Give Them Reading! Part 2

More on giving children the gift of reading

Posted Feb 29, 2016

In last month's blog post, we wrote about two ways you can give children the gift of reading this year: give them their own books and give them choices about what they read.  Here are two more simple, but powerful, ways to help the children in your life become readers: 

Give them time! 

People who read more tend to read better. In fact, no other factor--not quality of instruction or family background or even phonetic ability--is more strongly correlated to reading skill than the amount of time a person spends reading.  This relationship has been repeatedly demonstrated in both national and international studies, and it holds true at all ages, from kindergarten to college and beyond.

By Randen Pederson from Superior - Study of Study, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Randen Pederson from Superior - Study of Study, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet children today, perhaps more than any previous generation, seem to lack time to read. This occurs for a number of reasons.  A 2013 Harris Poll reported that teachers are assigning more homework than they were even just a few years ago, and the amount of homework assigned increases rapidly with students’ age, going from just over 30 minutes a night, on average, in elementary school, to over an hour in middle school, and potentially more than three hours a night in high school!  More students than ever participate in scheduled after-school activities.  Teens also have jobs, serve as sitters for siblings, or make dinner, clean house, cut lawns and so forth after school.  Television, social media and electronic gaming are all potent competitors for what little uncommitted time students have left—it’s no wonder kids say they just don’t have time to read. 

But surely all children have time to read in school?  Unfortunately, no.  As the pressure to teach to tests and standards has increased over the past 15 years, time for reading in school has all but vanished.  Well-known reading researcher Elfrieda Hiebert estimates that children spend 18 minutes or less a day actually reading connected text (as opposed to answering questions or filling out worksheets) in the typical elementary language arts period. This 18 minutes is rarely spent with the personally chosen, engaging texts that we know lead to more and better reading. As students move into middle and high school, where teachers usually have only 40-50 minute periods to “cover” their content and the predominant teaching style shifts more and more toward lecture and note-taking, time for just-plain-reading in school probably becomes even less. One reason for this lack of in-school reading time is that educators tend to assume that students aren’t learning much when they are reading independently, simply because no one is obviously “teaching” them.  Yet researchers have repeatedly found that time allotted for sustained, independent reading in school is strongly and directly related to gains in both student reading motivation and tested achievement. 

As a parent, you can carve out some reading time by trying to limit screen time for your children, including teens. But one of our favorite tips for parents involves a lot less struggle than that: simply set your children’s bedtime for 15-30 minutes earlier than absolutely necessary. When they complain and ask to stay up later, you can say, “Well, OK, I guess you can stay up and read a while, if you want to.” Your kids feel they have won a concession from you, and you have won some quality reading time for your kids! Just make sure to confiscate the cell phones.

To begin to reinstate time for reading at your school, consider showing your child’s teacher (or your principal, if you are a teacher) some of the evidence compiled by Stephen Krashen in his many articles or on his blog (both at http://www.sdkrashen.com/).  As a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, he has been studying this issue for a long time and has assembled lots of hard data from individual, national and international studies demonstrating the effectiveness of giving students time for free, voluntary reading in schools. 

Give them yourself!

By Pratham Books from India (Children Reading Pratham Books and Akshara), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Pratham Books from India (Children Reading Pratham Books and Akshara), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, the best way to help your children become

readers is to become a fellow reader; that is, to read with them and talk with them about books. Human beings are social creatures; we are highly motivated to do things that bring us closer to the people we care about.  There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that what scholars call parent-child shared book reading, the traditional bedtime story reading that parents have done for generations, is one of the most important ways we can put very young children on the path to becoming readers. 

What is less known, but equally true, is that interactions with parents continue to have a strong impact on children’s reading throughout childhood and adolescence.  Children whose parents continue to read to them, suggest good books for them to read, and give books for birthdays and holiday gifts show greater reading motivation and more frequent reading patterns than those whose parents do not.  Avid middle and high school readers report having parents who read for pleasure themselves and recommend books to their children.  Boys particularly value sharing multiple sorts of reading materials, including informational and Internet-based reading, with their fathers.     

Teachers also have an important role to play. Linda Gambrell, another well-known scholar of reading, explains that teachers can “become reading models when they share their own reading experiences with students and emphasize how reading enhances and enriches their lives,” and her assertion is borne out by research.  One 1998 study found that children as early as second grade knew whether their teachers enjoyed reading and could give concrete examples of how they knew.  Fourth graders interviewed in 2006 frequently named their teacher as the person who had introduced them to books they personally liked and also often identified a teacher as someone who had gotten them "excited about reading."  Teachers' reading aloud to students of all ages has been shown to impact not only reading motivation, but also comprehension and critical reading.

All this is just to say that reading is more fun, and more beneficial, when it is shared.  So spend time reading to and with your children or students.  Let them see you reading. Talk with them about what you are reading and let them tell you about what they are reading as well.  And enjoy it all with them; it is one of the best investments you can make in their future.    

We hope that, unlike so many New Year’s resolutions that fall by the wayside before the end of February, the resolution to give your children reading is one you can keep all through the coming year.