I’m not going to lie. I feel a little bit uncomfortable writing this post… but one of the kids’ teachers asked me to.
Because my Pixie–my just-barely-turned-six kindergartner–has to leave her kindergarten classroom every day to go have English/Language Arts with the big kids. She has read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by herself, and at her request. She powers through the American Girls books like nobody’s business, and last year she happily read things like The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Now she is enjoying–can you even use that word to describe them?–The Series of Unfortunate Events.
“That’s a fourth grade reading level,” the kids’ Fabulous Principal said.
Apparently I was completely unaware of how impressed I should have been. And why should I be? My only other experience with a Reading Child was the Boy… and he had polished off Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before Halloween the year he was in kindergarten.
Now, in fourth grade, he has inhaled the Percy Jackson books at a rate that sent me to the bookstore three times in one week, is tackling the Iliad (thank you, Percy Jackson!) and has read all 2,512 pages of the Fablehaven series since Christmas.
Am I bragging? Yeah… just a little.
But I am also stating my qualifications… such as they are. Because I’m not a teacher. I don’t have a degree in education. I don’t homeschool.
I am prone to losing my temper and using age-inappropriate words in the presence of my children. And I am not talking about multi-syllabic, ace-your-SATs sort of words either; think more short-and-to-the-point, Old English sort of words.
And you want me to write a post on How to Raise a Clever Reader?
“But I haven’t done anything!” I told the kids’ teacher.
“Obviously you have,” she said.
So I went home and thought about it. I quizzed my husband and children and friends. I procrastinated. A lot.
(I have written forests worth of rough drafts.)
And this is what I have come up with.
You. And your co-parent. You really need to love books. You need to enjoy the written word. If you don’t happen to love books, you can always fake it… and if you do the thing properly, I think you will soon find that you do actually come to love books. Books are sneaky that way.
Read. A lot.
No, I don’t mean read to the kids–we’ll get to that part later.
I mean sit down with a good book (and maybe a cup of tea!) and read. And it is important for the kids to see you do it.
There, you now have an ironclad excuse to leave dirty dishes in the sink and dog-hair clumps gathering in the hallway. (You’re welcome! )
You can even ignore the kids for a little while while you are reading. Things like, “I’m going to read for another fifteen minutes, and then we’ll build trains,” or “Just let me finish this chapter and then I’ll start dinner,” are actually good for your children to hear on a number of levels–but especially when it comes to fostering a love of books. You have just taught your children that reading is an important and pleasurable activity.
For this to work, though, you really need to be reading an ink-and-paper book. While I’m sure that e-readers are wonderful things, if you are simply staring at a screen, how would your little one know you are reading a book, and not just checking Facebook, playing a game, or reading a fabulous blog?
Keep books in the house.
I might have a teeny-tiny book-buying problem… though the upper stories of my house have not yet fallen into the basement due to the weight of the books, so I say we’re good.
My books are necessary: decorative items, as well as useful tools. It gives me pleasure to see my rows of my hardcover Harry Potter and Outlander books lining the shelves. And I find great joy in looking up words in my great-grandfather’s 1916 leather-bound dictionary–though it’s not always all that useful; words change, you know.
And where would my husband be without ready access to The Illustrated History of Weaponry? We browse cookbooks looking for dinner ideas and reach for reference books (at least sometimes) before resorting to Google.
Read to your kids.
(‘Cause you totally needed me to tell you that, right?)
But, seriously, read to your kids starting the day they are born… if not before. If they have been born for a while, start right now.
I will never forget… we started reading Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone to the Boy the day we brought him home from the hospital, all curled up in bed together… and we’ve read to him (and now the Pixie, too) almost every night since.
And don’t stop reading to your kids just because they can read for themselves.
Sometimes choose books that are above your kids’ “pay grade.”
Obviously everything is above a newborn’s “pay grade,” and yet he will quickly learn that reading is a warm, cozy time full of love and cuddles and the sound of Mommy or Daddy’s voice. As he gets older, this will carry over into being entertained by words–not just pictures–and he will get used to long words, descriptive phrases, and language that is not necessarily included in picture books.
Obviously you will need to choose your books with care (no Fifty Shades of Grey, okay? Not even for a newborn.)
My kids are pretty brave when it comes to the written word and we’ve done, among other things, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Little House books, Little Women, and, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh. (Do I really need to mention that I simply adore Winnie-the-Pooh?)
We always chose to read chapter books at bedtime, when the kids were cuddly and sleepy already.
Read picture books, too.
Do the voices. Read with inflection. Shout, if necessary. Go right ahead and let the Bear “gnarl and snarl and roar and rumble.” It’s all kinds of fun, kids love it, and it can be a great stress-reliever, too!
Pick books with parts for your kids, too. Even a baby can do the “pat-a-pat, pat-a-pat, pat” part of Wet Dog or make kissing noises for Kiss Kiss. When they get a little older, they can have their very own lines. “It was round. It was red. It bounced on his bed. Bouncy, bouncy…” and your child will triumphantly shout, “ Ball!” Maybe you will point to the word ”ball” while he does.
Keep stories in story time.
Save books about shapes, colors, and farm animals for learning about shapes and colors and farm animals. These books are all excellent tools… and it’s wonderful to read non-fiction books, too, but most of them are not story books. Stories don’t need to be long…The Very Hungry Caterpillar, A Color of His Own, and Baby Loves are all fairly short, cute stories.
However, if your kid is interested in dinosaurs, sharks, castles, or whatever, be sure to read about them, too!
Teach children how to handle books.
Board books are great for this (plus tucking into the diaper bag for reading while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office!) because they are fairly indestructible. And, also cheap. But children should learn how to “read” books without tearing the pages when they are still young. My kids have always sat and “read” books to themselves long before they could actually read.
Play word games.
Die-hard Outlander fans are probably recall the game “The Minister’s Cat,” (at least I first heard about it in Drums of Autumn; maybe you are familiar with it from somewhere else) wherein everyone goes around describing the Minister’s Cat.
The Minister’s Cat is an apathetic cat… The Minister’s Cat is an ancient cat… The Minister’s Cat is an ambidextrous cat… The Minister’s Cat is an acrobatic cat… Everyone takes a turn with each letter before moving on to the next letter.
We play this game all the time… and don’t skimp on the words, either, leaving my kids spouting words like “dubious,” “elegant,” and “suspicious” in everyday conversation.
When they were younger we played Mama Ate, which is the same basic idea… only using nouns (though not necessarily edible ones) instead of adjectives.
Mama ate an apple… Mama ate a blackberry… Mama ate a cucumber…
I have “eaten” my fair share of elephants, radishes (yuck!) and hats to general hilarity. Even before the Pixie could identify which sounds went with which words, we always encouraged her to participate–by keeping track of what letter came next!
We had these magnetic letters on our refrigerator and dishwasher for ages. The kids could find letters (often when my husband was making breakfast, he would request specific letters), or even spell simple words.
Even if you want your kitchen to stay relatively quiet, I encourage you to pick out some sort of letter game that plays an annoying song. I can’t tell you how many times we sang:
A says ‘a” and a says ‘a’… Every letter makes a sound and a says ‘a’ and ‘a.’
We still sometimes sing it when we’re trying to sound out a word!
Be wary of “read for 30 minutes a day” mandates.
There are probably kids out there who wouldn’t read at all if it wasn’t assigned as homework. Recently I saw the horrifying statistic that 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. Yikes!
But for Clever Readers… mandates like these are likely to have the opposite effect. Sort of like the well-meaning aunt who compliments your children for eating all their broccoli–it gets your kids wondering, Why wouldn’t I want to eat broccoli?
Reading mandates can easily convince children that an activity they thought was pleasurable and purely for fun is, in fact, a chore.
We make sure that for our kids, reading is always for fun or for learning interesting things.
So this is my list. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.
Tell me, what do you do to raise a Clever Reader?
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