Congratulations! Your child can read. He has mastered the first stage of reading: decoding and recoding. Now that he can sound words out, he has even started reading chapter books on his own. Supporting your child in this next big step is a little bit like un-babyproofing the house. Once the baby gate is stowed away, your children may start devouring books and getting into all sorts of things. How do you train your children to love the right kinds of books? How do you encourage your reluctant reader to pick up a book once in a while?
Reading is like Eating
Thinking of reading like eating. Learning how to read is like teaching a child to cut up his food into smaller bites, chew it thoroughly, and swallow without choking. You would not give your first grade student Augustine’s Confessions and expect her to read it. That would be like handing her an entire pizza and asking her to eat it in one bite. No, as parents, you’re sitting next to your child and teaching her how to break each word down into smaller pieces to be able to sound it out. In this early stage of reading, children should always read out loud whether it be to a parent, to their siblings, or to themselves. (Read more about reading together with your early reader here.) Beginning readers have a hard time sounding out words in their heads, just like a toddler needs to grow in chewing. Leaving a kindergartner or first grader alone with a book will most likely result in her just looking at the pictures.
Next, your child will start growing in his knowledge of words. He’s going to start picking up books and decoding and recoding on his own. Billboards, cereal boxes, dictionaries, and novels all offer the same appeal to a new reader; they are all puzzles to be solved. This is when parents begin to teach children discernment about what kinds of books to “eat.” It probably would not be best to leave our voracious eaters alone with a bag of candy; they would just eat it all. Likewise, independent reading should not be the majority of your child’s reading in this stage. Continue to read to and with your child in addition to your child reading on her own before bedtime. We wouldn’t let a six-year-old determine his own diet just as we wouldn’t let him decide for himself all the books he reads.
Choosing books is like choosing a healthy diet. Sure, ice cream is great, but ice cream for all three meals, seven days a week will not supply your body’s nutrient needs. Fluffier books (Calvin and Hobbes and Magic Tree House, for example) are great to enjoy in moderation, like all desserts. Poison, however, (think Judy Blume or Captain Underpants) is not okay for your child even in moderation. And readers also need a healthy dose of challenging, meatier books – ones that are just slightly above their paygrade. A varied diet is a healthy diet.
Allow your child to develop preferences, but if your child has been reading the 100 Cupboards series on repeat for the past few months, encourage him to try something new. If your daughter likes only Little House on the Prairie, treat it the same way you’d treat a child who only wants to eat blueberries – it’s good and healthy, so you needn’t deprive them of it, but you can also keep exposing her to a wider palate. If you have a picky reader right now, know that it’s better for your child to read the same good book multiple times rather than a new set of bad books. Reading should be just for pleasure sometimes, so if your son enjoys reading a book that is below his reading level, no problem. Light, easy reading is perfectly fine in moderation.
Overly Ambitious Readers
Check in on your kids while they are reading to see if what they are taking in is too meaty. If a book is too hard for your child, she may become discouraged and want to give up. Nothing can kill the ambition of a blossoming reader faster than getting into a book that is too hard and struggling through it. That’s how they develop bad habits like skipping sections and being satisfied with low comprehension. They miss out on the pleasure of really understanding the story. If the book is too hard, turn it into a read-aloud and start conversations with them about what you are reading to them.
What if my child doesn’t like to read? If you have a reluctant reader who would not choose to read in her free time, try giving her this choice at bedtime and rest time: “Would you like to go directly to sleep, or would you like to read?” Don’t give other options. Kids probably would rather choose reading than going straight to bed. Now, this reading could mean them taking a book to bed or you sitting with them and reading it to them. Sometimes a reluctant reader can be coaxed into trying a new food if you feed it to him first. Maybe push his bedtime a half hour earlier so that he has time to read. If that’s too much of a time commitment, start with just two or three nights each week.
Modeling Good Readership
What does it look like to read to my child? While you are reading out loud, engage with the story yourself! Laugh at the funny moments. Have compassion for the characters during a sad scene. Demonstrate to your children why reading is so enjoyable. Stop reading periodically to ask your child what is going on in the story if she looks distracted or if he looks bored. And if neither of you are loving it, don’t feel like you have to read every. last. word. until the end. Start something new. Make reading as fun as possible. Reading time could become a special time with Mom and Dad; try taking your child out for ice cream, and then go to a park with two copies of the same book. You and your child will read the same section to yourselves for about fifteen minutes or so, and then pause and ask your child some probing, specific questions about what you both just read. “What would you write to ask Sarah if you were Caleb and wanted to know what she was like?” Ask your child to think of a hard question to ask YOU! Maybe have her draw a picture of a specific scene. And later at dinner time, have him retell the story to your spouse.
Growing your reader may take some time. You may have a picky reader on your hands now, but that same picky reader could become a lover of good books in five or ten years. Remember to attract them to reading rather than push them toward it. And have patience. As they grow in discernment, they will learn to love the right books, and let those books turn them into the best kinds of people.
First Books for Independent Readers
- Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
- Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley
- The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
- Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi