Book Smart

The successful, motivated reader.

How Do We Help Children Identify as Readers?

Think of reading as a social, rather than solitary, activity.

When I was a child, reading was my favorite pasttime. My parents, who are early risers, often reminisce about coming down the stairs of our house before the sun was up, tiptoeing because they thought no one else was awake, and finding me sitting on the floor of my room, reading stories to my stuffed animals. Each day, I read before school and in the evening. When a book was particularly gripping, I could be found reading in the hallways of my school, in the car while being coerced into doing errands, and under my covers with a flashlight. Clearly, I read for my own satisfaction.

But I also loved when adults knew that I was a reader. I thought about that desire for recognition when I wrote my post for National Reading Day last week (http://blog.oup.com/2014/01/national-reading-day/). In it, Anne Cunningham and I talk about how helping your child become an engaged reader is the best gift you can give him or her, and the many cognitive, social, academic, and occupational benefits engaged reading brings about. And what I think is a surprise to many people is that, although reading is often seen as a solitary activity, helping children become readers is all about being social.

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Children first learn to read on their parents’ laps, and parents serve as their guides to the world of books. Even as a child gets older, the thinking he or she does about a story – whether that story is delivered orally or read from a book – begins as a collaboration. In conversation about events, adults define unfamiliar words, ask questions about the situations that arise, and muse about why characters behaved in particular ways. For many years of a child’s development, reading is highly interactive. (For more on this topic, take a peek at http://youtu.be/ZWd0xO66hAg)

But reading can remain a social activity long after. We choose to join book clubs because our enjoyment of a book is deepened when we can share our reaction with someone else – talking about a book with a friend helps us see the book in a new light, and sometimes our friend in a new light as well. Our relationship with the book grows from hearing this new perspective, and our relationship with our friend can be enriched by better understanding how she thinks about the world.

Even when our interactions with others are more superficial, sharing the fact that we are reading can be a powerful motivator to continue reading. As I wrote about National Reading Day, which is celebrated in schools across the nation, I thought back to my own elementary school’s “Million Minutes of Reading” program. For one month of the year, every student would log his or her daily reading minutes, and the class would tally up its total. We’d record the number of minutes each class read on the long corkboard outside of the principal’s office, and the school would work together to achieve the goal of a million minutes of reading that month. I still remember how excited I was to share my weekly total with the class every week.

I look a lot of pride in being reader. And cultivating this feeling in children can be so powerful because it provides the motivation to keep reading, even when a word or book is challenging. We can’t expect children to immediately appreciate the solitary aspects of reading, so ensuring that they have opportunities to engage in the shared aspects – both through interactions with their parents and their broader community – is so important. Even though National Reading Day was last week, I hope the spirit of the day continues on and inspires new readers to get hooked.

Jamie Zibulsky, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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