By Elizabeth Donofrio
My 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, shocked me the other day. During a casual conversation about mystery book heroine Nancy Drew, I commented that I loved reading. “No, you don’t,” she said.
Come again? How could Sarah think that I didn’t love to read? I had been an English teacher for seven years, for heaven’s sake! My husband and I have been reading nightly to each of our four children since birth. They each have their own bookcase. We go to the library every week without fail. Me not like reading? Impossible!
So I calmly asked her, “Why do you think I don’t like reading, Sarah?”
“Because I never see you do it,” she quipped as she bit into her sandwich.
She’s right. Since my oldest was born in 1996, I have limited my reading to reading aloud from Rainbow Fish, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ten Apples Up On Top, Touch and Feel Wild Animals, and the Little Critter, Thomas the Tank Engine, Carl the Dog and Arthur series. Only recently have I entered the realm of chapter books with the American Girls, Little House on the Prairie, and now Nancy Drew.
I know that a parent’s example of reading for his or her own enjoyment is a great predictor of a child’s love of reading, and hence, a good indicator of success in school. How can you do well in school if you don’t like to read? I know I need to be a model of a good reader to encourage Sarah, and all my children, in that vein. With that in mind, I started my action plan.
Show, Don’t Tell
This time, when we went to the library, I asked Miss Dottie, our lovely children’s librarian, for a good read. She handed me Green Eggs and Ham – which, obviously, I had already read. She then chose for me The Secret Life of Bees, an adult novel by Sue Monk Kidd (Penguin, 2003). After supper, when I usually concern myself with superfluous tasks such as washing dishes and putting away food, I pushed everything aside, put Ellie, our newest baby, on my lap to nurse, and pulled out the Bee book from our library bag. I read the author’s biography on the jacket before I realized Sarah was no longer in the kitchen and was, therefore, not watching me!
Immediately, I hoisted Ellie up with one arm, held on to the book with the other, and moved to the living room where Sarah, Abigail and Mitch were playing Arthur games on the Web at PBSkids.org. Easing onto the couch, I repositioned Ellie, and then dove into my novel, getting to page eight before Daddy came home and I was again required in the kitchen. But, true to plan, I had read where Sarah could see me.
Just before she went to bed, I double-checked. “Did you see me reading today, Sarah?”
“No,” she said. I was crestfallen. But she picked me right up again. “What did you read?”
“The Secret Life of Bees.”
“Oh, let me see it.” Sarah looked at the cover, flipped through the pages and asked, “Any pictures?”
“No, just on the cover.”
Without further conversation or fanfare, she put the book down on the table and ran at top speed out of the kitchen.
Before I fall asleep tonight, I plan on making it at least to page 10. I wonder if it matters if Sarah sees me reading the same book all year.
Strategies to Get You Started
Just like flossing or drinking eight glasses of water a day, reading is good for you – and for your kids. But it’s hard for parents to find enough time to make it a habit. You start reading a book, you put it down and, by the time you get back to it, you’ve forgotten what you read the first time.
Plus, as we all know from the nice, concise magazine articles we read, we’re also supposed to be spending time playing with our kids; writing notes to their teachers; reading consumer safety reports; making nutritious, good-tasting food; going on weekly dates with our spouses; exercising; maintaining our own friendships; planning the next family vacation; and, of course, cooking and cleaning. Reading actual literature at a time and place where your kids will see you is just plain hard to do.
But the fact remains that it has to be done. So, with that in mind, here are a few strategies for making reading and a love of books a true family affair:
Start a parent/child book club. Invite four or five pairs of parents and children who are at least 8 years old. If a large group is too daunting, try it first as a club of two – just you and your child. Meet at your home, a library or a bookstore café once a month if it’s a club, or more frequently – at least once a week – if it’s just you and your child.
- Choose a book that you all read. The advantage here is that your child doesn’t have to actually see you read to know you are reading! You can do it on your lunch hour, commuting on the train, after your kids have gone to sleep, waiting for them in the car in the pick-up line at school, or whenever you can grab a few minutes. The key is to have the book handy at all times!
- Read a predetermined amount, and then discuss the book. If you are clubbing it with just your child, you can read a few chapters or the whole book. If you are part of a formal group, read the entire book.
- Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.” For example: “What would you have done if you were the main character?” “What was your favorite part of the whole book?” Enjoy the discussion that ensues. Do an activity or craft related to the book. Then choose a book and meeting locale for your next meeting.
- To help you actually start your book club, read The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading, by Shireen Dodson (Perennial, 1997).
- Scholastic BooksOffers great resources and supposrt activities for parents setting up a book club.
Visit local literary sites. You and your child, or the whole family, can make reading come alive by envisioning the people and places of the story in your minds.
Read aloud. Read to your children and let them read to you, too – no matter how old they are! This works anywhere that you have time together, whether you read to them while they eat their after-school snack or they read to you while you’re making dinner.
Try reading a play together instead of watching TV some night when “nothing good is on.” Let out your inner actor. Change your voice for different characters. Try to read the way you talk. Get up and move around the room. Grab some impromptu costumes! I taught high school English for seven years, and I have seen firsthand how a single hat can transform a teenage boy into a thespian worthy of Broadway.
Another way to model good reading is listening to books on tape or CD, which can be a nice alternative to the radio in the car. The library offers a varied selection of free recordings and usually the books that go with them. The reader, frequently the author or a well-known actor, brings the story to life using only the expression and intonation of his or her voice.
Visit the library. If you haven’t been recently, you’ll be amazed at what libraries have to offer these days. Any day is a good library day. You don’t need any money, and when it’s too cold out, it’s warm in the library. The library has more books and magazines than you could ever read, plus books and music on tape, music and computer CDs, museum passes, videos, DVDs, Internet access, and lots of free programs like story times, book clubs and visiting authors. Make the library part of your weekly routine, and don’t forget to check out books for yourself, as well as for your children.
Build your own library. Your own personal library is open 24/7 and needs little more than shelf space. Try to peruse the shelves and pick something up when little eyes are watching you! Make one night each week “screen-free” (no TV or computer), when everyone reads instead.
Stock your home library with inexpensive books from yard sales and used book sales at the library. For birthdays and holidays, give your children books about topics that interest them. Try book series. If they get hooked on the first one, reading the rest is a snap.
Remember “Reading Is Fundamental” - The children’s literacy organization offers tips for parents to motivate kids to read.
Find out what your favorite celebrity reads.Hosted by the National Education Association, this site lists the favorite childhood and adult books of celebrities in music, TV, law, publishing, movies and sports. A similar guide to celebrity reading is online at www.gpl.lib.me.us/wrw.htm. This annual Who Reads What? survey is done by the Gardiner Public library in Gardiner, Maine.
Visit the library. If you haven’t been recently, you’ll be amazed at what libraries have to offer these days. Any day is a good library day. You don’t
Good Reads for Your Kids
Need some ideas for some good age-appropriate titles to get your kids reading (or to share with them)? Check out our “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time” and other family reading tips.
When You’re Done with That Book
Many organizations gratefully accept donations of “gently used” children’s books to be distributed at schools in low-income districts, through homeless shelters, and in hospitals. Check our list of "Where to Donate Used Books.”
More on children’s literature, authors and the art of storytelling:
Behind the Pages - Seven noted children’s book authors share their childhood memories and influences
Start Your Own Parent-Child Book Club - Book clubs are great forum for sharing ideas and nurturing a lifelong love of reading
What Makes a Great Children’s Book? – A look at why great children’s books strike a chord and stay with us through adulthood.
The Very Creative Children’s Book Author A Conversation with the inimitable Eric Carle.
Why Reading to Your Kids Works – Celebrated storyteller Jim Weiss discusses how sharing books and stories fosters deeper parent-child bonds.
Reading Begins at Home Partnership for Readinghelps parents help their children during the critical years of learning to read.
Reading to Two How and what to read to siblings.
Elizabeth Donofrio is a freelance writer, former English teacher and mother.