J-man is a reader. He came by it naturally, as I am absolutely obsessed with the written word. I absolutely know he would rather go to Barnes and Nobles to buy new books than go to Universal Studios to ride roller coasters. In fact, we did go to Universal, and he did want to go back to the hotel to play and read.
Over the years other moms have asked how we get him to read. It would seem that their kids don’t want to read, and there is my kid who checks out on a play date to go read his newest acquisition.
So, my definitive answer to getting your kids to read is simple. We follow two principles in this house. Every time we stray from these practices, we fail.
1. Support Interests
Two summers ago, J-man obsessively read with Captain Underpants. Everywhere we went he had a book with him. We would hear him giggling in the bathroom (which we call the library due to his propensity for staying in there for up to an hour reading) or in his room. He would talk to himself and comment on the action as he read. He was immersed in this world, and loved it. As he would finish one book, we would give the next volume in the adventure. During the summer before kindergarten he read all nine books.
Now, these books are controversial. The humor is scatological to say the least. I mean with titles like Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, you kind of know what to expect. Many moms and teachers take great offence to the content. The two main characters are notorious pranksters, possibly juvenile delinquents, who create a comic book. The comic book within the book garners even more criticism as it is riddled with misspelling and poor grammar. Here’s the thing. None of this worried me. What I saw was that my five-year old was motivated to try his first chapter books, and he learned to associate reading for longer periods of time with enjoyment and accomplishment. Before Captain Underpants there was the fascination with space and before that it was dinosaurs. His high level of interest pushed him to read books beyond what one would expect to believe was his reading level. Every time we have let his interests lead us, he begs to read. He takes the book everywhere. I have seen him read on the floor of stores while I am shopping, at the beach, the park, and restaurants.
It is when we try to push our interests that we fail. He has several books on physics for kids that are almost untouched. It’s not that he can’t read them, it’s just that his interests don’t lie in that direction yet. He also has an entire shelf of chapter books that he hasn’t really touched because they were books that we thought he should like.
His latest obsession is Minecraft. While many parents and educators get up in arms about the trend toward students becoming obsessed with video games, we, like the ninja parents that we are, have channeled his obsession to encourage more reading. Off to Barnes and Noble! We found several Minecraft Hacks books and a massive Minecraft tips and hints magazine. To say that J-man has read these, does not quite cover the level of laser like focus he has given to these guides. He reads, grabs a laptop or iPad, practices the tip described, and then refers back to the book for further instruction. I don’t know about you, but I see a world made up of people who struggle to apply technical text to real world situations, and here is this kid at seven with four books lying open around him referring to each as he tries to create online. Parenting win!
2. Don’t Make Reading a Chore
What I am about to say will fly in the face of what education experts will tell you. Study after study implores parents to read to their children 30 minutes a day. Teachers assign 20-30 minutes a day of reading. I was part of this culture when I was a reading teacher. I am here to say, this is not what I have done as a parent, and this can be counterproductive if you are trying to create good readers who love reading.
Confession: There were days when J-man was little when I did not read to him. Sometimes several in a row.
It’s true. I did not read to my own child even though I know what the research says. What the hubs and I did was different in its approach, but had a tremendous effect on how the boy saw reading time. If he brought a book to us, we would stop what we were doing–no matter what that was– and read. We would read until he was satisfied. This means that there were times when I read Ira Sleeps Over (a 48 pager) four or five times in a row. It was not unusual to read for an hour or so. There was the Llama Llama Holiday Drama marathon during a layover in Atlanta when we read THIS ONE BOOK for TWO HOURS. As painful as that was (and kids, you will get tired of reading the same book after the third or fourth consecutive reading), it taught him that his books were important. This was a major contributing factor in his learning to read so early on. He learned sounds, words, and even grammar. He asked what words meant, why the /ph/ sounded like the /f/ and what /!/ meant.
We have never required him to read a certain number of minutes per day. Even when his teachers, who were my very much-loved colleagues, assigned this. We didn’t do it. Some days he read for over an hour. Some days none at all, and that was fine with me. If he wanted to read the same passage over and over I was good with that. Just yesterday, at Taco Bell (of all places), he quoted Roald Dahl’s BFG, and asked me what I thought the word “bulging” indicated “in this case.” He could do this because he has probably read his favorite parts of that book 100 times.
As much as he likes to read, the surest way to get him to resent it is to make him stop something he loves to do to go read. If you treat reading like a chore, kids will like it about as much as they like cleaning their room. Don’t push. I know this sounds counter intuitive, and it may take a while for some kids to come around to wanting to read, but the more you push the harder the resistance.
And that is it. Follow their interests, but don’t push: my six word story about teaching good reading habits. When people ask me if I am concerned that he is spending hours on Minecraft, I tell the truth. I love me some Minecraft! BRING IT ON! I will find every article, guide-book, and magazine on the subject. I know there are five or so more Minecraft hint books at the store that I am holding out as rewards. I will exploit the heck out of it. In the mean time, my kid is getting some amazing comprehension practice while having fun, and that is what it’s all about.