The literacy research and practical tactics you can use to build a foundation for a life-long love of reading
My daughter can often be found with piles of books around her. There’s always one within reach.
At just over a year old, she explores more than a dozen books per day, sometimes alone and sometimes with us, her parents.
So how did we do it? It wasn’t as difficult as you might think.
“The nurturing and one-on-one attention from parents during reading aloud encourages children to form a positive association with books and reading later in life.” — Reach Out and Read, Archives of Disease in Childhood, Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence.
When I was growing up, people around me weren’t reading on a daily basis.
Sure, my grandparents did, making me think it was an old person thing. My super-smart cousin read a lot. So reading was something for geniuses.
I wasn’t old. And I certainly wasn’t a genius. So I didn’t read.
I’ve written elsewhere about how I came to a love of reading in college and my discovery of books. But to make a long story short: I found literature and I’ve been hooked ever since. But it didn’t start in childhood.
The more we read, the more we understand about the world. It makes life vibrant and rich and develops our sense of empathy.
We want all those things for our children!
So when my daughter was born, I made a promise to myself: I would help her explore literature and grow to love books.
“The single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school.” — National Commission on Reading
In a world so obsessed with videos, social media, and fast information, I want my daughter to see the value in reading.
If you have small people in your life, buy them a book. Then sit with them and read it. Research suggests that simple act could change the trajectory of their lives. The benefits extend far beyond GPAs and positive report cards.
There’s a ton of information out there about why it’s important to teach kids to love reading.
I’ll present some here, but it represents just a fraction of the overwhelming evidence that exists about the benefits of books in kids’ lives.
Even if your child is active and busy, there are tips and tricks here to help with every type of personality!
If your child is older, don’t worry. It’s never too late to start reading with them!
Here’s what we did:
- The Setup
- The Big Read
There are books out there for all age ranges. I’ll explain what worked for us. But it’s good to try out different tactics.
“Creating a steady stream of new, age-appropriate books has been shown to nearly triple interest in reading within months.” — Harris, Louis. An Assessment of the Impact of First Book’s Northeast Program
Early on, we focused on tactile books. If it has crinkly parts or has pages made of soft material, really young children (even just a few weeks old) will engage with the book (mostly by chewing on it).
Obviously, at this point we’re not really reading the book, just letting them explore and learn how it functions.
As children get a bit older (still less than one), try the “Baby Touch and Feel” books. You can show them how to pet the puppy or bunny because it has fur.
Once my daughter was over a year old, we started transitioning to audio button books where she can press buttons that play music or sound effects along with the text.
This will engage more senses and will help children practice hand-eye coordination.
“The only behavior measure that correlates significantly with reading scores is the number of books in the home.” — The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions
Part of the setup is to create a “library” of books. Basically, make the books easily accessible.
We have two places for books (one shelf in our daughter’s bedroom and one in our living room). It doesn’t have to be fancy. But somewhere kids know where to go to get a book.
This setup will also help to remind you to get in the habit of reading with them, too.
Speaking of habits…
From a very, very early age, my wife and I read to my daughter before naps and bedtime.
Pretty much from the time she could keep her eyes open we were reading to her.
“Experts are nearly unanimous in stating that babies should routinely experience shared books as soon as they experience shared talking, that is, during the first weeks and months of life.” — Butler, D. Babies need books: Heinemann
It’s something my daughter came to expect. It was designated family time and was a great technique for settling her and calming her down before naps.
Because of this routine, she now pulls out books and will “read” three or four before bed.
Even if she’s been running around her room like a wild animal, she’ll settle down when we pull out a book.
She’s even begun grabbing books when she wakes up from naps. So we’ve been doing some reading then, too.
It’s great to have a routine for reading. However, once they’re invested, you should also read whenever and wherever they want to!
I wasn’t sure about this tactic but decided to try it. It’s really paid off.
As mentioned above, a routine will get children reading at certain times. But how do you show them that reading matters?
“Reading aloud to young children is not only one of the best activities to stimulate language and cognitive skills; it also builds motivation, curiosity, and memory.” — Bardige, B. Talk to Me, Baby!, Paul H Brookes Pub Co
You shouldn’t force children to read. Again, we want reading to be an enjoyable pursuit, not a task. So how do you make reading enjoyable instead of a punishment?
Show your investment in books.
Instead of forcing it on them, try sitting down on the ground and reading one of their books to yourself.
Laugh at certain pages, point to others. Appear surprised, shocked, and delighted to be looking at the book.
Invite them to sit with you. If they refuse, that’s fine. But keep reading at least to the end of the book.
It worked wonders for us. Slowly but surely, my daughter would come by and we’d look through the book together.
“Children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than 3 times a week.” — Denton, Kristen and Gerry West, Children’s Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade, U.S. Department of Education
After a while, they might get bored and decide to venture off, that’s fine. Let them.
Children are sponges and they’re masters of mimicry. They want to do what you do. They’ll come back on their own.
So once they sit down to read, what should you do?
The Big Read
Early on, you’ll want to be as tactile as possible. Those crinkly, soft-page books are great to get children touching and feeling different pages. You should still be reading every page, adding commentary, and talking through what you notice.
“Children who are ‘well-read-to (at least five times a week), when asked to tell a story, used more literary language than unread to children… They were also better able to understand the oral and written language of others… — Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial
As children get older, revive your acting career.
- Be corny
- Make the animal noises
- Develop unique voices for each character
- Act delighted and surprised by each page (even if you’ve read the book 100 times)
- Laugh when you should
- Add commentary
It’s key to start engaging with the book. Ask them questions (even if they can’t answer them). You’re teaching them valuable social skills.
- “Point to the _____”
- “What does the puppy say?”
- “Turn the page”
As they start making different animal sounds, pointing to items, and turning pages, celebrate them like they’ve won the Super Bowl.
Don’t be shy. Clap, hoot, and dance. They’ll want to do it more, which means reinforcing knowledge and more word acquisition.
“When adults read to children, discussing story content, asking open-ended questions about story events, explaining the meaning of words, and pointing out features of print, they promote increased language development, comprehension of story content, knowledge of story structure, and a better understanding of language — all of which lead to literacy success.” — Berk, L. E. Child Development (8th ed.). Pearson Education, Inc
For older kids (1+ years old) who still can’t read, let them tell the story.
Obviously, my daughter can’t really read yet, but she flips through the pages. Points at the things she recognizes. Makes animal noises and babbles her way through them.