Keli Dean didn’t read much as a kid.
This all changed when she was on bed rest with her first child. Her husband got her hooked on Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. She’s been a reader ever since.
Now a mother of five children ranging in age from 10 to 20, Dean has tried to instill a love of reading in her kids from a young age.
When her children were little, they took monthly family trips to Barnes & Noble and allowed everyone to pick out a book.
“We wanted them to have lots of books around,” Dean said. “We wanted them to be available.”
Such early exposure is key in raising lifelong readers, but it is only the first step in establishing readers who come to books again and again.
March is National Reading Month, and Monday, March 2, was the National Education Association's Read Across America event. But in order for parents to raise leisure readers, those who read beyond the hours required by school, three things need to be in place, said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.”
One, there has to be fluency. The mechanics of solid reading have to be in place. Second, a reader needs to have broad background knowledge in order to make inferences. And third, there has to be motivation.
“If you’re talking about leisure reading, it is not enough for kids to like reading,” Willingham said. “They have to like reading more than what else is available.”
The early years
Parents can read to their children while they’re in the womb, just to get the cadence and sound of reading, said Heidi Hammond, an assistant professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Young children may enjoy nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss books for that reason. The familiarity with language provides a broad base for emerging readers honing in on that fluency component.
Another key element during the young years is establishing a culture of inquisitiveness. Teaching kids to wonder and ask questions will open them to exploration of the natural world, the technological world and the literary world, according to Willingham. It allows for the inference that strong readers need to have in order to make text-to-self connections.
The proficient readers
While parents may be vigilant readers of the bedtime story with toddlers, this usually stops once children begin to read independently. Parents might be all too eager to tuck “Goodnight Moon” in the back of the closet, hand their kids a stack of Harry Potter books and go off to do their own reading.
However, Hammond said parents can and should continue to read aloud long after their kids feel comfortable with the written word.
“We read words that we don’t use when we are speaking," Hammond said. "Our largest vocabulary is our hearing vocabulary. That’s why reading aloud is so good at enriching their horizons."
Out-loud reading might also expose children to books they might not pick up on their own.
Audiobooks are another form of reading that both parents and children can enjoy together. Although specific reading skills may not be developed by listening, audiobooks can foster a love of story or information, and an appreciation for language.
A recent New York Times Magazine story about “Unbroken” author Laura Hillenbrand highlighted how, because of a chronic illness, the only type of reading she can do is through audiobooks.
“It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language. Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm,” Hillenbrand said in the interview. “You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
Dean’s family enjoys listening to books on tape in the evening while everyone is hanging around the living room. They recently finished listening to a book by comedian Jim Gaffigan. Other families subscribe to services like Audible or tap into online sites like Storynory in order to access books on long car trips, or while driving around town.
“It used to be that families sat around the radio listening to stories at night,” Hammond said. “It could be now that you listen to an audiobook together. I think that’s just as legitimate as reading.”
This openness to various mediums of the printed word is something parents can keep in mind as they foster an interest in reading. Graphic novels, which have exploded in popularity during the last several years, are a way to encourage literature for more reluctant readers.
Hammond said graphic novels are in some ways a more sophisticated way of deciphering story because they are told through both text and pictures, much like picture books for young readers.
Above all, parents need to let their kids make their own literary choices. A child might want to read exclusively about dinosaurs for an entire year. Another child might get bored with a book and leave off finishing it. (Adults are never told they have to finish a book, Hammond points out.) And if kids want to read below grade level, riffling through easy-for-them books, allow that as well.
While children are deciphering their tastes, it’s important to give them lots of options and withhold criticism.
Dean acknowledges that her five children have varying levels of interest when it comes to books. Two of her children are voracious readers of fantasy, while another son comes home from the library armed with informational books. Once in a while, she’ll feed him a book suggestion (he devoured “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card), but other than that, she allows him the freedom to explore his own interests.
“If all he’s doing is reading to learn, that’s not a bad thing,” she said.
The teen years
Most children are enthusiastic to start reading, according to Willingham. Emerging readers will gallop through a stack of books and treat a library visit like a trip to the ice cream shop.
However, that love of reading begins to wane as kids enter the teen years. For one, older kids are busy with activities, friends and the allure of electronic devices. Willingham said recent figures estimate that the average teen reads books for a paltry six minutes per day.
Willingham insists that teens still have the time to read, and that technology can’t always be the crutch upon which parents and educators lean for excuses.
“People blame technology now, but kids weren’t reading 10 years ago either,” he said. “As a kid in the ’70s, it’s not like I couldn’t find ways to kill time. I don’t think tech is to blame. If you want your child to read, you need to think about it.”
It’s a theme Willingham stresses over and over. Thinking about it might mean helping teens understand what reading looks like. Gone are the days when reading meant sitting on a beanbag in the corner of the bedroom. Reading can happen anytime and anywhere. Teens can listen to audiobooks in the car, or access their phone’s e-reader while waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant.
Since teens are hugely influenced by their peers, getting them involved in online reader forums or fan fiction can be another way for them to access books, Willingham suggests.
Lastly, parents need to establish themselves as role models.
“As a parent, you’ve got to be a good reading model,” Willingham said. “If you tell (your kids) to read and you’re fiddling with Instagram on the iPad, the role model you’re providing is clearly not helping.”
If parents want their kids to read, they need to approach the written word and the love of leisure reading as a family value. It falls under the broader umbrella of knowledge-seeking.
Even then, like in Dean’s house, children may approach books with varying levels of interest.
“Some kids are just destined to be readers,” Willingham said. “There are parents who create environments where kids grow up loving to read.”
That innate desire, with a little elbow grease from parents, might be enough to launch the next generation of lifelong readers.