There are three things children need to become self-sufficient readers, and they’re pretty simple: access to books, choice about what to read, and to feel the love when it comes to the reading experience, especially at first.
1. Access to Books
See Richard Allington’s extensive research about how important it is for children to be able to browse and find books on a wide variety of topics. A classroom book shelf with 20 titles isn’t sufficient, even for one reader. Allington’s research shows that even in schools with well-stocked libraries, students read more if their classroom libraries are also full of high-quality books, because students probably only visit the school library once or twice a week. This access is also important from home, because it greatly increases the chances that children will read.
2. Choice in Books
Children need to be able to choose books for themselves. Preferences vary widely and no reader enjoys a book that feels stale – so it doesn’t make sense to insist that children read things they actively dislike.
3. Book Love
Love for books can be generated by modeling and by positive associations with reading. Modeling involves surrounding a child with people who are positive about reading – and who actually read themselves. When kids see their parents, teachers, and older siblings reading for pleasure, this is a powerful lesson that reading has value and is worth the time.
Positive experiences with reading are also essential for growing a love for books. If you’ve ever had a young person snuggle up to you while you read a bedtime story, that’s a positive association with reading. If you’ve ever laughed over something in a book and re-read it to someone else, that’s a positive association. If you’ve ever read something that made you cry or feel angry or think about it for days, that’s an important part of growing as a human being, even if it's actually a little uncomfortable. That’s right: book love can hurt! We want to be readers who consider ideas and sometimes change our thinking when we encounter new perspectives and information. That’s a transformative experience with ultimate intrinsic rewards, and the best way to encourage people to continue to read.
1. But what about . . . if it’s financially challenging or inconvenient to acquire books to give my children increased access?
Families make countless financial decisions, and not everyone is in a position to have a place to store books, much less purchase them. It can also be tricky to visit the library if you have limited transportation and/or time to get to one, and time to read in school is particularly important for readers in this situation. However, if you can get to the library and the bookstore and you just haven’t made the time, give it a try. The library makes a great family outing, and libraries and bookstores often host various clubs and community events as a bonus. Libraries also frequently loan things you might not expect, including audio books, e-readers, and e-books for a variety of devices. This can be a time-saving way to access thousands of books throughout the year. Sometimes school districts or communities arrange for “pop up” libraries to visit neighborhoods – vans or buses that go to schools or parks on designated days (often in the summer), and this can be another great way to find some new reading material.
2. But what about . . . when my child’s teacher said she was a level M?
Please resist the urge to give a sticker too much power. It’s true that a book that is too challenging for a reader will likely be frustrating, but it’s also true that the science of leveling books is imprecise. The Giver, for example, is a short text with simple vocabulary and straightforward sentences, but it also includes some disturbing ideas about managing societies. A motivated student can successfully read texts that are more challenging than his/her designated level, especially if it’s a topic that’s interesting to the reader, or if the reader has a strong reason to want to read the text.
When we put level stickers on books and only allow kids to choose titles from two tubs, we are limiting access and stifling choice. It’s okay to point your child to good-fit recommendations, but let your child try books and then reflect, “I don’t think this is a match for me right now,” whether that’s because it’s too depressing, too many words are too hard to recognize, or the writing style isn’t clicking. These are all things “real” readers are aware of when they decide to stick with or abandon books they read for pleasure, and we want children to be aware of these choices and reasons.
3. But what about . . . the fact that my child doesn’t choose high-quality books?
Lots of “real” readers don’t choose texts that experts might consider high art. Romances, westerns, science fiction, and fantasy genres are highly popular, but rarely celebrated for literary excellence. But there’s a lot of low-brow content in Shakespeare, which most experts do agree is high art. Similarly, books like Captain Underpants feature bathroom humor. Although third graders are frequently connoisseurs of fart jokes, there’s always that eight-year-old who says “I can’t fathom what the masses find so appealing about a chase scene ending in dog poop,” at the same time another eight-year-old can’t stop laughing about it. The point is, readers need to drive the bus – they have to have choice about what they read, or it’s an exercise for parents and teachers instead of a process by which children get better at self-selecting books they enjoy.
“Dessert books” have a place in our reading lives; it’s okay to read books simply because we like them! A useful rule of thumb for book selection is that about one out of every five is a book that pushes you in some way – it’s a new author, it’s a genre you don’t normally try, it’s a long book about a topic that interests you, it’s a classic you always wanted to read, or it’s a short book about a topic that’s completely new to you. The other four might be familiar choices, with one or two that are easy reads for you, and two or three that are right in your current comfort zone.
It’s probably true that you will be disappointed if your child only ever reads Captain Underpants. It’s also true that when your child reads and loves books of any kind, it is much more likely that he will continue to read and love others.
4. But what about . . . when my child is addicted to one particular series and won’t read anything else?
I have seen this with Erin Hunter’s Warriors series and Lauren Tarshis’ I Survived series and a number of others. Series books are comforting to many readers, because they know exactly what to expect, and they already know they will like it. It’s much harder to risk a new book, go 25 pages in and decide it’s not a good fit right now.
Be encouraging about the reading children are doing. Ask questions and really listen to the discussion and enthusiasm the reader has for the series. Gently suggest a few similar titles outside the series when you are at the library or the bookstore, but make sure the number of positive comments and questions outweighs the number of critiques about the series, especially for readers ages 8 – 12.
Conversations about the process of reading can model book choice strategies (and this is likely something the school addresses, as well). Think aloud about how you yourself want to take a risk and try a new genre, and does your child have any recommendations. Ask whether your child is thinking about how to challenge him/herself as a reader in terms of variety (without being too pushy or attached to a specific recommendation yourself), and whether your child would like some new book recommendations – you can find these at your library, from your teacher, or from Ideas for Learners. For older readers, approaching this conversation more like a partnership and less like a lecture is key.
5. But what about . . . my child has dyslexia, vision issues, or some other challenge related to reading?
There are lots of text to speech apps that will read text aloud, as well as a wide selection of audio books. Voice Dream Reader, for example, will read web pages, pdfs, and almost any type of text document (and you can choose the voice you prefer). This allows students to get practice generating opinions, connections, predictions, inferences, and to enjoy books without the struggle of visually processing the text.
When it’s time to practice the visual processing part of reading to build that stamina, short regular sessions are best. Parents can also support this by reading books together – maybe the student reads one page and the parent reads the next page, or the child and parent can each read the book independently and discuss it together. You can extend this by creating a family book club in which everyone is reading and discussing the same child-selected book. The important idea with this kind of practice is to keep the sessions positive while you read and discuss books together, and to keep the difficult practices manageably short. If it’s feeling like a slog through Mordor, change something.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were asked to do something beyond your current expertise that you don’t enjoy, night after night, in front of someone you want to impress. Let’s say that you have to calculate someone else’s complex taxes, or organize a messy garage, for example. As you work, someone is standing over your shoulder, jumping on your errors the moment you make them – before you have even had a chance to figure out what’s going wrong and how to make it right.
Let’s also imagine that, in addition to wanting to impress this person, someone else you want to impress is listening in. You would not look forward to this process at all – your main objective would be to get it over with as quickly as possible. But this is exactly the position we can put kids in when we ask them to read aloud to a parent with an older or younger sibling listening as an audience, when we are ready to correct every mispronunciation.
We want children to understand the meaning of the text and to be able to sound out words, and they are going to make mistakes during this learning. If the mistakes are obviously disappointing to someone else, or the prevailing attitude is that the student is behind and needs to catch up, or it seems like a correction party, it’s very hard for a student to focus on the actual reading, because the negative feelings about not being “good” at reading are likely to get in the way. It’s okay to help a reader who is stuck, or to make a correction that is crucial for meaning, but it’s also important to pause and enjoy the ideas in the book together. If a child is enthusiastic about reading and mispronounces words, you don’t have to be worried, because that child will keep reading and will learn those words . . . and many others.
6. But what about . . . our schedule is really busy and we don’t have time to read or go to the library?
I believe you are busy. Parenting is not easy and time is a huge part of that, especially if you have several kids involved in activities. However, you can find time if you commit to doing it, just as you might commit to cooking healthy meals or exercising. If younger siblings wait during older sister’s swim practice, you can be reading. If you are waiting in the doctor’s office, you can be reading. Get in the habit of taking a book with you, in case you find yourself with spare time to read. It is often surprising how many minutes you can find if you make the effort to claim reading time. Instead of trying to overhaul your entire schedule, start by doing a little more than you are already doing. Could the screens turn off so everyone in the family can drop everything and read for twenty minutes once a week? Could everyone make a goal to read for ten minutes each night before bed for a week and see how it goes? Small changes can lead to big results over time.
Every once in a while I meet a student who struggles mightily to find a book he likes. I always explain it’s that he hasn’t met the right book yet, and this is important because I want him to know it’s not an option to stop searching or to stop trying, and there’s nothing wrong with him if he doesn’t love my favorite books. His favorites are out there – it’s just a matter of finding them.
The following three books are excellent books about self-selected reading. Although they are primarily directed to teachers, there is plenty of valuable information for parents.
The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller
Book Love: Developing Depth, Passion, and Stamina in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle
Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child by Pernille Ripp
Richard Allington’s book, What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs, offers a detailed discussion of very specific aspects of reading instruction and recommendations about what schools can do to make the most of the research on literacy.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, is a book with broader social implications, but it speaks to the importance of choice and autonomy, using real-world examples from various business models.
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada.