Boulder psychologist and mother of three Suzita Cochran shares seven tips she’s learned through experience about helping even reluctant kids become better readers.
I knew having three kids would make me a more humble parent, I just didn’t realize how much more humble!
When it comes to reading, each of our kids has taken a different path. We have one who was a natural reader. He would have loved reading no matter what we did as parents. If we’d only had him, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Instead I’d be thinking, “What’s the big deal with teaching kids to love reading? It just happens.”
Our two other kids have required a more active parental campaign in order to learn to love reading. Much trial and error and, hence, lots of learning on our parental parts.
What I’ve learned:
1. I can’t read aloud to a child at bedtime. I become too mind-numbingly tired and exhaust all my energy fighting sleep. It’s just not worth it. For the first four or five years of parenthood, I felt exceedingly guilty when I heard other parents talk about bedtime reading with their kids. Thankfully, I’ve moved past this. Now I read to my kids after school, on weekends, holidays or sick days.
2. Reading aloud creates a shared memory. Especially when I do the hard work of finding a book we’ll both enjoy, reading aloud has become one of my favorite parenting activities. I’ve noticed that we talk about certain books we’ve read together again and again, the way we might fondly recall an enjoyable vacation experience.
3. Let the child do what he needs to in order to focus on the story. With my son Daniel, the cozy image of me reading with him snuggled beside me was the first thing I had to let go of. He’s a ball of energy, and with him reading aloud works best after a strong dose of exercise. Then, before we begin reading, Daniel chooses something to keep his hands occupied – a floor puzzle, Rubik’s cube, cards – some quiet activity which doesn’t require too much concentration. Even though this may seem like a song and dance to do merely to read a book together, it’s exceedingly superior to my wiggly, unfocused alternative.
I recently read an article with the subheading, “Fidgeting may enable children with ADHD to stay alert.” It stated that all the children in this particular study fidgeted when remembering and manipulating computer-generated letters, numbers and shapes. However, the children with ADHD wiggled even more. As far as I can tell Daniel does not have ADHD, but it was so pleasant to see that I don’t have the only super-squirmy boy.
4. Use characters from your kids’ books to help you better understand your kids. This is an old child psychotherapy trick. You may have noticed that past a certain age, kids dislike talking about themselves. Yet they’re usually willing to tell you something about their friends. So ask them “what Amelia would do in this situation” or “what Ben’s opinion of something is” and you are likely to hear indirectly about your child’s views.
Back to books … This strategy can also be used with characters in books. While reading aloud or talking about your child’s current book, ask for details about her favorite characters. What does she like about these characters? What does she think a character would do or feel in various circumstances? You get the idea.
5. Don’t purchase video games until a solid love of reading has been established. This rule was enacted mostly for our dear Daniel, who would likely trade his left leg for the chance to play 2-3 hours of video games. I haven’t actually seen this happen (the game-playing marathon) but Todd and I know it’s true. Parental intuition. It’s been hard to hold the line on video games, but not having them in the house has definitely allowed Daniel to focus more on reading. I’m not exactly sure how to define “a love of reading has been established” but I’ll know it when I see it. We are slowly getting closer.
A study at Carnegie Mellon found that even average 8- to 12-year-old readers had stronger white matter connections in the brain area called the anterior left centrum semiovale than poor readers. However, when poor readers in the study were given six months of intensive instruction, their white matter connections improved significantly.
6. Do what you need to in order to hook a child into a book. Unlike our son who loves reading anything and everything, our second two children often have a tough time getting into a book. If I am quite sure the book is a good fit for the child, I often read the first chapter aloud to them. Then they read the rest of the book on their own. Or if the book is slightly above their ability level, I’ll sometimes buy an audio version for them to listen to first. Then later, they read the book unaccompanied.
I also periodically encourage confidence boosters. When Daniel is struggling through a challenging book, I’ll have him put it aside and instead open an old favorite. It was at one of these moments that I realized the Geronimo Stilton character would be part of my life for so much longer than I ever wished or hoped for!
7. Reading really does improve writing. Okay, I have heard teachers say this before but I never completely understood it until recently. While reading one of Stephen’s school essays this year, I finally saw how reading enhances writing. He wrote about coring trees at science club and his essay included the sentence, “The tree was in a group of similar Cottonwoods, most of which were now succumbing to the forces of Fall.” I mean, we just don’t speak this way in our home. Alas, would that we did. And I know they don’t talk that way at school!
Stephen must have picked up this language from a book. Although he’s only in 6th grade and his writing is still evolving, I love that he has a huge store of ideas and techniques from his reading to inspire his writing. Between this and improving my brain’s white matter connections, it’s enough to encourage me to read more!
I’d love to hear other people’s tips for creating readers!
And here are two books I recommend that my kids loved:
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Third through seventh grade girls would love this one. This is a story about a girl from a wealthy Mexican family. When she is 13, her father is killed and her life changes drastically. Now poor, her small family immigrates to California and they become migrant workers. This book is fiction, though based on the life of the author’s grandmother. I read this aloud to my kids and we all loved it, though some parts were pretty sad.
The Circuit, by Francisco Jimenez. Try this one especially with third though seventh grade boys. This is an autobiography by a man who is now a college professor in California. His family immigrated to America from Mexico when he was a young child. They too were migrant workers in California, following a circuit of fruit and vegetable picking from year to year.
I recently read this aloud to Daniel, though Stephen and Annie also listened at times. Daniel really connected with the main character and it helped him to understand the importance of family over possessions. The story only follows the main character to age 15, so Daniel and I looked the author up on YouTube because Daniel wanted to know how things turned out for him in the end.