by Dr. Laura Markham
Forget Baby Einstein. The single best way to increase your child's IQ is to read to her. Does she read every evening, not because it's assigned, but just for fun? Some kids do, and those are the ones who do better academically every step of the way. We know that school performance correlates more directly with children's reading scores than any other single indicator. We know that adults who read more often are happier. Virtually all parents buy board books for their babies and say they hope they'll love reading.
And yet, by middle school, most kids stop reading books that aren't assigned in school. Only 28 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficiency level in reading in 1994, in fact, only two percent read at an advanced level.
What happens? The habit of reading never really gets ingrained in childhood. Our kids love leafing through books as toddlers, looking at the pictures. They may even enjoy reading as elementary schoolers. But reading is hard work, and life offers so many other ways to entertain themselves that reading always seems more like work than play. They never get to that delicious place where reading a book is more fun than almost anything.
So how can you coax your child into a lasting love of reading?
And not just at bedtime. Buy board books and cloth books as some of your child's first toys. Carry them around with snacks in the diaper bag. Create "cozy time," a ritual of connection in which you both associate love and cuddling with reading. Anytime either of you needs a break, grab a book and read to your child. Post tantrum, during lunch, after school, while you have your coffee on Sunday, any time can be cozy time.
Start going regularly by the time your child is two and she may well prefer reading to any other activity. Use the time in the library to read to your child as well as to select books. My kids would never sit still at library "Storytimes," but if your child likes them, by all means go. Write down the names of the books if your library can't give you a printout, so you can keep track of returning them on time. Keep library books on a separate shelf in the living room or kitchen so you don't lose them and so you can always easily find something new to read. (If you don't take them out of the house, you won't lose them.)
I found that before my children could really participate in meals, reading to them during lunch or an early dinner (when the other parent isn't yet home from work) entertained them enough to keep them sitting. They were much more likely to try the foods I put in front of them with my company and the diversion of a book, than if I let them sit in the high chair or at the kitchen table while I cooked.
He will read naturally once he develops the preliminary skills. Your goal is not to help him sound out words, but to encourage a love of books, both pictures and stories. You are not his teacher, and teaching him phonics will take all the fun out of reading. If you push him, he'll feel put on the spot, and if he tries before he's ready, he'll feel dumb. That feeling will last his whole life, and it won't endear reading to him.
Some very smart children don't learn to read until they're over seven years old. Don't worry. They'll quickly catch up with those who started at four or five. I know two children who were reading at 3 years old, and at 6 years old, respectively. They are both now 9, and in the fourth grade. They both read at about an eighth grade reading level. The only difference is that the early reader feels insecure about no longer being "special," and often acts obnoxiously superior to other kids. There is absolutely no benefit to pushing your child to read "early," and there are many drawbacks.
Read to him every step of the way, for as long as he'll let you. Continuing to read to him will keep him interested as his skills develop.
Parents often complain that their early readers CAN read, but just don't seem interested in doing so. Most kids go through this stage, but you can help to keep it a brief one. The child's problem, of course, is that he can read simple books, but his imagination craves more developed plots and characters. Those books are agonizing work, with too many words he doesn't know, and the labor distracts him from the story. He needs his parents to keep reading to him, to keep him fascinated with the secrets of books and motivated to become a proficient reader.
At this vulnerable stage, it is well worth the extra time to track down books he can read and will find exciting. Picture books with lots of words work well, since he can use the pictures to help him stay interested and figure out the words. Soon, through his work in school, as well as the books he picks up at home, his reading skills will catch up with his appetite for books. Within a few months, he'll be able to handle simple chapter books. At that point, look for series books, which often lure kids on to the next book and the next.
Set up a "cozy reading time" every day. This can be a perfect chill-out time after school, or wind-down time at the end of the evening. It's amazing how motivated kids are to read if this allows them to stay up a little later. We negotiated a half hour later bedtime that our first graders were ready for anyway, as long as it was spent in bed reading.
Some six-year-olds are just so tired by the end of the day, however, that reading is simply too much work for them then. Until your child is ready for bedtime reading, try setting up her cozy reading time while you make dinner, after homework is done. The only downside to this is that you'll need to scrape out a half hour to start her off (see #7, below) at what is probably your busiest time of the day.
Pick a book she can read, but might not choose on her own -- a simple chapter book, rather than a picture book, for example. Read together till you have to answer the phone or start dinner, but a minimum of a quarter of the book, so your child is hooked. Then tell her it's time for her read-alone time. It's her choice. Does she want to keep reading the book you've just gotten her into, or read something else? Most kids grab the book and finish it themselves. (If she doesn't, you may need to drop back a level to a slightly simpler book.) Keep choosing engrossing, slightly harder books.
Do this with him during your read-aloud time. But if he stumbles, supply the word. Don't make him stop and sound things out; your goal is to keep him excited about the book by moving forward with the story. I recommend this only for limited periods of time -- it tires kids out -- and I recommend that you not be rigid about enforcing your child's participation (in other words, have them do every third page, or fourth). If you take the fun out of reading with him, you've done more harm than good.
Some kids get a terrific jump start from comics, which are less intimidating to them than chapter books. Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes and the Tin Tin series, for instance, are kid pleasers with sophisticated vocabulary and concepts.
I know she can read anything herself now. But why give up such an important time to connect with each other emotionally? Why give up the chance to read books that trigger good discussions about values and choices and hardships and hope? Don't stop till she fires you. My fourteen-year-old can read physics books I can't fathom, but he still lets me read history to him occasionally. The best part for both of us is then talking about what we've read.
If they don't see you read, why should they? Discuss what you're all reading at the dinner table. Institutionalize family reading time, when a parent reads to the whole family. As kids get older, they can take over the role of reader, or the book can be passed around the circle.
There is no way a book can compete with TV or computer. Most kids, given the choice, just won't choose the book often enough to make it a habit. Before you know it, they'll have developed other habits for relaxing, and reading will be something other people do. Limiting technology really works. And in my experience, it's totally worth it.
How do you feel about these techniques?