Raising Readers: How to Build a Bookworm
It was bedtime and a tentative quiet had settled on the house. My son was in the living room, headphones firmly in place, finishing some last-minute math homework to a tune I was certain I’d loathe. Naomi had scuttled off to her room and put her pajama-clad self behind the covers of a book, her reading light shining a soft beacon under the door into the hallway. I was tucking Maya in, searching for a book on her shelf that she’d been enjoying reading to me. For the hundredth time. I was stifling a yawn just thinking about it.
“Never mind, Daddy. Let’s skip it. I don’t want to read tonight.”
I straightened up, surprised and alarmed. I scanned her face for clues. She looked calm and unruffled as she crawled beneath the covers.
“Why don’t you want to read, Maya? Are you tired?” I extended a hand to feel her forehead. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”
She giggled a little and shrugged off my concern. “No. I’m just tired of reading. It’s no fun. I’m going to draw a little. Then I’ll go to sleep, okay?”
If I haven’t made it clear already, let me stop right here and say that I am an avid worshipper of books. As an author, I have to be. I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description. So, hearing one of my kids say reading is no fun made me hyperventilate with worry. My brain got busy immediately, reviewing everything I might have done to get my youngest daughter uninterested in the most marvelous invention of imagination the world had to offer. Before I got too far down the road to recrimination, however, Maya roused me.
“Can you keep the door open? Just a crack? The way I like it?”
“Uh … yep. Goodnight, sweetie.”
I tiptoed away from the door and sank into the nearest chair, perplexed. My kid, not interested in reading? Well, that was going to have to change.
Research suggests that children are reading far less as their lives become crowded with structured activities. In 2005, only 40 percent of kids were reading in their free time outside school. In 2011, the National Literacy Trust released a report that indicated that number had fallen to 30 percent.
As an adult, I relish the magic of a book. It enables me to immerse myself in other worlds, to experience places I’ll never travel to and people I’ll never know. It was a pivotal experience for me as a child, and the knowledge I gained from books was as valuable to my well-being as some of my personal relationships have been. But kids aren’t born readers, and their enthusiasm for the written word has everything to do with their access to books, the way they were raised, and their learning environment.
The 2011 report from the National Literacy Trust indicated the following:
- About 22 percent of kids hardly ever read during their own free time.
- 54 percent (yes, 54 percent!) are more interested in watching TV.
- About 17 percent of kids and young people would feel embarrassed if their friends saw them reading. What?! Yep. Embarrassed.
- In 2005, 77 percent of kids read magazines, but by 2011, that figure had dropped to a measly 57 percent.
- Website reading has taken over, with 64 percent of kids preferring to read websites compared with 50 percent in 2005.
Want some good news? Me too. The report also found that the percentage of kids who enjoy reading has remained rather stable, at 51 percent in 2005 versus 50 percent today. That means we haven’t lost our kids to the tantalizing glow of the screen and the ease of passive entertainment. Not yet.
Reading. It’s Fundamental (as RIF, Inc., has said).
Maybe you’re not convinced. So kids read a little less these days? Meh. Makes sense. With ballet and piano and soccer and piles and piles of homework, who has time to read? But as it turns out, research shows that reading is incredibly important.
Studies have clearly established a strong link between enthusiastic readers and academic achievement. Kids who read outside the classroom were thirteen times more likely to read well above their peer average. That’s significant. There’s also plenty of evidence that the more kids enjoy reading, the better their writing skills are. A study published in Social Forces in 2014 suggests that children’s performance on standardized tests was closely linked to the size of their home libraries. For each additional book in the home library, researchers found a corresponding and consistent rise in academic performance.
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” — Emilie Buchwald
The next evening, I came home prepared. As twilight deepened, I called Maya into the living room, and we snuggled under a blanket on the couch. Warm and content, we chatted about her day and my work. How she had just managed to cross all the monkey bars without falling. She showed me her calloused hands proudly.
“Maya, you remember when you were little and I used to read to you?”
She nodded solemnly.
“I loved doing that. We kind of stopped when you started working so hard to learn to read for yourself. Remember that book about the farmer you used to like? And all the animals?” I questioned her, watching recognition dawn on her face.
“Oh, yeah! I do remember that book, Daddy. I liked the part when the rooster crowed, because you made funny noises.”
I returned her smile. “What would you think if I started reading to you again? Not picture books but chapter books that you might like listening to but can’t really read just yet. They don’t have pictures but I could make them fun.” I waggled my eyebrows dramatically, enticing her with my goofiness.
Maya looked wary. “No pictures? That sounds … boring.”
“Well, there are one or two pictures. Just simple ones. But I think you’ll really like the story. It’s about a farmer.” I dangled the carrot in front of her and watched her rise to it.
“And animals?” She looked hopeful.
“Absolutely. Actually, the farmer is a little girl. Her name is Fern. I think you’ll like her. She’s very spunky. Just like someone else I know.” I tapped Maya’s nose playfully and reached for Charlotte’s Web, which was waiting on the table. “Should we give it a try?”
Maya nodded eagerly. I cracked the spine and cleared my throat.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “One of the pigs is a runt…”
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass
Over the next few days, Maya met me at the couch each evening, eager to discover what Wilbur and Charlotte were up to in the next chapter. By the end of the week, we’d finished the book and moved on to Stuart Little. I’d at least managed to rekindle her interest in literature. But I needed to get her hooked on reading again and convince her that books could be more than just the drudgery of struggling through page after page of words. After dinner one night, I approached Naomi.
“Naomi, I’m trying to get Maya into reading again. She’s bored with her books and she’s probably ready for some easy chapter books. Do you remember what you really liked that you think she’d be into?”
Naomi’s eyes lit up and she ran out of the room. I waited there, confused, until she returned from her room, arms overflowing with books.
“Give her these, Dad. She’ll love these,” she suggested confidently, thrusting the pile at me.
I looked at the familiar titles. “Hey, I thought we put these in storage years ago. I forgot about them.”
Naomi smiled. “I got them back out. I know I’m a little old for them, but I liked them so much that I wanted to see them again. They’re kind of like old friends, you know?”
I nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.”
When I presented Maya with an armload of book booty, she nearly whooped with excitement. “What are these, Dad?!”
“You sister loved them when she was your age, and I thought it was time we passed them along. They might be a bit difficult for you to read, but we’ll start together.” I picked up the first book, which sported a picture of a boy riding a pterodactyl as a girl gave chase, her face lifted to the sky in amazement. “If I remember right, these are pretty cool. There’s a treehouse and these two kids and they go on all sorts of adventures.”
We settled under the blanket and Maya cracked the spine and began.
“Help! A monster!” said Annie.
“Yeah, sure,” said Jack. “A real monster in Frog Creek, Penn … Pencil … Penny…”
Maya blew out her breath in frustration.
“That’s a hard one. Want some help?” I asked tentatively, peering over her shoulder.
She nodded, chewing on her lip nervously.
“Pennsylvania. It’s a place.”
“Run, Jack!” said Annie. She ran up the road.
How to Build a Bookworm in Ten Easy Steps
- Do It Together
There is nothing that your child wants more than your attention. Set aside some time for just the two of you to get cozy with a book. It doesn’t have to be bedtime; any time will do. Make it a daily ritual and part of their routine, as essential as brushing teeth or eating lunch.
Even babies can see pictures, hear your voice, and turn cardboard pages. A little chewing on the pages of cardboard books won’t hurt either. Older kids will enjoy more complex stories, but it’s enough for babies to just hear the rhythm of your voice. Surround your children with books in the same way that you surround them with toys.
- Get Involved
You’ve had a rough day. The last thing you want to do is read Goodnight Moon for the tenth time. Take a deep breath and try to stick with it. You want your kids to see reading as something engaging and fun, not as something worth only cursory attention. As you read, ask questions. Let them engage with the story and make connections to the world beyond the pages. Turn a bedtime favorite into a game; use goofy faces and voices to bring the characters to life. Whatever works to keep your kids interested and involved.
- Build a Library
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you need an extension on your home. Just set up a shelf or two of great books that your baby, toddler, or young child might be interested in. You can buy cheap books secondhand at thrift stores, at garage sales, or even online. Need new material? You can head to the library for a bigger selection and some recommendations. Find titles that align with your little readers’ interests to keep them coming back for more.
- Keep Reading
Even after your kids get to the point that they can read independently, don’t abandon reading with them aloud. You can still use that time as a way to challenge them with new, more complex stories, plots, and ideas. They should experience reading not just as something they do for themselves but as an experience they can share with others.
- Find a Hook and Reel Them In
If you can find a series of books with a theme that your child is already interested in, you’ve struck gold. Point your children toward a particular genre you think they might love such as fantasy, science fiction, comics, or pet care. If you can find engaging subject matter, kids are more likely to stick with reading even when it gets challenging.
- Be Prepared. Kids Change.
For six months, they’ve read nothing but Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew. And now they’ve lost interest. Figure out what they loved about the last obsession. Was it the strong female heroine that intrigued them or a good, nail-biting mystery? If you can figure out what they enjoyed most about the books, you can find something new that shares the same elements and will spark their interest.
- Fall in Love with an Author
Test out a few authors. Different authors have different styles or voices that may or may not resonate with your young readers. Get recommendations from other parents or siblings about what they enjoyed. Then hit the library. Grab eight or ten books. Don’t be shy; that’s what the library is for. And don’t compel your kids to finish them all. It’s okay to put one author aside who just isn’t holding their interest and move on to another author who will.
- Find the Humor
Some parents may be concerned that such books are not as worthwhile as other books, but that’s nonsense. Comics and graphic novels can be humorous and draw kids in while at the same time exploring complex ideas and challenging vocabulary. If other genres have failed with your reader, try to tickle their funny bone.
- They’re eXcellent.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids’ reading in digital format. Whether it’s a Kindle, a tablet or an iPad, if this is the way they like to read, embrace it. There were some recent studies done that more than half of US kids are reading digital books at least once a week. Boys are generally more reluctant readers, and studies have found eBooks are far more engaging. Just make sure that your children know the proper distance to keep the screen from their faces to ensure they won’t damage their vision. The rule is arm’s length. Reading on electronic devices held too close to the face has been proven to induce myopia (nearsightedness).
- It’s All in the Family
Remember that actions speak louder than words. If you show an interest in books then so will your kids. It doesn’t matter what titles you bury your head in, as long as you make it part of your daily experience together. Create a wonderful family ritual of lazy Saturday mornings spent in the company of a warm blanket, a cup of tea, and a good book. You’ll be instilling a lifelong love of reading that’ll inspire your kids and create bookworms for life.