Build your child’s love of reading with these tips
By Christina Elston
The Velveteen Rabbit wasn’t Jennifer Graves’ first love. Snow White is the first book she remembers falling for as a child. “I thought it was so scary, but I wanted to read it again and again to get to the end, where everything works out,” she says. She enjoyed lots of other books, too – Frog and Toad, Where the Wild Things Are, and books by Judy Blume.
For a few years when Graves was a teen, reading took a back seat to other things. And then one of her college professors read The Velveteen Rabbit aloud in class. “I had never heard that book, or any book, read aloud like that,” she says. “I was hooked all over again.”
Today, Graves is a librarian at the Redondo Beach Public Library, reading aloud at children’s storytimes that are filled to capacity – and beyond.
Where to Start
Reading aloud is an important part of building any child’s love of books, and you can start the day they are born. Because newborns can’t focus their eyes well at first, Eva Mitnick, Coordinator of Children’s Services at the Los Angeles Public Library, recommends board books with simple, bold images, such as Black on White and White on Black by Tana Hoban, or Baby Faces by Margaret Miller.
“Young babies won’t pay attention for more than a few seconds at first,” says Mitnick. “When they fuss, it’s time to put the book down. Soon enough, babies will wiggle and bat their hands at their favorite pages, and they will be associating books and reading with the warmth and love of being held in their parent’s arms.”
If you’re a sleep-deprived new parent and can’t manage to read anything beyond a magazine or a book for sleep-deprived new parents, that’s OK, says Kelly Behle, Youth Services Coordinator for the Santa Clarita Public Library. Your baby is still enjoying the sound of your voice. You’re also fostering the beginnings of your child’s understanding of the way words sound, and the way they look on a printed page, something Sandra Albini, Children’s Library Supervisor at the Beverly Hills Public Library, refers to as “phonological and print awareness.”
Read Out Loud
Most librarians and other experts agree that reading aloud should be a daily activity, and that you can keep it up well after your child has graduated from picture books. “I read aloud to them until they begged me to stop, and then a little bit longer,” says Behle of her own children. This allowed her to share books too advanced for her kids to tackle on their own, and provided some great family time. “Reading aloud to our children gives us a moment to stop and just be present,” she says.
Don’t worry about how long you spend reading each day, just make it a habit. “There will be times when the most you can handle is a couple of quick minutes that you steal from your busy day,” says Marilyn Taniguchi, Library Services Manager at the Beverly Hills Public Library. But if you’ve built the habit of reading and the love of reading, you will come back to it when there is more time. Make it easier to grab those reading moments by being ready to read anywhere. “Always have a book that you carry around, and be able to pull it out when you’re waiting somewhere,” suggests Albini.
Be ready to pull out books your children will truly love by consulting lists of winners of Caldecott Medals (given for outstanding picture book illustration) and Newbery Medals (given for outstanding writing in children’s literature) and, of course, asking your local children’s librarian.
Graves also suggests asking what your child’s friends are reading, and finding out what kinds of books they check out at their school library. Ask your children about books they have read, whether or not they enjoyed them, and why. Take time to read some of the books your child reads. “Then you can have a discussion about the book,” says Graves.
Don’t ask reluctant readers what they are interested in reading. Ask what they are interested in doing, advises Behle. “Nonfiction is very often the key for the reluctant reader,” she explains, because those children are less likely to get caught up in a story than to be fascinated by a topic of interest.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the book itself that is the problem. “Sometimes kids don’t like reading because they don’t think they’re very good at it,” says Graves. If your child seems to be struggling with the mechanics of reading, consider having his or her eyes checked in case an undiagnosed vision problem is getting in the way. Consult your child’s teacher as well to see whether a learning disability such as dyslexia might be the issue.
While you make sure your struggling reader gets the help he or she needs at school, at home, let reading be purely a joy, advises Paul Curtis, Lower School Reading Chair at Westmark School in Encino. “The less pressure, the better,” says Curtis, who urges parents to let their children choose their own books and to resist the urge to correct their children’s reading mistakes when they are reading for pleasure.
Make sure that your child has an opportunity to choose books that mirror his or her own interests, and don’t worry too much that a book is “too easy” or is in an unusual format, such as a graphic novel. “The more children read, the better they get at it, but they won’t read much if it’s no fun for them,” says Mitnick.
Letting your child read to a younger sibling – or even a pet – means “the pressure’s off” and the experience is pure fun, says Graves.
Another way to encourage your child is to take away the burden of decoding the text. “Reading is not enjoyable until you have flow. It’s just work,” says Behle. Take turns reading pages or chapters with your child, so that she can just enjoy the story.
If your child finds decoding the text a challenge, it is especially important to focus on comprehension. Talking with your child about what she thinks the characters in a book look like, helping her act out parts of the story, or letting her draw pictures about the story will help her see that she can still understand and enjoy a story, even though she struggles with the words on the page, explains Curtis.
Substituting an iPad or a Kindle for the printed page can have real kid appeal. Mitnick says studies show that older children – especially boys – may be willing to spend a longer time with a book on an e-reader than in print. But she has a caveat: “If the device is enabled for apps and the Internet, readers may soon be distracted!” Mitnick also worries that parents will be tempted to substitute reading apps on their devices for the shared experience of reading with their children.
Albini shares a similar view. “Reading is reading,” she says, calling it “wonderful in all formats.” Still, there is no substitute for cuddling up with a book. “The best place for a young child to enjoy a picture book,” she says, “is in a parent’s lap.”
Christina Elston is editor of L.A. Parent.
L.A. Parent Adopts Cleveland Elementary School’s Library
Enter Our Shooting Stars Cover Kids Contest and Donate a Book
When Shannon Malone became principal of Grover Cleveland Elementary School in northwest Pasadena in 2010, there was a lot of work to do. One of her goals was to update the library. Most of the books were from the 1970s, and even with some new additions it’s not enough to serve 300 hungry little minds.
L.A. Parent is asking families that enter our Shooting Stars Cover Kids contest, coming in October to Westfield Century City, to bring new (or very gently used) children’s books to the event to donate. We will give your child a special book plate so they can write their name and a message to Cleveland students and attach it inside the book. One idea Malone offers: “I liked this book because ….”
“We need a lot more nonfiction books kids would be interested in, those kinds of books that will interest them in really looking for information,” Malone says, “current books with new stuff, instead of astronomy books that still have Pluto as a planet.”
Almost half of Cleveland students are English learners, and around 88% are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Malone believes new books will capture their attention and spark their interest in reading. “Our kids just need to read more – and enjoy it,” she says. “For a lot of these kids, there’s no bookshelf at home.”
Visit LAParent.com today, register for Shooting Stars, and start planning which books your child wants to donate.