I’ve been an English teacher for almost ten years now, a mom for just over five, and a book-lover/avid reader for pretty much my entire life… It’s true – as someone who gets to spend my time teaching and talking to students about books in the classroom and parenting two wonderful kids – I’m living the dream. 🙂
Perhaps ironically though (or maybe not if you’ve kept up with much of my opinions on education etc.), I’m intentionally NOT teaching my five-year-old (who, for reference, is currently living up a “bonus year” of preschool – i.e. is NOT in Kindergarten) to read…
Do I want him to be a strong and passionate reader one day? Absolutely. Do I think reading is important? A resounding, YES. In fact, as a teacher, I could make a strong case that a student’s reading skills and habits are the single biggest predictor of his academic success down the road (this 2007 study by Northwestern University, mostly, backs that up). Do I realize that there are tons of awesome resources out there for parents to help their kids get a “jump start” on reading? Yep, and, I have friends that have had GREAT success with them. Do I have some fears that maybe I’m making a mistake? Sure. What if he is behind when he starts Kindergarten next year? What if I’m missing out on crucial developmental years of instruction? I admit, there are some compelling arguments out there for starting reading instruction early, and I certainly (hear this) DO NOT judge another family’s choice to do things differently. But, in the end, I’ve made the intentional choice to let Sam experience books and stories without actually reading – for now.
More than anything else, I want him to enjoy reading. I hope that he will one day choose to read great works of literature and that they will help him see the world more closely and critically; but, sadly, as a high school English teacher, I see too many students who never get there because they get bogged down early by the academic side of reading. I want to protect the JOY of reading for my children as long as I possibly can.
Every year, I give my new ninth grade class a reading inventory, on which I ask questions about their earliest memories of reading and their current relationship with reading/books. And, every year, I am heartbroken by survey after survey that talks about how much they enjoyed reading as a little kid – their first experiences with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, The Magic Tree House series and, for many, Harry Potter – and then, how that love has faded (for some with one bad class/teacher/experience and; for others, slowly over time) as they’ve been exposed to and “educated on” books at school. Reading became something to “check off” on a homework chart every night. Books became something to “get through” and reading became a challenge of “finding the answers” for a quiz, instead of escaping, exploring, and experiencing. Each year, it seems, fewer and fewer of my high school students consider themselves “readers.” (Don’t get me wrong, there are always a few; but, still, the percentage is shockingly low.)
My own story, when I really stop to think about it, is similar. Some of my very first memories involve bedtime stories and, as I got a little older, my dad reading The Babysitters Club to me (that’s a dad huh?). I vividly remember reading my first Chapter book by myself – a Boxcar Children book – in first grade, and being hooked. In middle school, I was the kid the librarian put new books aside for; and, truly, I probably read 90% of the titles on her shelves during those years. BUT, as it does, soon I had to read for school. When push came to shove, getting good grades on quizzes won out over reading for fun, and the light flickered for many years. It wasn’t until a class on contemporary fiction I took my freshmen year of college, that I finally began to fall back in love with books and stories.
So, when I think of my own children (and my students, though that’s another post for another time), I think about sowing seeds that will run deep enough to weather the storms of sight words and phonics and book reports and reading logs.
LET ME BE CLEAR: I don’t hate those things. I think there is a time and a place for them, and I think – when done correctly – they are a necessary part of education. I am grateful for early education teachers who will instruct and teach my children to sound out words and put words together; and I will happily sign reading logs and practice sight words with my boy when the day comes. I look forward to the day that he starts reading on his own; and I CAN’T WAIT for the first time I see him curled up in his room lost in a chapter book all by himself…
I just don’t want to rush it. I want to establish the ROOTS – a love for books and reading and storytelling – first.
Of course, I’m not just blowing off reading all together. Instead, here’s what I AM doing right now:
I’m filling our house with books. My kids LOVE books, and Jeff and I pretty much have a “more the merrier” philosophy when it comes to buying books. I’ll always find another box, another bookshelf, another basket to fill with books. We buy books for holidays, for “milestones” (like this one I just ordered to talk about the election or this one in preparation for Sam’s tonsillectomy last year), and “just because.” (Hint: I pack up holiday/seasonal books with our decorations each year when that season is over. Then, the next year, when I get the decorations out, I put the holiday books on a big tray on our living room coffee table, and the kids LOVE them all over again.) We go to the library a lot. We ask for books as gifts (and give them). We keep books on the floor next to the rocking chair in Nora’s room, in a little soft basket in her bed, and on Sam’s nightstand.
I’m reading in front of him. This is actually harder than you might think… A few months ago, I realized that when I was reading on my Kindle or my iPhone (which is how I usually read nowadays), Sam didn’t necessarily realize I was doing anything more than mindlessly scrolling Facebook or Instagram; so, I’ve made an effort to buy and read more paper books and – at the very least – to show him and talk about what I’m reading on my Kindle (we’ve even read a few of his books this way just so he sees how it works). I’m a huge fan of modeling, and this is an area worth the extra effort.
I’m reading to him, a lot. This probably goes without saying, but it’s too important not to say it anyway. We read every night before bed, and it is one of our most favorite traditions together. Lately, we’ve made the shift to more chapter books over picture books, and it’s been SO fun. Jeff and I alternate nights, and Sam has two bookmarks he uses (one is a dinosaur for dad, and one is a tiger for me – naturally) to mark who is next to read. I also make it a point to ask him questions about what we are reading to help him, naturally, learn comprehension. This works especially nicely with the fact that we rotate nights because each night, before we get started, he has to tell Jeff or me what he read the night before to “catch us up.” I also stop sometimes and ask if he knows what a word means (and, sometimes, he’ll stop me) or what he would do if he was in the situation of the character in the book. Not only is reading a fun activity for us, but it often prompts great conversations too.
I’m exposing him to audiobooks and children’s podcasts. Believe it or not, this totally counts! 😉 What I find with my own students and the hundreds of kids I’ve worked with over the last ten years, is that while traditional education does a good job of teaching students how to read the actual words of a book, it is much, much harder to “teach” someone to see a story in their mind as they read. This is a skill that must be developed; and, frankly, if it’s not early on, many students grow up to be weak readers (or quit reading altogether) because it isn’t “fun” for them and they never “get lost” in the story. Audiobooks and children’s story podcasts are a GREAT way to help with this early on. We like Stories Podcast and Storynory for podcasts, and find great audiobooks at our local library and through Overdrive (if you aren’t using this, you should be!). Riding in the car – for short trips and long ones – is perfect for this; but, I’ve also been known to turn one on while Sam plays legos at home or even while he lays in bed and tries to fall asleep some nights.
I’m encouraging him to “read” to his sister and make-up the words when he doesn’t know them. I actually believe that a large part of “learning to read” happens naturally when we expose kids to books and give them the time and space to explore on their own. One of my favorite things about my kids’ current ages is that Nora LOVES to sit and be read to, and Sam has many of her favorite board books memorized by now from years of being read them himself. Nothing warms my heard more than seeing her climb in his lap with a book and watching him “read” to her. It’s perfect. I actually encourage Sam to make up the words when he doesn’t know them by looking at the pictures etc. and to focus on the STORY. Sometimes I’ll see him sounding out words or looking at letters; but, mostly, he’s just pretending, and that’s OK.
Finally, I’m letting him take the lead and answering his questions when he has them. Last but not least, and this is important, I’m following Sam’s lead. Of course I’m not trying to KEEP him from reading. When he asks me how to say a word or WANTS to try to read something on his own, I help him. The key, though, is that I’m letting him take it at his own pace… No pressure, no struggle, no stress.
I know if I looked, I could find research to back up my “philosophies” about early reading, but I could also find research to support the exact opposite approach – that’s the problem with research. Also, anecdotally, at least in Sam’s case, I’m well aware that I can’t prove that what I’m doing is right — it will be YEARS until I know whether my plan “worked” and – even then – there are a million factors that can influence a child’s relationship with books and reading. The truth is, I don’t know if Sam is going to grow up to be the reader/thinker/writer that I hope he will be one day. Only time will tell. I could be messing everything up, and – who knows? – maybe I will regret this decision one day… But I don’t think so. I’m writing this post, at least in part, to remind myself that this is not a matter of laziness or indifference on my part; quite the opposite, it is my heartfelt and purposeful effort to give my child the GIFT of stories. If I’m still here writing in ten years, I’ll let you know how it turns out! 😉
P.S. I’ve got a semi-related Teaching Tuesday post for you tomorrow + a list of 20 books I’ve got on my own kids’ Christmas list on Wednesday, so stay tuned (especially if you need something to distract you from the election). In the meantime… Here are a couple of other posts you might enjoy on this topic:
My Life in Books: 10 Novels That Made Me Fall in Love with Reading
High School Independent Reading Unit You Can Start Tomorrow (+ a link to my reading inventory/survey at the bottom of the post)
How I’m Changing My Summer Reading and How I Choose a Book (Spoiler: I just want my students to LIKE it.)
Why I Like SparkNotes & Three Ideas for Checking Reading
P.S.S. My favorite blog for book ideas for kids is Cool Mom Picks – definitely worth a follow if you aren’t already!