I remember when my oldest daughter was an infant. Everything was fresh and new, and I was eager and excited. I wanted what was best for her. I wanted to give her the world.
And I would turn on the television or open a parent’s magazine, and I would be bombarded with advertisements about programs to teach infants to read. The claims were remarkable with tots who are barely old enough to speak able to read off of flashcards, and slightly older children reading books way above what one would expect.
And I admit. I was intrigued. We all know how important reading is, so why wouldn’t it be best to teach it from the earliest age? Like any completely rational parent, I believed my daughter was destined for intellectual greatness, so why not get her started off right?
Luckily, I had this other part of me. A nagging little voice inside my head telling me not to make the call, not to buy the program. Intellectually, it sounded great. But I just could not get myself to do it.
Years later, looking back on it, I am so grateful that I never made that call. And I now understand a bit more of what that nagging voice was trying to tell me.
I started teaching college English in August of 2001 as a graduate assistant. My classes were pretty standard college freshman courses, with a very small handful of English majors and bunch of other students who didn’t particularly want to be there but who didn’t hate it either. Most read about as much as you would expect someone that age to read, and they read what you probably would expect — magazines, websites, popular novels. In other words, not stuff that will stand the test of time, but stuff that interested them and entertained them.
Then, a few years into my teaching career, I started teaching developmental English courses. These are courses for students who weren’t quite ready for college level courses. It’s a population in our nation that is growing steadily.
Once I switched to these slightly lower level courses, I started to notice a trend. Not only did I not have English majors, but I no longer had students who loved to read … anything. I would ask them about magazines or newspapers or even websites, and the answers were always the same. Nope. Nada. Not interested.
It wasn’t hard to see the correlation between an affinity for reading and higher level reading and writing skills.
And I believe that experience fed that little voice inside my head that would not order those flash card programs. I didn’t want a little robot child who could read off of notecards. I wanted a child who was passionate about reading.
So instead of investing in flashcards, I invested in books. A lot of books. And we read nearly nonstop. We would do the standard before bed reads, but we would also read during bath time and before breakfast, at the table and at the mall. Some of my fondest memories of that first year are when I would lay her on the ground and I would lay down next to her, and I would hold up Dr Suess’s Oh the Places You’ll Go and I would read through the entire book and watch as her eyes took in all of the color and her ears took in all of the language.
And that little baby just started kindergarten this year. She is reading way above her grade level. And that makes me proud. But what I’m more proud of is the passion she has for reading. She is an incessant reader — reading near constantly. I never thought I would be one to say this, but I catch myself telling her to “get your nose out of that book” as I’m trying to get her ready for school or ready for bed.
Learning how to read is important. It’s the skill that forms the basis for all of the other academic skills a child needs to learn. Is it important how fast or how early a child learns to read? Not really. But is it important that they love to read? Absolutely. And luckily, it’s that latter part that we have the most control over.
Following are some ways that you can promote a love of reading in your children:
The research all points to the idea that a print-rich environment is a very important way to begin your tot on the road to a lifelong love of reading. We have books everywhere. At this point, every room in our house has a huge basket of books, our minivan is overflowing with books, and our living room and my daughters’ rooms have huge book cases. We love books. But the best thing is that you don’t really have to spend a dime to bring print into your home. A library card and a willingness to make that trip are about all you need. And don’t forget used book sales, garage sales, and library sales. For a couple of dollars, you can usually come home with an armload of books. Also, I know many people who swap books with groups of friends, so every couple of weeks everyone gets some new-to-them books to read.
This is for the slightly older crowd, but we like reading a chapter book and then watching the movie. It’s exciting for the kids to get to see their books come to life, and they slowly start to learn that different people can have different visions from the same book. Plus, a lot of those movies are quite entertaining.
Follow their interests. I admit. This is the hardest part for me. When it comes to children’s literature, I am a classics gal. Give me Brown Bear Brown Bear, Eric Carle, or Swimmy any day, and I would be a happy mama. My kids love those books. But lately, I find that my oldest’s interests are starting to branch out, and not always in directions I necessarily like. Her current obsession are Barbie books. This isn’t quite what I have in mind when I think of cuddling on the couch, but it’s what interests her, so I let her read as many as she wants as long as she’ll also read some books of my choosing. Just like we don’t always want to read high level books, neither do our kids. They need guilty pleasures as well. They need to learn that reading is for fun as well as learning.
Very few little children (and none of mine) want to sit there quietly for long periods of time listening to someone else reading a book. They have questions, and they have observations. While you are busy reading the story, they are taking in the detail on the page, and they like showing that off. Ask them about what they see. Ask them to point out familiar objects. Ask them to predict what will happen. Engage in dialogic reading. It will benefit you both.
My kids love story time, and we have made a habit of going to story times at as many different libraries as we can so we can get a feel for what we like best. Many libraries have free story times, and they are great ways to expose kids to books, expose them to other kids, and get used to enjoying literature in a different environment. The best ones also have music and crafts and possibly even a small snack.
I think this is one of the most important tips. Make reading time special time. Get some blankets and cuddle on the couch. Whisper in their ears. Tickle them. Laugh with them. Accidentally say the wrong words and see if they catch on. Act out the scenes. Make animal sounds. Dress like Fancy Nancy along with them. If we want to instill in our children a love of reading, first we must make reading something fun. We must teach them how to make the words come alive. Of course not every time is or should be a grand production, but the more happy memories they have of reading, the more they will want to read.
I think the most important thing to remember is that you really can’t read wrong with your child as long as you make it a relaxed and enjoyable experience. Through my children, my own love of the written word has grown tremendously. I can’t wait to see what adventures await us as we wade through years and years more of books.
About Amanda Knapp
Amanda Knapp is a stay at home mom to her three little girls. She writes about life and her thoughts on parenting on her blog, Indisposable Mama.