Help Your Child to Enjoy Reading
When Alison Pohn McCarthy was a child, she loved to read. "I don't even remember not being able to read," she says. "I was one of those kids who read under the covers with a flashlight because I just couldn't put my book down."
She grew up in a house full of books, spent time weaving her own stories and later became a published writer herself. So when she started a family, she naturally hoped to instill in her child the same passion for the written word that she had always felt.
"From the day [my daughter Lexie] came home from the hospital, reading to her was part of the bedtime ritual," Alison says. "She'd have her favorites, and she started chapter books as she got a little older. I'd always read to her because I felt that was important to her and important time together."
Research shows that Alison was right in these assumptions. Richard Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, says reading to a young child can help develop a love of reading that will persist throughout a lifetime.
"Part of it is the association with something exciting and pleasurable – a time with Mommy or Daddy or a grandparent," Anderson says. "But it's more the skills and concepts that the child acquires. The child will learn something about the structure of stories, about book language, about letters and words. And that lays a foundation."
Alison carefully laid that foundation for her daughter. But when it came time for Lexie to learn to read herself, she wasn't doing it. She became frustrated and dreaded going to kindergarten on the days her class studied language arts.
Alison took a proactive approach and had her daughter tested, only to learn that – although an advanced child – Lexie had learning differences that were keeping her from reading at the same level as other children her age. Alison decided the best way to help her daughter adapt to her own learning style was to avoid pushing her too hard. But it really bothered Lexie that she excelled in all areas except reading.
"I think it was her own expectation," Alison says. "She was used to being at the top and was used to being the kid who could zip up her jacket when the other kids couldn't or the kid who could skip first. With reading, she was developmentally at the other end. Her way of dealing with it was just not dealing with it – period."
Lexie was gifted in many other areas, and excelled at school. And because her mother understood the importance of reading, she found ways around her daughter's learning difference. For example, when Lexie's school class read Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Alison and Lexie took turns reading the book aloud to each other. When they went on a family vacation, Alison got some books on tape for her daughter. Later, when those books were assigned in school, Lexie had a much better time getting through them.
Anderson encourages other parents to take the same course of action if their children don't enjoy recreational reading.
"If a kid is a reluctant reader I'd be trying to cater to the child's interests," Anderson says. "If he's interested in sports or building things, find books about those things."
Now 13 years old and a good student, Lexie reads everything she's supposed to. But her mother is still hoping a love of recreational reading will eventually "click."
"She has The Catcher in The Rye. She was at an overnight camp and one of the counselors was talking about it and it intrigued her," Alison says. "She asked me to send it to her and I thought, 'Any book she's interested in. Whatever she wants to read, I'll give her to read. I'd be glad if she read a comic book."
While Lexie excels despite her difference, that's not always the case with nonreaders. In fact, studies have shown a high correlation between independent reading as a child and later success in all areas of school. There's even a relation between childhood reading and level of educational attainment. And because so much of the information that we learn in our lives is acquired through reading, Anderson says the correlation simply makes sense.
"If I told you that one group of boys or girls had a thousand hours where they played basketball and another group had a thousand hours where they watched TV, which group would be playing basketball better?"
Handling the Reluctant Reader
Alison encourages parents to be vigilant about what's going on at school. While her daughter attended a private school with a high amount of individual attention from teachers, it was her mother who noticed that Lexie was behind in reading skills – and her mother who pushed for the testing that would unveil the mystery.
"Be very attentive as to why this happening," she advises. "Push the school to do the testing or take the child to get tested yourself. Work closely with the school to make sure reading isn't used as a punitive thing."
Although Lexie didn't like to read for enjoyment, Alison made sure her daughter was continuously exposed to the art of storytelling by reading to her and letting her listen to books on tape. Alison stresses the point that when it comes to motivating a child to read, setting a good example is the most crucial thing a parent can do.
"Look at your own lifestyle; if you're not picking up a book and having a house full of books, why should your child? If you just watch TV and don't pick up a book, why would they?"
And if repeated attempts the turn on your child to everything from Harry Potter to Ramona Quimby are met with resistance, Alison says the best prescription for both parent and child is patience.
"Parents have to realize overall that if you're a reader and your kid isn't – the kid you're given to parent is just who they are. And the minute you try to change who they are, you're gonna have an unhappy kid and you're gonna be an unhappy parent."