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Raising Kids Who Want to Read—Even During School Vacations

A cycle of success and pleasure that can transform reluctant to eager readers.

What to Do While Awaiting the Next Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series was a boon to motivating a generation of young readers, but there may not be another series of books with the magnetic power of wizards for some time. Here is a cycle of success and pleasure that can transform your children from reluctant to eager readers. Even without a new irresistible series, these tips can propel your children into the joys of the reading books that already fill library and bookstore shelves.

Captivate Kids With the Reading-Pleasure-Skill Cycle

Using your child’s interests, strengths, and talents you can connect him to reading he enjoys, as he simultaneously builds his reading skills. His increased reading skill will result in more satisfying reading experiences. As the cycle continues, he’ll even improve his reading comprehension and memory of what he is required to read for school. Be cautious to avoid starting the process of boosting his love of reading with the designated goal of improving his reading abilities. That improvement will be a significant side benefit, but should not the primary goal.

Also, avoid any temptation to take credit for his success when his increased reading does result in significant improvement in reading comprehension. The improvement will be a result of his increased reading so he should have the benefit of taking ownership of how his reading habits made the difference in his reading capabilities.

The process starts with increasing your conscious awareness of the experiences and activities that motivate your child’s interest and enjoyment. That will be your take off point to draw her into wanting to read. The accompanying family reading nights, use of the daily newspaper, recorded books, and reading celebrations will then become the tools that influence your child’s positive connections to reading.

Follow Their Leads

You know your children’s interests better than anyone else, and these will become the motivating forces that inspire their reading. Children are attracted to books, magazines, and other print material that connect to their enjoyable experiences, such as super heroes, wild mustangs, science fiction, the ocean, space exploration, insects, people from other lands and times, and their favorite computer games or game heroes.

As your child reads more books in focus areas of high interest, the increased depth of the specialized knowledge he acquires can help him stand out to his teachers and/or his peers (depending on the topics). Expertise in most any area is respected and can increase his self-concept and confidence in taking on other challenges.

Low pressure is key. Provide casual opportunities for your children to come in contact with reading material about their interests. Keep a variety and rotation of books and magazines around the house related to their interests and others to see which ones they might pick up on the way to acquiring new interests. Powerful images, illustrations, and photos about high-interest topics, in magazines such as National Geographic, encourage most folks in at least glancing through the text. Curiosity is strong in children and when not snuffed out by forced assignments with little choice about how they’ll learn about the things that capture their imagination, these magazines will lure them into connecting with the text.

If you read something you select because you know it is of high interest to your child, and your enjoyment is authentic, let her hear you laugh or make comments aloud, “to yourself” spontaneously as you read. Your saying, “Wow, I never knew that” can start a conversation in which your child asks what you read. Don’t insist on telling her if she doesn’t ask. She’s more likely to inquire about your enthusiasm because you don’t say, “Here you’ve got to listen to this.” If she doesn’t inquire, try leaving the magazine open the story when you leave the room for what she knows will be more than a moment. That is when she is likely to follow her curiosity to pick it up and see for herself what was so interesting to you.

Visit libraries, used and new bookstores, or book sales web sites with your child to help reveal her interests and promote new ones. What captures her attention asshe browses the library or bookstore shelves? If she enjoyed books about certain topics orby specific authors in the past, ask the librarian for additional suggestions. If she has afavorite book or author, go to an online bookseller that makes suggestions based on one’spast purchases or designated preferences, and look for suggested books that are similar to her favorites.

Follow your child’s leads with shared reading. Using a book they choose, perhaps one above their independent reading level, take turns reading together. Have you child read one sentence, paragraph, or page and you read the next. If he does not like having your jump in with help when he is stuck on an unfamiliar word, you can institute the option of his scanning his designated reading section before reading. He can point to words he on which he wants your help. Alternatively, he might prefer to switch with you and have you read the part with the challenge and he’ll read the next section. Any plan is fine as you keep in mind that the goal here is for him to enjoy the reading experiences with you and not participate in a corrective reading lesson.

Letting your children’s reading errors go unchecked during the reading may be difficult for you, but the reward will be a children who like to read. If you are still bothered by a few errors they made in their oral reading reading (don’t write these down while they read-they will be on to you) such that you remember the error after you’ve finished reading together you can work on it a little later.

Wait until you and your child are doing something else or until designated homework or study time. Then, you can slip in a reading tip and give cues to guide her in the concept she missed. An example of the correcting the type of error, instead of drawing attention to the specific error, would be an intervention if she confused the reading of the word “through” with the word, “thorough”—a VERY common error even in mature readers.

You could play a version of “Pictionary” and draw a sketch of someone throwing a ball and ask what the person in the sketch is doing. Your child says “throwing” a ball. Great. Now ask her to pick which of the words you write sounds like “throw”: “thorough” or “through”? After she selects the correct one—which she will since she gets two chances, ask her how she can remember which of these two very similar looking words is which. She’ll enjoy the challenge and chance to be creative—especially if you do this on a little chalkboard where you drew the sketch in a game like fashion.

Inspire, Don't Push

Inspire, Don't Push

Do not force your child to finish every book he starts or quiz him on the contents his recreational reading. Similarly, do not make a big deal about his choice to sit and read a book for pleasure and if he soon rejects the book as not one he wants to stay with. You want to avoid making him feel reluctant to pick up books in the future when he is not positive he will like them. You don’t finish all books you start that don’t meet your needs and neither should your child. It helps if you encourage him to select several about a topic from the library so if one flops, there are alternatives.

When he speaks positively about a book, respond to the topic of conversation, rather than focus of the fact that he is actually reading. Ask him if he’d like to read a favorite paragraph or chapter to you because you are interested in the topic. Remember to be an active listener—no multitasking.

You are a Role Model; Even if Children Don’t Always Follow Your Examples

You are a role model for your children. When they see you reading books, not just for specific reasons but also for enjoyment, their regard for books can change. It is just as important for them to see you being challenged when reading, such as by more technical books. This increases their comfort about difficulties they have reading complex books.

Talk about your own reading challenges with your child. If the computer software book you are reading is dense with facts and you need to take frequent breaks or stop and take notes, let your child know how you are feeling and what you are doing. Say, “This is hard reading. That’s why I keep getting up and moving to another chair or adjusting the lights. I need to give my brain a break, so I can get through it and learn what I need to know.” Or, “There is so much to know about real estate law, and it is not all interesting. Sometimes I read the same sentence two or three times, and I even have to write things down so I can understand and remember what I read. But I really want to pass the test and get my real estate broker’s license, so I’m trying to stick with it and keep thinking about the day when I reach my goal.”

If you had trouble developing an interest in reading or had a harder time than your classmates when learning to read, that is also good information to share with your child. He may see you reading books with tiny print and with many pages (and no pictures) and think you were just “a born reader” or much smarter than he is. If there was a special interest that connected you with certain books, such as books you didn’t like at first but grew to enjoy, share those memories with your child. He wants to be like you. Knowing about your frustrations or embarrassments helps him remain optimistic when he is struggling in the same ways.

Desire to Read Often Starts Outside the Book

Tap into the brain-friendly benefits of reading to your child. Choose books that he finds highly interesting or that coincide with special seasonal events (holidays, popular movies, special family events, the start of soccer or little league season, etc.). If books that you read aloud have some challenging vocabulary above your child’s independent reading level, it’s okay because you’ll be doing the reading and can explain the words’ meanings formally or with paraphrasing as they come up.

A regularly planned Family Reading Time shows your child that all family members value reading. Schedule special times when family members read books of their choice to emphasize the pleasure of reading. The plans can have each family member take turns opening up the evening by selecting favorite passages from a book to share or by describing its plot, characters, or favorite illustration. Because all family members are reading that evening, there will be no television or video-game playing by siblings that might distract any reluctant readers.

Sometimes everyone can read the same short story, individually or with shared reading, and then join in book club-style discussions. Take the lead by suggesting discussion topics when you first start these activities. After a few, older siblings, and ultimately your younger child, can enjoy taking turns as discussion leader.

When your child reads aloud in these comfortable surroundings, he builds the fluency skill of reading with expressiveness. You can extend Family Reading Time or Parent Read-Aloud to further increase fluency skills by encouraging participants to perform short scenes from their books, either spontaneously or after writing a short script. Your young child may feel more comfortable if you costar in her skit. Adding costumes, a variety of hats, or props kept in a family book night trunk can make the activity even more fun. You could even videotape the performances, which increases engagement for many children. Another option is to get several copies of a play about one of your child’s favorite stories or movies and have each family member read the role of their choice as a family performance night.

The daily newspaper can also stimulate reading in several enjoyable ways. Younger children may prefer the comics, while older children may enjoy the sports pages. Once your child has the newspaper open, it is likely that other articles may catch his attention, especially if there are photographs. Your child can “read” the paper with you by looking at photographs that interest him, predicting what the article might be about, and listening attentively to you as you read the article (paraphrasing as needed for younger children) because he wants to know if his predictions were correct. When an article is about a local or national news event, invite your child to discuss his impressions or reactions to the article. He might even be motivated to write (or dictate for you to write for him) a letter to the editor or to the governmental group, committee, or person with whom he wants to share his opinions or suggestions.

If the Book Fits

For some kids, the “choose your own adventure” books are great for book buy-in. Frequently, the reader gets to make a choice for the character and is instructed to turn to a particular page number based on her choice and the story progresses from there.

The length of some books, especially required for school literature reading, can intimidate or discourage children who don’t have the confidence to even start such a book. Abridged version of common books (even comic book versions) can provided a starting point that your children will feel is an achievable challenge. Once they read that and get the gist of the plot and characters, they will be move comfortable and confidant moving to the complete book. Another approach is to read an early chapter or two to your child and go on to the next chapter as shared reading to promote buy-in and build her background understanding of the plot on which to connect the subsequent reading. She can return to abridged book to check on her understanding of the movement of the plot, settings, or the reference list of characters.

Another option if your child finds the smaller print of school-assigned literature books intimidating, see if you can find a large-print version that has fewer words per line and more frequent page turns. You can certainly provide this option with a Kindle or iPAD version if available.

Celebrate Progress, Not Just Products

Some children are motivated by seeing visible results of their increased reading, such as number of pages read each day and then adding up weekly or even monthly sums to very satisfying large numbers of pages.

Progress does not always have to be documented with numbers. If you go back to a book your daughter had difficulty reading a few months earlier that she now can read aloud and with expression, you can both share the pleasure of her accomplishment. Some children are comfortable with their parents actually tape-recording their first reading so they canhear it again after they have mastered the oral reading of the book.

Let your child collaborate with you on appropriate celebrations for achieving significant reading goals, such as choosing a restaurant for a celebratory dinner or allowing him to choose the next family game on game night or the next video the family will watch together. Successful completion of a book can be celebrated with a tea party where you provide refreshments for the stuffed animals your daughter assembles as her audience as she reads the last pages aloud. Your son may chose to celebrate by reading a part of a book to the family before his favorite dessert is served in his honor at dinner.

As your children’s learning partner, you’ll be their guide to the wonderful worlds they can reach through books traveling over the rainbow and deep into the center of the earth. Your guidance will light the way and the books they enjoy when young will ignite their joy as lifelong readers.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
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