Instill the Love of Reading in Your Child
If you loved to read as a teenager and you are familiar with today's teen literature, you know that the literary world for this age group has changed remarkably. The "young adult" category, which didn't even exist 25 or 30 years ago, brings a wealth of quality choices to readers who are not quite ready for adult books but are too mature for traditional books for older children.
In spite of this plethora of exciting literary choices, a crisis grows in the world of teenage readers: Even the most avid of them seems to drop the reading habit as they enter high school – sometimes as early as middle school. While there may not be much that can be done about it in the short term, it's something that shouldn't be ignored either. Fortunately, there are strategies for making sure this temporary aversion doesn't become permanent.
FUNdamentals of Reading
In elementary school, reading is nothing but fun. Schools and parents focus on building a sense of excitement and wonder about books, holding book fairs, reading aloud as a class or in the home and giving children encouragement and opportunity to explore literature, new and old, with visits to the library and book store – and then comes middle school.
Anne Reeves is a professor at Susquehanna University with a research interest in adolescent literature. She wrote Adolescents Talk About Reading: Exploring Resistance to and Engagement With Text (International Reading Association, 2004), featuring in-depth case studies of adolescents, most of whom were avid readers as younger children, then stopped reading as they got older. She notes that it was common for the kids she studied to tell her that they used to love to read but just didn't seem to enjoy it anymore.
"When kids get to middle school, they no longer have the freedom to read what they choose," says Reeves. "A lot of their reading is required and may not necessarily be a subject or genre that holds any interest for them. In addition, they have more demands on their time and options of how to spend time. Video games, hanging out with friends, after school clubs, activities and sports can make reading fall by the wayside."
Young adult author Steve Alten, whose most recent book is The Loch (Tsunami Books, 2005), agrees with Reeves, and notes that as children get closer to high school, they are also required more and more to read "the classics," and those books may simply not be relevant, or interesting, to them. "You have the combination of raging hormones and other interests, along with the fact that now, instead of reading what they want, they 'have' to read something that's a hundred years old and they can't relate to," he says. "All of a sudden reading is no longer fun."
Not to say that there isn't a place in academia for the classics – merely, Reeves argues, they should be a separate focus in the curriculum, and not carry the weight of the mainstream reading curriculum that high schoolers are expected to carry. "I would like to see teachers and the people in charge of curriculums be much clearer in their own minds about the purpose of reading," says Reeves. "Reading helps young people experience different lives vicariously, understand different characters and learn about how people operate. Schools conflate that by trying to pass on cultural traditions through literature, so they have these books written for adults by adults and read in adult life by a tiny, tiny portion of the population. What children learn is these great pieces of literature are boring."
This is intellectually detrimental because, while reading should be enjoyable, the act of reading benefits beyond mere entertainment, and these benefits are not limited to the very young. Schools are more likely to create lifelong readers by focusing on the teaching of great literature as a project that is qualitatively different than teaching young people to appreciate and use the printed word. "The act of reading familiarizes a person with the way words are grouped and spelled as well as increasing the vocabulary," says Alten. "It's an ongoing process that matures as the child matures. Educators may not realize it, but this also can help when it comes time to face those state exams, because so much of them require good reading skills."
Making Reading Fun
There isn't much parents can do about their schools' curriculums – and schools don't make changes easily – but there are things parent can do to help keep reading enjoyable for their adolescents:
Focus on what your children like to read, and encourage them to explore the book, author or genre further. After Alten's first book, MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror (Bantam, 1998), became a hit with young adult readers, he received hundreds of e-mails from teenage fans who told him they had hated to read until they picked up this book. He went on to found Adopt an Author, which aims to get teenagers excited about reading by helping them find books that thrill them and enabling them to have direct contact with the authors of those books. There are also resources on the site for teachers to build curriculums around today's best-selling young adult books.
Another great resource to get teens interested in books is the International Reading Association (IRA). Each year since 1989, the IRA has used feedback from teen readers around the country to develop the Young Adults Choices Booklist. In other words, this is what other teens like, so your teen may like the choices as well.
Finally, you should continually evaluate your child's reading level and become knowledgeable about literature that caters both to their abilities and their age. Cathy Denman, a reading specialist and the chair of IRA's Young Adult Choices Committee, says a fourth grader may be an advanced enough reader to read a book for young adults, but that's not usually a good choice given the child's social development. For this age group, she suggests exploring classic literature aimed at young adults of the past. These types of books will have more challenging vocabulary without the mature themes of today's young adult selections. In general, Denman says, while the line is a bit fuzzy and depends upon the child, most young adult books are appropriate for grades 7 through 12.