UPDATE: This post is almost seven years old! But it still holds true. Literacy--and its partner, numeracy--is as important as ever, and these tips are still useful. Both girls still love to read. In fact, when I need to discipline them, I take away reading privileges. Any tips for raising a reader? Put them in the comments!
My friend Janet asked me for tips on how to raise a reader. It made me pause for a bit, since I have always loved reading and can’t imagine otherwise. My mom says that I learned to read at age 3, and to her consternation, I’d rather read than do anything else, like join silly games at kiddie parties (unlike me, my life-of-the-party mom would have joined all the games, if they’d let her). Most of the time, I’d rather buy books and magazines, rather than clothes or shoes.
This passion for reading has always been one of the things I want to pass on to my children. I feel good that Raine seems to share my love for it. When we go out and I let her choose two things that she’d like to bring, she almost always brings at least one book. I’d like to think it’s genetic. After all, how can she not love to read when her mommy has the primal urge to read all the time (which is why I sometimes end up not accomplishing anything—like when I’m researching, I end up reading associated studies, drifting farther and farther from my own topic; or when I’m fixing up, I end up reading the labels, the instruction manuals, the books that I’m supposed to be putting away…).
Reading aloud to your kid is probably the single most important factor in getting them to love reading and books. And it shouldn’t stop when they learn how to read on their own (Sonlight, the literature-based homeschool curriculum company whose products that I drool over, highlights this in their programs). Reading for me is a private thing, so initially this reading aloud wasn’t something I was comfortable doing, but you get used to it. I still don’t do well with changing voices and doing dialogue; and sometimes I feel (and most likely sound) a bit monotonous. But as my cousin Gabe (DJ Gabriel at Jam88.3) says, just keep practicing, and listen to voices that you want to mimic. So I figure when Raine and Breeze are ready to listen to The Chronicles of Narnia, I’ll be ready to breathe life into it.
Experts say that at the early stages, it doesn’t matter what you’re reading—it’s your voice and the cuddling that your baby loves. So go ahead and read whatever is easiest for you. I found that the best starter read-alouds for me were by Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton—short, snappy text and not much tongue calisthenics. Plus the stories were usually upbeat, so not much emoting needed there. And most importantly, I enjoy them (word to the wise: choose books, music and videos that you can see yourself reading, listening to or watching 962,654,128,987 times—because you will). I also tried reading Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever but I always end up crying. So those two are back on the shelf until I get more self control.
Let them have books!
The next thing to get kids into books is to actually let them experience books and other reading materials. At about two months, babies can appreciate sharply contrasting black, white and red images in the books. At age 6 months and onward, they can even start holding books by themselves (soft cloth books with different textures or rubber books would be good, especially when they’re teething). Of course, if your kids are anything like Raine—who literally digests the stories, along with the pages—you’ll usually end up with soggy, manhandled books. I like to think of it as her nibbling on knowledge, and then I don’t feel too bad about the ‘well-loved’ state of her books. Chunky board books (make sure they’re non-toxic) are the sturdiest at this stage.
Much as I understood the oral stage of Raine—she does quality control of everything with her mouth, just like a shark—I also wanted her to learn how to respect books and other reading materials. So with her on my lap or beside me, we’d read through regular-paper-paged books, and when she gets overly enthusiastic, I’d remind her to be gentle, or I’d give her something else to hold and chew on, while I continued reading aloud. I also let her have old issues of my magazines, stuff that I wouldn’t mind getting torn or wet or somehow abused, so she’d learn to turn the pages properly (make sure you watch your kid though—I knew Raine had too much of Good Housekeeping when I saw a page corner magically turn up in her poop). National Geographic was a great choice—the awesome pictures enthralled us both. It also allowed me to tell her about stuff we normally wouldn’t talk about—endangered species, global warming and a whole variety of animals (naturally, I don’t bog her down with all the nitty-gritty, but I do use the real names of things, such as ‘Spotted Sandpiper’ rather than ‘bird’).
When Raine could move around on her own, we started keeping her collection of books on low shelves for her easy access. When we went to bookstores, I let her handle the books, with stricter-than-in-the-house supervision. On certain occasions, I also let her choose a book to buy. One of my great Booksale finds was an issue of Highlights High Five Magazine, created specifically for 2 to 6 year olds. Raine really enjoyed that. It allowed us to read and do activities together (plus she got to write in it—something that is a big no-no with other books and magazines). I wish I could find more of it. Locally, the Playhouse Disney magazine by Summit is okay, though I do have issues with the branding (more on that in my review). So when I get my monthly stash of magazines, Raine gets hers.
Get caught in the act
It would be tough for kids to pick up a habit if they don’t see you and the rest of the household doing it—and this applies to reading. If children see you reading and actually enjoying it, they’re more likely to get into the habit of reading for pleasure as well.
We have books, magazines and all sorts of reading material scattered all over the house (yes, yes, I know I should keep them more neatly), and Raine is free to pick up and leaf through any she likes. She also catches me and Daddy reading all the time. In fact, before the start of our TV War, we spent evenings reading (makes me want to cancel our cable subscription). Now I catch Raine reading to herself, or sometimes even ‘reading’ aloud (at this point, it’s just her own retelling of the story), and it makes me glad.
I guess reading for pleasure is really a lifestyle. My aunt, who has run a preschool (that now goes up all the way to high school) for the past 25 years, and is a Davis Dyslexia Licensed Facilitator, says that it’s important that children learn to associate reading with enjoyment; the other ‘learning-related’ purposes of reading can come later. In fact, when you read to your child, it shouldn’t be solely because you want to teach them to read; what’s more important is the enthusiasm when reading.
So pick up a book, flip the pages and start reading. Enjoy!