Great Gift:  A Reading Habit

We often think of habits in a negative light.  Habits like cigarette smoking, biting your fingernails, or using profanity are things to be avoided but, if you do develop a habit, you should break it!  But habits aren’t all bad.  Brushing your teeth before bed foils tooth decay.  Hanging your keys next to the front door assures that you won’t waste precious time when you’re late for work.  Having a predictable breakfast of yogurt and a banana reduces the stress of a busy morning.  I would like to argue that developing another good habit – daily reading – could be the most important step you take to ensure your child’s success.


Do people read a lot because they are good readers?  Or do people read a lot and then become good readers?

This is not like the chicken and egg problem.  People don’t start out as naturally excellent readers.  Good readers get good because they read.  The more they read, the better they get.  You might say, “Hey, my first grader doesn’t read at home and she’s getting As and doing fine in reading.”  That wouldn’t surprise me.  Lots of children respond positively to early instruction in reading and pick up the basics easily.  But the basics will get them only so far.  Words become longer and represent complicated concepts.  Sentences become longer and contain conditional clauses.  Everything children will be expected to read will become progressively harder as the years go on.  The way to prepare for this is to strengthen reading from the beginning and continuously.


What’s the best way for parents to convince children that they should read?

If parents don’t read, they are sending a message that reading isn’t important, that they don’t value reading, that they don’t have time to read, that reading is only a school thing.  “That’s not true,” you may say.  I believe you, but your own lack of reading behavior is still sending those inherent messages.  I’m reminded that my father used to say, “Actions speak louder than words”.  So let your child see you read.  Read the newspaper.  Read a novel.  Read a computer manual.  Read anything.  Just let them see you reading for your own purposes and your own enjoyment.


What should my child read?

I hear people say “I just love the feel and smell of a book.  I only read real books.”  Well, mostly I hear people of a certain age say that and they are usually avid readers.  I understand because I like to read actual books myself.  But in today’s world, lots of reading happens on screens.   If we are talking about strengthening reading skill through practice, any reading of connected text should be helpful.  That means that practice should consist of reading words in sentences and paragraphs that have meaningful substance.  The reading could be in books, magazines, comic books or newspapers, or on computers or electronic readers.


I have often heard parents express concern that their child is reading what they consider junk.    My response has always been, “Whatever gets them reading is great!”  It’s natural to want children to read high quality materials but, especially if they are reluctant to begin with, any reading is a good first step.  And we can’t be so quick to judge materials as junk anyway.  A few years ago, a father told me that the only thing his son would read was “those Goosebumps books” and he thought the son should be reading something more “literary”.  Coincidentally, I had recently heard an interview with R. L. Stein, author of the Goosebumps series.  Mr. Stein talked about how he was aware that his audience consists of developing readers.  To support them, he made a conscious effort to use words and their derivations in various ways.  For example, if the story revolved around an investigation, he wove related words into the story – investigate, investigator, investigating. Multiple exposures in a meaningful context – an authentic, meaningful way to support a reader’s vocabulary development and word recognition!  So let children choose what they want to read.  You will also support your children’s practice if the reading materials aren’t too hard.  Don’t worry about “challenging” them.  Reading practice should be manageable and enjoyable.


Have you talked to a librarian lately?

If you haven’t been to the children’s section in a public library lately, you are missing something special.  Of course they have all the old classics.  But you will also find thousands of new titles and the collections are rich with magazines, newspapers, internet resources, and literacy activities.  Librarians are masterful at searching and finding information and they have a wealth of knowledge about reading materials and technology resources.  I have never met a librarian who wasn’t thrilled when asked for assistance.  They are just waiting for someone to say, “Can you help me?”  Many other resources, including Parents Magazine, Reading Rockets.org, and the International Literacy Association, also have hundreds of good book recommendations.


Reading practice can’t be an option. 

When I taught community college, most of my students were nonreaders. Most couldn’t name a book they read – ever.  A few could mention a book they read in high school.  Some of them could read moderately well but most of them struggled with the vocabulary and complex comprehension required in their academic reading.  I tried to convince them to read every day in order to strengthen their reading skills, but I don’t feel that I had much impact.  This is one of the reasons that I so strongly advocate for families to develop a daily reading habit – the earlier, the better.  Reading practice can’t be an option for children, right through high school.  Like any other activity, practice produces strength.  So…

Read to your children for as many years as they will allow it.

Read yourself and expect them to read nearly every day.

Read the same books your child is reading and talk about them.

Share what you read with your children – “You won’t believe what I read in the newspaper this morning.”

Go to the public library and take advantage of the wonderful resources and amazing librarians that your tax dollars provide for you.

If they don’t want to read, make clear that it is NOT negotiable.  If you get resistance, remember:  This could be the greatest gift you ever give them!