Notes From the Classroom: Part 3

In fact, reading is the essential learning tool, the fundamental building block, upon which all other disciplines are hinged. If a child can’t read, she can’t do math, history, science, social studies, or language arts.

According to national studies, our nation’s reading report card is somewhat lacking. In thirty-seven percent of homes with pre-school aged children, parents have never bought a book! It isn’t surprising then, according to another comprehensive survey done by book sellers, to note than slightly less than twenty-five percent of the population buys the vast majority of the books printed.

When the National Assessment of Education in Progress tested third and fourth graders, they discovered that a shocking seventy-five percent of those students questioned hadn’t read a book recently (outside of class); most of those who had couldn’t remember the title of the last book they’d opened. It’s easy to point fingers at public education, which might deserve some blame, but the roots of this problem are more fundamental. The good news is that you can make a difference.

Reading Aloud to Younger Children

It may not seem like it to you, but to your child you have the most wonderful, comforting voice in the world—something he can’t get enough of. Yours was the first voice the child heard, a voice that was warm and reassuring.

A reading literacy study conducted in elementary schools several years ago concluded that when parents are actively involved in their child’s education, including reading from an early age, a child’s scores were nearly twenty percent above the national average. Conversely, when there was little to no parental involvement, test scores were nearly thirty percent below the national average.

Read to Older Children

There is a lot of emphasis on reading to younger children, and rightly so, but don’t stop when your children get older. Keep reading to them (and have them read to you). My high school students like nothing more than having stories, poems, and essays read aloud. While reading whole books to your older children might not be practical, reading pages or chapters is. Read magazine articles or school reading assignments. Encourage your children to read to you. If your child has a short story assignment, for instance, you might read the story aloud or take turns reading it aloud.

Your Reading Attitude

Your attitude will be infectious, for good or ill. In addition to reading with your children, your children need to see you read often and enjoy it. Don’t wait until your kids go to bed to open that novel. Read where they can see you. Not long ago I was working with a gifted elementary teacher. While her kids were at recess, we assessed the morning’s reading class and the progress her first graders were making.

“The problem or the solution,” she said, “is a matter of perception. I can pinpoint with a fair degree of accuracy, the parents who like to read and those who don’t. Nearly all parents, even those who don’t read much, appreciate this as an important skill and preach its merits publicly to their children. To their credit, they encourage and work with a child and that’s good—but it may not be enough. They have to be doers.

“A child needs to see his parents dig into a book. If a child knows his parent values reading, it gives the task validity and makes my job easier. It’s hard to fool a kid. It’ll be hard for you to preach reading if you don’t do it yourself.”

A Reading Climate

Fill your home with books and magazines. Your house doesn’t have to look like a library or the book-strewn office of the absent-minded professor, but you need to have books and magazines accessible. Books should have a place of honor. They need to get used, even dirty with use.

Get in the habit of giving books for birthdays and Christmas gifts. For younger children, let them order a book or two each time the teacher sends off a classroom book order.

Take your kids to the library on a regular basis and get each child a library card. Take them to your favorite bookstore and buy them a book. For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with a comic book every now and then either.

Dads Need to Get Involved

Nationally, only ten percent of fathers read to their children. In a 1991 study of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade elementary school boys, researchers found that students who were read to by their fathers scored significantly higher on standard tests and were much stronger readers than boys whose fathers never read to them. Additionally, boys make up seventy percent of remedial reading classes.

According to Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook (a book worth owning), the most “endangered specie in this country” is a dad at the public library. He also suggests that “since eighty-eight percent of primary-school teachers are women, young boys often associate reading with women and schoolwork.” Boys need to see dads read so they’ll know it’s an alright thing—not just a girl thing.

Regular Family Scripture Study

Besides the spiritual ramifications, children involved in regular scripture study tend to be stronger readers. Have each child take a turn reading out loud, even if it’s just a verse or two. Praise the efforts and give gentle help when she trips over some words.

Studying the scriptures shouldn’t be a reading marathon. Keep it short enough to be exciting for younger children. Take time to explain what’s going on, bringing the verses to life. Don’t let the words fly over your children’s heads. Give each child his or her own set of scriptures to follow along.

Keeping a younger child’s attention can be tough. Put a pre-schooler on your lap and whisper the words of a phrase in his ear so he can say it. This way a kid can “pretend” to read along with the rest of the family.

Repetition is a Good Thing

Don’t worry if you read books with a lot of repetition or if your child wants you to read the same book over and over and over again. I’m certain I’ve read The Napping House by Audrey Wood at least 116 times—and that was last month. While it’s a fun story, I’m certain if I read it one more time, I’ll have a serious headache. When my son Jon-Michael was little boy, my wife Shari and I read The Wolf’s Chicken Stew by Keiko Kasza just shy of a quarter million times. We wore out two copies. I’m almost to the point where I can look at Wolf again without getting a queasy feeling.

While it’s tough to read the same story over and over again, the results are quite positive, and it’s very normal. Repetition helps a child learn about language and the process of reading. Turn your back some time or peek around the corner and watch your child pretend to read, often mimicking the same tones and inflections you use. Jon-Michael read the Wolf’s Chicken Stew for his kindergarten class just the way Shari read it to him. It was hilarious. He now reads it to his sister Abbey the same way. Kids pay a lot more attention to your reading than you think.

For a child there’s joy and comfort in such familiarity. Use it to your advantage. I make it a point, especially when it’s a book we’ve read a lot, to point at the words with my finger as I say them. Or I direct my child’s finger as I read those familiar lines. This helps a youngster learn about words—how and why they are arranged on a page. These things point a young reader in the right direction. Children learn how reading takes place (reading from top to bottom, left to right). It also makes them feel they are part of the process.

A Kid Is Better Off Being Read To

“What if all this good advice doesn’t work?” a mother asked me at a seminar several summers ago. “Can I be assured that all my efforts will pay off?”

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. You can love to read. You can read to a child regularly and a child still might struggle. Studies have shown, though, that nearly eighty-five to ninety percent of the children read to by concerned parents will at least be “normal” readers. Those are pretty good odds.

Habits Take Practice

Let’s take a look at some ideas that have helped motivate children. Being a tyrant about reading (or school work in general) will only make matters difficult. You have to make reading fun, make reading worthwhile. You may have to beat around the bush. You may have to beat around several bushes. But after a while something will connect. If one idea doesn’t work, try another.  

Fifteen Minutes a Day. Whether you are reading aloud or your child is reading alone, every child needs a few minutes of reading time every day. I hesitate giving a number of minutes since each child and every situation is different. However, fifteen minutes seems like a good number. Some kids will want more, others less.  

Getting the Right Book. A child who says he or she doesn’t like to read often hasn’t found the right book yet. Reading is like eating; not all the food at a buffet table will have the same appeal. You might have to experiment a little. Let your child check out a number of titles in the library, including non-fiction. Don’t worry if he or she doesn’t like them all.

Discovering what materials are enjoyable is part of the magic. I’m forty-two and I still like books that are easy to read with lots of pictures. 

Reading to Dolls, Animals, and Younger Siblings. Encourage your children to read, or pretend read, to a favorite doll. Abbey loves to line up her Barbies and read to them. Our ten-year-old loves to grab a book and read to our Siberian Husky in the backyard. And when they aren’t scrapping, Jon-Michael reads stories to Abbey. 

Finishing the Book. It’s okay if your child starts a book and doesn’t finish it. It might not be the right book at the right time or it might get boring. The point is your child has read some of it, even if it’s just the first few chapters. Let your child move on to greener pastures. Making a kid finish a boring book is a sure way to have him or her think of reading in the same category as root canals. This is supposed to be fun!  

Family Reading Night. At the Rutter house, we have another family night called “family home reading.” We shut off the TV, yank the phone off the hook, and gather into the living room with a blanket, a pillow, books, or magazines (and a treat). We get comfortable and read.  

Reading Time after Official Bedtime. This is a sneaky trick but it works. I learned if from my mother who is also sneaky. Many parents parlay the “I don’t want to go to bed yet . . . please can I stay up . . . please” into a reading habit. My mother’s line was, “Your bedtime is 8:00 dear. However, if you want to lie in bed and look at books you can stay up until 8:30 or so.” What kid isn’t going to take advantage of that offer.

Reading Up on an Outing. Before going on a trip or family outing, select books on the subject for your children from your local library. Have your children read about what they will be seeing. One family in our neighborhood was taking a trip through the gold country in the western Sierra Mountains. Jeannie, the mother, brought home a box of books on the California Gold Rush on a variety of reading levels. “It was one of the best family vacations we’ve ever had,” she said. “Our kids had a lot of fun since they’d read about the points of interest in advance. They are still reading about the Gold Rush and we’ve been home for several months.” 

Give Books as Presents. Make it a point to give books for presents. Even if the books don’t get read right away, they will get read sooner or later.

Beware of Expensive Reading Courses. While there might be merit to some courses, most are rather overwhelming to the struggling young reader, not to mention pricey. Consistent, steady effort pays off.

If your child has a reading problem, consult with your teacher and work out a strategy. Select books on the right level. A quick way to check the reading level is to have your child read a page aloud. If he or she makes three mistakes, find another book. If the book is too hard, your child won’t read it. Some books come with grade suggestions on the back of the jacket. This is helpful, but not always consistent. If twenty years as a teacher has taught me anything, I’ve learned there are few, if any, quick fixes. 

Have Your Kids Recount What They’ve Read. Whether you’re reading aloud or your child is reading on his own, have him recount elements in the book or story. Make a game out of your questions. You might ask simple plot questions or questions about something in the book: Why did the little girl miss her daddy? Why did Sarah think she was plain and tall? Would you eat green eggs and ham? Would you like to be Pooh or Piglet for a day? What do you think will happen next? How would you end the story?

Besides showing your children that you have an interest in their literature, you are helping teach your child to read perceptively, to read with accountability. Besides having fun with a book, it’s important that a child learns how to question, becoming an active, not passive, reader.  

Have a Library Night. Let your children explore the shelves, discovering new books and learning how to use a library. Make a practice of taking your kids to the library on a regular basis.

Comic Books Are Okay. There isn’t a correlation between comic book reading and gang behavior. Many good readers cut their teeth on Mickey Mouse, Batman, and Superman (I did). Personally, I’m more concerned with the content of some comic books than with banning all comic books categorically. In the Journal of Reading, research was done on over 200,000 young readers. Not surprisingly, it was found that most of the top readers indulged in comic books. In fact many top readers averaged a comic book a day. I wouldn’t want my children to have a steady diet of comic books, but I have no problem with the genre.  

Bribing. Bribing seems like such a harsh word. Maybe we ought to use a nicer word like “reward.” Most everyone has an opinion on this subject—paying for grades, for school work, or for books read. It certainly worked for me. As an educator, I’ve noticed that some sort of parental reward (whether it be money for pages read or good report cards, allowing driving privileges, or giving a new toy) is motivating. Each child and situation is different, and you will be the best judge of what will work best in your family.

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