Create a Culture of Reading at Home

Do you have independent readers? Do you ever wonder how best to support their growing relationship with reading?

My friend Laura Simeon, a school librarian who has helped foster a love of books in many children, including my own, joins me today to chat about ways parents can create a culture of reading at home.

CGL:What are some good ways to encourage reading?

LS: First of all, read Unlucky Arithmetic: Thirteen Ways to Raise a Nonreader!

Secondly, remember that children are clever enough to work out at quite a young age that adults never provide incentives for anything kids want to do – eat ice cream, stay up late, play with Legos. Worrying about what/where/when/how much a child reads, no matter how subtle you think you are being, broadcasts a clear message that reading isn’t something intrinsically enjoyable. The best way to encourage reading is to create a culture of reading at home.

CGL: So how do you create a culture of reading?

LS: Remember that children take to heart what you do more than what you say. Do they see you reading frequently and with pleasure? Do they hear you discussing with your friends books you are excited about? Do you incorporate reading-related activities into your family’s routine: attendance at author events, regular stops by the library just to browse and relax, time to read together as a family (you’re never too old to enjoy being read to)?

Turn common household situations into opportunities for reading, such as researching and planting a garden together, planning a family trip, reading about the best care for a family pet, consulting cookbooks for new meal ideas… If all these activities are a natural and unremarkable part of your family’s day, reading will seem as normal a part of life as eating and sleeping!

Also, keep in mind that not every child will become an avid reader, nor should they. While it’s crucial that children grow up to become competent readers, able to comprehend tax forms, news articles, contracts they are about to sign, job application forms, and the like, not everyone will become a passionate reader, just as not everyone is driven to pursue basketball, watercolor painting, hiking, trainspotting, chess, model airplane building or any other single human endeavor. If you are an avid bookworm, it may be painful to let go of the dream of children who love books as much as you do; but seeing and valuing our children for who they are rather than who we want them to be is one of the most difficult – and important – parts of being a parent.

Having said that, creating a culture of reading at home is somewhat like providing a range of healthy and delicious foods: we all have our different tastes and preferences, but our innate inclinations are shaped in the context of our upbringing. Too, reading is a relatively recent human invention. I highly recommend that parents and educators read Maryanne Wolf’s fantastic Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. It is an extremely accessible work that will give you a new respect for the amazingly complex feat of intellect involved in reading, as well as providing an important reminder that reading cannot be considered a “natural” human activity in the same way as walking or speaking. Throughout human history, a very large number of cultures have been non-literate. Until very recently – and even today in the many parts of the world – most human knowledge was transmitted orally, including vital botanical information, cultural histories and folklore.  There are many reasons to worry that children today are growing up without the vital, basic human skills that come from participating in sustained, complex, face-to-face, verbal interactions that are fostered in oral storytelling cultures. Despite this and the overall incredibly high literacy rates in most of the developed world, more energy seems to be focused on concerns about insufficient or inappropriate reading than on cultivating vital interpersonal communication skills that have a quite immediate impact on children’s social and academic growth.

CGL: Do you think it’s important for children to read outside their comfort zone? If so, what might a parent do to help encourage their children to stretch their wings?

LS: There is strong evidence that the best way to improve as a reader is to read material you choose yourself, material that you personally enjoy. Before trying to change how your children read, stop and consider how you personally define “reading.” Sometimes, parents don’t think reading “counts” unless it looks a certain way – most often reading long, non-illustrated works of fiction. Narrow definitions about the “right” ways to read discourage less enthusiastic readers, particularly boys, who frequently are drawn to read comics, joke and world record books, the sports page and instruction manuals.

Avid readers read widely! They try to read in bed after you turn the lights out, they try to read at the breakfast table and if you take the book away, they read the back of the cereal box. They grow up to be adults who can enjoy reading the latest celebrity gossip rag in the dentist’s waiting room as well as the most cerebral of classics.

With children who read very narrowly or very little, I would apply the same advice given for dealing with overweight in children: make over the whole family’s diet and exercise habits. Don’t single out the child of concern. Want to encourage broader reading? While remembering that not every child will thirst for books, try sharing and appreciating with an open mind some of the types of reading your child does enjoy. This will delight your child and show your respect for his preferences. Next, expose her to books outside her usual genre that you think she may enjoy by playing audiobooks while you’re driving in the car or relaxing at home together. Institute a nightly family read-aloud time, with each person taking turns to share material they enjoy. Perhaps you could start a parent/child book club with classmates or neighbors? You want to communicate that reading is an intrinsically joyful and meaningful pursuit, not a source of anxious scrutiny, which could quickly kill off any blossoming love for reading that may be growing in the heart of your reluctant reader.

Some great websites:

Award winning books from the American Library Association – http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/index.cfm

Books for Children and Young Adults from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center – http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/default.asp

Children’s Books from The Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/childrens-books-site

ReadKiddoRead – http://www.readkiddoread.com/

The Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights – http://libraryvoice.org/2008/06/05/the-reluctant-readers-bill-of-rights/

Your local library system’s website is also likely to be a wonderful source of reading lists for all ages in many subject areas!

Laura Simeon is a K-8 school librarian in the Seattle area. Check out her blog as well as her Goodreads profile, with nearly 1000 recommended books!

About Christine Gross-Loh