Inspiring Articles

Raising Readers: Why—and How—to Teach Kids to Love the Written Word

It’s tough for kids to say goodbye to the excitement of the day, so falling asleep can be so much sweeter with a parent at their side, reading their favorite bedtime story…                          - Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chief of Pediatrics, Boston Medical Center and Co-Founder of Reach Out and Read

Bedtime stories. Those two simple words conjure up happy memories for many of us. If you fondly recall being nestled in a warm bed with your favorite stuffed animals while listening to Mom or Dad read a picture book, you might be surprised—and a little sad—to learn that this beloved nightly ritual is falling by the wayside in many families.

A recent study found that only one in three families in the U.S. read to their children each night. What’s more, it also noted that most kids are spending more time watching TV and playing videos games than reading books.

Some people might write this trend off as a sign of our tech-heavy times. But if you’re like many parents, the written word’s decline in popularity may still make you uneasy—and for good reason.

Reading is much more than one of many interchangeable entertainment choices for children to choose from. It’s an important foundational skill that can and will shape the rest of a child’s life. Educators and pediatricians have long known that reading aloud to children influences their health, well-being, and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to your baby every day from six months onward. Early exposure to words helps your baby’s developing brain by stimulating language and cognitive abilities—which, later in life, are crucial to becoming a good reader. Why is this so important?

Good readers do better in school, which contributes to overall confidence—which in turn contributes to overall success in life. In fact, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that “children who don’t read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.” That’s some serious—and seriously scary—stuff.

Sure, we all have too much to do, and too little time in which to do it. But fortunately, the reading fix is not so hard, and will be well worth the 10 or 15 minutes it takes you to turn the pages of a children’s book. Here are 10 tips to help modern parents make reading a part of everyday life, and hopefully instill a lifetime love of reading in your children.

Make stories part of bedtime… As many parents know, children’s books are some of the most fun reading around. They give you a chance to think like a kid again, to revel in the joy of being silly with a Dr. Seuss book or a Mother Goose rhyme. The nightly ritual of bedtime stories can become a magical family time that is fun for everyone. So turn off the cell phones and TV, slow down, and dream together.

…in fact, make it a party! My family’s nightly ritual goes something like this: We read together while munching on low fat/low sugar cookies & sipping milk. Each of my children gets to choose a book. We read two books, max three. Sometimes my husband, Adriano, and I act out the story. Adriano plays Spiderman and I, the Green Goblin. We jump and fly and retell the story with new twists, which makes everyone laugh. Then, if the children want, it’s their turn. They tell the story in their own way. It takes only 20 minutes or less, but this satisfying family time creates lasting bonds between us as we enter the world of imagination together, then off to dreamland.

Encourage recaps and book reviews. Every youngster has favorite books. In fact, your child will probably request her top-rated stories so often that she’ll call you out if you accidentally get a word wrong (even before she can read!). When your child bonds with a book in this way, be patient with the repetitious readings and recitations—and even encourage them—because toddler pre-reading increases literacy skills.

My two-year-old, Sienna, wanted to go to sleep with a book the other night. I watched her turning the pages and retelling the story in bed, pretending that she was reading: Blue hat green hat yellow hat oops! While the scenario was humorous, I knew that Sienna was actually linking her memory of the story to visual pictures and sounds, along with practicing important verbal skills.

If your child is past the same-books-all-the-time and reading on her own, ask her to summarize the books she’s read and share her reviews with you. This will encourage her to engage with books on a deeper level—and will also introduce interesting ideas and concepts for you to discuss.

Encourage your children to read aloud – to anyone or anything. Believe it or not, according to a study from the University of California, Davis, second-graders who read aloud to the family dog improved reading skills by 12 percent over ten weeks. Practice makes perfect!

Find fictional role models. What should you do when your child says, “But I don’t want to read! I want to play a video game (or watch TV)!”? Fictional role models make great allies.

When my son tells me that he’d rather watch TV than read, I’ll say “You know what? Most superheroes are really smart. They love science. Spiderman loves school. And did you know that a lot of movies started with books? So this book we are going to read is actually where the Spiderman movie came from.” This usually gets him sitting in my lap, eager for a story.

Work words into daily life. What if your child is behind in reading and struggles with it? The more one reads, the better one gets. Simple ways to work love of reading into daily life: Play word games like I Spy something that begins with D… or recite nursery rhymes together. As your children grow older and learn to read for themselves, don’t quit having reading fun. Encourage them to use their reading skills wherever there are words – on signs, billboards, posters or notes,

CD and DVD covers, and more. Solve word-searches and crosswords together, and play games like Scrabble Junior and Apples to Apples Junior. For more reading activities for all ages, visit the Oxford Owl’s idea page.

Support your young author. Get your kids into books in a whole new way by encouraging them to write their own. Kids are full of imagination and have amazing stories to tell, whether they are two paragraphs or twenty pages long. All you need are a few sheets of paper, art supplies, and a stapler to turn your child into a real-life author and illustrator.

Reading and writing go hand in hand. If your child enjoys one activity, chances are good that she’ll enjoy the other. Writing her own stories will give your child a new perspective on her favorite books and authors, and will be a huge boost to her confidence—especially when she shows off her literary efforts to you, her proud parent!

Let fictional friends help with tough times. Growing up isn’t always easy. All children will face things that are frightening, intimidating, unpleasant, or difficult to understand. When your child is in one of these situations, books can help. If your son is scared of the upcoming first day or school, apprehensive about going to the doctor, or sad about the death of a beloved pet, for example, reading a book about a character who is going through the same thing can explain, comfort, and reassure.

Young children feel so much more secure when they know they aren’t alone in what they’re feeling and experiencing—and of course, happy endings in books are a great way for parents to assure youngsters that everything will be okay. As children grow, fictional “friends” can help instill a lifelong love of reading. All over the world, children and teens read books because they deeply identify with protagonists like Harry Potter and Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables fame).

Let kids build their own book collections. No matter what her age, a child is more likely to be interested in the story—and thus in reading in general—if she likes the topic.

My daughter loves stories about animals, and my son is addicted to Spiderman and other super heroes—so those are types of books we seek out. You can certainly recommend different topics and introduce your children to books you yourself loved as a child, but don’t force them to stay within strict literary boundaries. Take them to the library and let them pick out books themselves.

Set a good example. It’s much easier to raise a reader if you are one yourself. After all, kids learn behaviors and habits from watching their parents! It’s much easier to convince your child to crack open a book if he frequently sees your nose in one! Let your children see you reading on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be Dostoevsky. Read newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, how-to books. Read what you love, whatever that is. It doesn’t matter. Just read.

Teaching your children to love reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give them as a parent. Books will provide them with countless hours of enjoyment, knowledge, and a foundation for future success. Best of all, reading can help your whole family to have fun and grow closer.

Love Perfectly Awkward Tales,

Princess Ivana, Magdalene Smith & Marisa Smith


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