Parents, how can you inspire your children to reap the lifelong benefits of reading?
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Sunset draws closer, signaling the end of another day. Eucalyptus and wild olive trees cast long shadows over the golden savannah. The familiar song of a diederik cuckoo rings through the air as it basks its feathers in the late afternoon sun. Eland, zebra and giraffe tread over the slopes of a well-known trail. Their day will end by quenching their thirst at a drinking hole a few yards away. From my family’s favorite spot on a rocky edge of a koppie or small hill where we used to live, the vista seems endless…
While reading this description of my former home of South Africa, your brain did an incredible amount of work—translating symbols on a page into detailed visual images. Through mere words on paper, you can be transported to majestic landscapes, exotic countries or even different time periods. Truly, reading can be “one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have,” as the two-time National Book Award-winning author Lloyd Alexander once stated.
Books connect us with others, allowing us to share ideas, understanding and experiences in a profound way. But the ability to read is a skill built with time and practice. Recently, educators and parents have been putting extra focus on reading development for children because the pandemic caused many young students’ skills to stall.
A recent study by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education found that “reading fluency among second- and third-graders in the U.S. is roughly 30 percent behind what would be expected in a typical year.”
Approximately 65 percent of U.S. children are still not proficient readers. According to the literacy network Reading Is Fundamental, assessments of those in the fourth and eighth grades showed two-thirds of students read below their grade level, and only 37 percent of high schoolers graduate at or above their required reading proficiency.
This alarming figure exposes a need to develop children’s reading abilities. Reading is learning. Nonproficient reading hampers skill and personal development in other areas of life. Not mastering the skill of reading stops children from enjoying its many benefits!
Parents, we must do all we can to foster a love of reading in young minds.
Reading Education Today
In an article to educators, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, insists that “ultimately, the science of reading is inextricably linked to the love of reading. To teach and inspire the next generation, we simply can’t have one without the other.”
Said another way, before building a love of reading in our children, we must first develop their ability to comprehend the written word. This is where educators come in, but parents must work to understand and support what their child is learning in the classroom.
Since the 1980s, there have been a few different methods used to teach reading education: “whole language” or “phonics.” While you may not recall all the intricacies of how you were taught to read, you probably remember the classic advertisements for Hooked on Phonics. Each method has its pros and cons. If your child is struggling with reading proficiency, talk to their teachers to find out which approach is being implemented.
The “whole language” method centers around a child recognizing and memorizing whole words, and was the traditional instruction when many of us were in school.
“Whole language teachers emphasize the meaning of texts over the sounds of letters,” Dr. Jon Reyhner, a Professor of Education at Northern Arizona University, wrote in his report “Reading Wars – Phonics versus Whole Language.”
Whole language instruction includes the idea that the more children read and write, the more they will develop their reading skills naturally as they go. However, this method relies heavily on students’ existing knowledge and teachers’ efforts to provide their own structure and curriculum in instruction.
The phonics reading method centers on the belief that a child must learn by breaking down or decoding words by their spelling and sound. This is especially helpful if a child struggles with reading aloud and the pronunciation of new words.
This too has its limitations. The English language has 44 speech sounds or phonemes, which is “defined as the smallest part of spoken language that makes a difference in meaning” (Reading Rockets). Some examples are “z” as in zebra, “i” as in pie, or “er” as in bird. The word cook, for example, has four letters, but only three speech sounds, c-oo-k. And this is where the phonics method runs into problems: Around half of the English language cannot be broken down into phonemes.
A New Approach
There is a growing approach to reading instruction called the “science of reading” method that incorporates both whole language and phonics. According to The Philadelphia Citizen, one school in Pennsylvania saw statistical improvements in proficiency after incorporating this method into its reading program.
In the fall of 2016, “the district implemented the Science of Reading, known as Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a comprehensive program developed by two veteran literacy experts, Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman, both PhDs. And the change was dramatic. By the following June, 88 percent of the district’s kindergarteners were reading at grade level, up from 46 percent when school started in September, and up from 71 percent the prior year. That progress continued over the next several years,” the news organization reported.
The article explained: “Science of Reading posits that learning to read is as much an auditory process as a visual one. Just as we learn to speak by hearing those around us, we also learn to read by listening. The key is to connect the sounds we hear with those squiggles on paper known as letters, what academics refer to as phonemic awareness. From there, it’s a matter of decoding words and linking what we hear and see with our knowledge of the world.”
With the understanding of new approaches to reading instruction in schools, we can create enjoyable reading experiences for our children outside the classroom as well. The science of reading method demonstrates that certain auditory and visual activities associated with learning increases comprehension.
While you do not necessarily need to create structured instruction on phonics, parents can support the technical instruction from teachers by helping them develop a love of the written word. If you show your children all the fun adventures possible through books, they will better push through the grind of learning language.
What are some simple ways to foster that joy of reading?
Help Them Connect
The Atlantic summarized the philosophy of Michelle Martin, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in children’s library services: “all children can become lovers of books, but that it’s an educator’s job to help them find the stories in which they can see or imagine themselves.”
One way you can help them develop this ability is by making a book into an activity. “You read about the wet dog, and then you’re acting it out on the stage, or you’re outside splashing around just like the wet dog did, for example. Martin refers to this approach as ‘reducing the distance between books and life’” (ibid.).
As children learn to relate to what they are reading, they will become more invested in a book. Often, reading is work for young minds, and they can miss the connection between what they see on a page and the real world. If we as parents help them associate experiences with what they are reading, they can better place themselves in the character of their book.
Deloris Fowler, an elementary school teacher with nearly three decades of experience, believes a child’s mind should stay actively involved while reading. She came up with a similar strategy to make reading comprehension enjoyable for kids.
“The best parts of teaching,” according to her, “were the two- or three-week units she and her colleagues created around science and social-studies topics. When the class studied Italy, for example, they read books by the Italian American author Tomie dePaola and went to a local Italian restaurant to eat spaghetti. A unit on Japan included reading books by Japanese-American authors and making kimonos. When kids studied Antarctica, they did projects on penguins” (The Atlantic).
You can employ these same tactics in your home. Discover subjects that your children are fascinated with and make activities around them. Go to the library as a family and allow them to select books of interest. Then read together and create experiences that bring the text to life. Think of all the fun memories you will build together in the process!
Read with Your Child
Another way to build a love of reading is to read aloud from an early age. Cuddle up on a couch with your little one with a favorite book. They will connect reading with a feeling of closeness and affection.
Make reading part of your daily routine and set up specific times for the activity, for instance always sharing a bedtime story. Also incorporate themed reading. You could, for example, focus on the universe. Seek out books about space—maybe have your little ones dress up as astronauts before going to bed. Turn off the lights and use a flashlight to read a book about the stars.
When young children start to read, allow them to read a sentence or two without seeing pictures. To test their comprehension, ask them to describe what they think the picture would look like. And see the excitement on their faces when you reveal the picture and show they were right!
You can help them build a reading habit by reading to them as often as possible. For example, pull out a book during a lunch or snack. Or keep reading material available throughout the house for free time when you can sit down with your child and make a story live.
Continue reading to your children even after they have learned to read on their own, no matter their age. This can help keep them interested in books as they grow older, as well as create great opportunities for conversation. This will help children better understand what they are reading but also will help them to apply what they learn to real life situations.
Before ending a book, talk about how each person thinks the book might end. Or you can discuss lessons you learned from a novel or what they think of a particular character and their decisions in the story. These conversations encourage your children to think deeper about what they read, bettering their ability to gain understanding from written materials as they continue through life.
Make Reading a Family Activity
Some families like to have book clubs where they all take turns reading the same book (or buy it in an e-book format and all read at the same time). Have all family members give a review and discuss the book afterward. You may want to use questions such as “What was surprising to you in the story/book?” or “Which character could you identify with most?”
Try “popcorn” reading. Take turns reading aloud a subtitle of an article or each person reading a chapter of a book for instance. Involve the whole family while enjoying hot drinks on a cold winter night.
Use fun games to activate your child’s imagination. For example, start a verbal story by giving one sentence, and having the next participant come up with the next sentence, and so on. You will never know where the story goes!
There are so many opportunities to instill a desire to read in children. Go online and learn about other strategies parents employ. Look for specific tactics if your child is struggling in a certain area.
For instance, creating a fun reading environment in the home can help boys and girls get in the mindset to sit down with a book. Have cozy nooks around the house with small bookcases or bookstands that make you want to sit there and read. Do this throughout all seasons. Read underneath the shade of a tree in summer or cozy up next to a fireplace in winter.
Do not neglect fun even when children grow older. Discover your children’s interests by exposing them to a wide variety of subjects and genres—no matter their age.
You might be working and have less time to spend with your child. You can still ensure that they develop a love of the written word. Some libraries offer morning activities for young children. Sign up your child for your local library’s summer reading program.
Use books as a reward or a gift for a job well done. Some thrift websites sell books at very low prices that are still in good condition. Or use reading a book as an incentive.
During summer break, write fun activities on colorful popsicle sticks that your child will receive each time a book is completed. These rewards can be inexpensive or free. For example: “Stay up late and catch lightning bugs,” “Go for an ice cream,” or “Go on a hike with the family.” This makes a child associate rewards for finishing a book.
Story of the Bible
As the highest-selling book of all time, the Bible draws the reader into its pages. It is filled with stories of historical figures and events, lessons and wisdom for all ages. The first verse of the Bible captivates the imagination of young and old alike. Notice, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
These 10 words say God created “the heaven,” the known universe, every star and orbiting planet, including Earth. On a clear night, the naked eye can observe up to 5,000 stars. The Milky Way contains as many as 400 billion stars, but we do not know the exact amount. Beyond what our eyes can observe, there are hundreds of billions galaxies in the known universe.
Just reading this verse and taking the time to look at photos from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope can help children associate what they read to what they see in the night sky. This one verse is rife with opportunity for discussion and exploration—but only if you make the time to dig into it!
The Bible covers many more intriguing subjects, such as Noah’s Flood, David defeating the giant Goliath, and the origin of different languages. Many of the Psalms were set to music, and the book of Proverbs is filled with wise sayings that apply to children. Proverbs 22 teaches parents to be diligently involved in teaching children the joy of reading: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (vs. 6).
Every aspect of God’s plan for mankind sparked the imagination of many young children who read about it. Cover-to-cover, your Bible contains many lessons for children. Kids can learn the reason why they were born and the purpose for their lives.
The seven-volume series The Story of the Bible will prove an effective tool to read aloud with your children. These volumes were written to bring the Bible to life for anyone—not just for young minds.
Inspire a love of reading, and your child will enjoy learning for life!