done enough and should be allowed to kick their feet up and relax with something undemanding. I no longer have any jurisdiction over their legitimate ‘work’ hours, so what can I do?
The first answer has got to be ‘as little as possible’ but I know there are a few books I can’t let my child pass over. I really think the best bet lies in retaining that read-aloud habit for a very, very long time. Even as the home educator of a good reader, I sometimes used read-aloud to introduce books my child might have found exhausting or demanding and I can anticipate doing it again but more rarely.
Very Deep Conclusion…
We are social, status-conscious, aspiring, gratification-seeking and (ahem!) sometimes rather lazy beings! The secret to encouraging children to read (or anyone to do anything) is to remember this and work with it!