I suspect that Spencer isn't alone and that it's pretty common for children who once loved reading to fall out of the habit once they hit those crazy pre-teen years so today I'm sharing some of the things I've been doing lately to help encourage Spencer (and David by extension) to get back into reading.
1. Start early. This probably is what you'd call a no-brainer but really--but it's best to start early. You can't just look up when your kids are getting ready to go to high school and wonder why they haven't picked up a book in seven years. If you want them to read you have to establish good habits early on. This of course means starting before they can actually put together words and symbols on their own. However, if you haven't made reading a part of your home in the past don't despair. Kids are remarkably resilient and if you decide today to give it a go you'll find they're in step with you before too long.
2. Don't give them a choice. I've come to the conclusions that free will is highly overrated in so many things. For example, if you were to lay out a buffet on your kitchen counter and present a dozen luscious cinnamon rolls, a bag of Doritos, a six-pack of root beer, a Big Mac with fries and a bowl of apples I can guarantee which one your children wouldn't reach for first. It's just human nature. Part of the job of a parent is to teach and train until those good habits are woven in and sometimes that means putting your foot down and saying "Absolutely not!"
So don't give them a choice about whether to read or not. Or more accurately, make reading the most attractive choice. For example, if you put out that same buffet but instead of leaving the apples to fight their battle against a Big Mac put out the apples with a bag of prunes and a bowl of stale Saltines and NOW see which one they choose.
So it is with reading. If given the chance kids will always choose television or video games over the work of sounding out and visualizing a story. It's just not as easy and things tend to choose the path of least resistance. Don't give them options.
"It's bedtime. You are going to bed at 7pm (or 8pm or whatever) and you can read for half an hour. An hour if you're quiet but then it's lights out."
If given the choice between reading and going to bed, my kids will take reading any day. I just don't allow television to enter into the equation when it's time to read.
3. Read out loud. Another thing they're nearly guaranteed to love is having time with you. So if you want them to read don't tell them to go off in a corner and do it alone, do it with them. Either have a family night where everyone pulls out a book to sit by the fire with a bowl of popcorn and read individually or make them lie in their beds while you read to them.
With our remodel I sit on a chair in the new section right between the two rooms where the sliding door divides the two spaces and I'll make Lillian and the boys get into their beds then I'll read to them from the middle with the sliding door open where all three can hear me. It's pleasant and relaxing and they like the mom-time so now they've begun request it.
4. Be consistent. It's too hard to do this every night but make reading part of the routine just like brushing the teeth and getting that drink of water. Get them while they're relaxed and tired and not able to put up a fuss. Shoot for three times a week then see what works for you but stick with it--don't start into a book, get a few chapters in, then abandon ship. Unless of course it's a stinky book then you have my permission to toss it. We've done that plenty of times--just get something else quick and give it another try.
5. Read above their level. It may surprise you to learn that Gone with the Wind, The Last of the Mohicans, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Horatio Hornblower series are all at a junior high reading level. As childhood extends its borders farther and farther, lasting longer and longer children are not being challenged as much as they used to be until many adults say they can't read Shakespeare, the Bible or Chaucer because they're "too hard to understand."
It surprises me how all of Grace's high school friends are still reading novels my boys read when they were eight--Harry Potter and the multitude of knock-offs that have sprung up are too basic for any high school student to be reading except as an easy treat. It's the equivalent of a literary bowl of ice cream which is fine now and then but eating it consistently will just make your brain fat and flabby.
The dumbing down of literature is something that concerns me (though not in the same way as, say, world peace--just to put things into perspective) and I want my children to be proficient in understanding the masters of their own language. Get them started reading hard stuff as young as you can and what's surprising is that while they may be reading independently at one level you can read out loud to them at a much higher grade level and still have the pleasure of the experience remain in tact. Read as far above them as you can and have them still understand what's happening. If necessary pick a story they're familiar with so that they know the plot and can discern the meaning of words from the context but challenge them.
Kids like to be challenged--it makes them feel more grown up.
6. Be aware of your audience. While you're reading aloud be aware of your children. Pause to ask them questions such as, "Do you understand what's happening?" and "Do you need me to explain anything?"
If you are about to pass over a difficult section you have my permission to skip it if necessary. You're trying to train them, not bore them to tears so if you've got three pages of description of ripples on the water and you can tell you're going to lose them--skip it. They'll never know the difference.
7. Adjust your pace. While reading out loud make sure you are involved. For heavens sake, don't drone! If it's a suspenseful part read a little slower to build the effect, rising in your tone as you go. If it's a fight scene read a bit faster as if you're cutting from camera angle to camera angle. If it's romance skip it all together (at least that's my boys' feelings) but adjust your performance to fit the story.
Don't worry if it's silly, it probably is, but that will just make it all the more fun for your children and your friends aren't there to see your goofiness so have fun with it.
8. Be aware of your child's interests. Know what your child enjoys and look for books along those interests. Dinosaurs? Whales? Boats? There are great books for all those subjects. Don't be afraid of biographies. Harry Houdini, Charles Lindburgh, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Edmund Hilary, Daniel Boone, they all had interesting lives and reading stories about famous people is a great way to introduce some history into your child's diet at the same time.
9. Read something too. If you want your children to read then you'd better be reading too. Nothing like a good example to help with good habits is there? Talk about the latest book you're reading over the dinner table. Ask what everyone else is reading. Make books available in your home, play books on tape or CD instead of the radio when you're in the car. Whatever it takes to cultivate an atmosphere of learning in your home.
10. Be prepared to sacrifice. If your child were hungry wouldn't you do practically anything to make sure they were fed? Well feeding their mind requires sacrifice as well. It may mean that you don't get to kick back in front of the television because you're busy reading aloud for that half hour each night. It may mean that you go nearly crazy trying to convince them to read independently and regularly. It may mean that you spend time looking for books that are appropriate. It may mean that you force yourself to do more reading in order to encourage by example but whatever it is I can guarantee it will take more time than the alternative. Parenting is like that.
But I can also guarantee that the payoffs for both you and the children will be wonderful.
As a bonus feature for this post Chronicle Books has graciously offered a selection of some of their latest publications for children which you see pictured here and which I'll be giving away to a random reader.
Tony and the Pizza Champions by Tony Gemignani. This is based on the story of the team who has won the world pizza tossing competition eight times. How about reading this book and having some fun tossing your own dough as a supplemental activity? The link has video clips of the real guys in action.
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
A picture book that uses optical illusions to tell the story. Is it a duck or a rabbit? Depends on what you see. Looks like a fun book that children would enjoy at many ages and could inspire some fun art projects. Collages, line drawings--can you make your picture look like two things at once?
B Is for Baseball: Running the Bases from A to Z. This one is one my ten year-old would love. He's been reading a series of short novels about a boy who time travels to meet up with famous long-gone baseball heroes like Satchel Page and I can imagine this would hit a home run.
Find topics that they like--that's the way to get them hooked on reading. Once they discover how much they can learn from a book and how fun it is to learn new things you've done your job well.
To win these three books please leave a comment before Monday morning March 9th and I'll draw a winner Monday morning. Good luck!
Next week I'll be posting a list of books that I've been reading to the boys and will be reading. I guess you'd call it a "Read Aloud Booklist for Boys." Though I'm a girl and I'm sure enjoying them too.
And totally unrelated but . . . if you didn't see it already in my Tweet yesterday you can get U2's new CD at Amazon for $3.99 downloaded right to itunes. Downright groovy huh? Yes I love that crazy Irish foursome and so far my assessment of No Line on the Horizon is that it's pretty darn good.
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