How can we encourage our children to read more and develop this important skill? Children’s book author Diana Noonan has some great suggestions for ways you can help at home.
We all have a favourite memory from our children’s ‘growing up’ years. Mine is of one night, when our preschool son should have been asleep, hearing muffled laughter coming from his room. We tiptoed to the door and peeked in. He was sitting up in bed, turning the pages of a book, and giggling uncontrollably to himself. Whether he was actually reading the words of the story or whether he was remembering them is inconsequential. The fact is, he was engaged in the reading process. The clue to this engagement is not difficult to spot. The secret to encouraging it is something all parents can foster.
Reading isn’t something done in isolation. It has context. As adults, we read about whatever we are currently interested in, whether it’s gardening, craft, politics or cooking. We also like fiction that includes these topics. As a parent, you can encourage your child to read by sourcing material that relates to whatever their current interests are. If your preschooler is enjoying making animal noises, ask your librarian or book shop to supply you with picture books that encourage the reader to make these fun sounds. Don’t stop at fiction – choose books that feature animals in real-life settings, too. An older child may want to check out National Geographic sites on the web to read more about animals. Pamphlets from the local vet clinic or SPCA may also be of interest. Aim to tap in to your child’s current enthusiasm, whatever it is, and to supply them with as much reading material as possible on the subject, and from as many varied sources as possible.
over and over
Once children begin to have an understanding of what a printed word looks like (and don’t be afraid to give a simple explanation such as: “This is a word. Look, it has a space on each side of it.”), the time is right to choose texts which include lots of fun repetition. These can often be found in early literacy collections, but if your child is reading before they go to school, look for picture books that follow an ordered progression through the story. Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary titles, along with many others, are examples of stories where several words are repeated in the same sequence on each page. As you read these kinds of stories with your child, point to each word in turn. Before long, you may find that your child is recognising the same repeated words but in other contexts.
me me me
We all know that children (like many adults) are very interested in themselves! Use this to advantage by creating personalised books that your child will want to read over and over again. As an example of how to do this, go on an everyday outing such as a visit to the park or marae. Take lots of photos throughout the day (or let your child do this) and then print them out at home. Staple some blank sheets of paper together to make a ‘book’, then sit down with your child and have fun together gluing in the photos and creating a little text to go with each. Try to use your child’s words wherever possible, as this will help them to remember the text when you come to ‘read’ the book together. Be sure to put your child’s name on the book as its author (and photographer if this is the case).
Words are all around us, not just in books and on internet sites. As you drive or walk around town, read signs aloud. Play ‘find the word’ by asking your child to spot signs displaying familiar words such as: motel, dairy, library, men’s, women’s, stop, pizza etc. Let older children help in the supermarket by reading the labels on food packets. Ask: “Which tomato sauce has least sugar in it?” or “Can you spot the ‘free-range’ eggs?” When at home, check out the reading material on the dining table – cereal and sauce packets, milk bottle labels and yoghurt pottles. Even very small children can take part in on-the-go games by looking for individual letters in words.
So much about reading is predicting what word should come next in a sentence. It’s not so hard to predict a word when you know it rhymes with one that has just been heard in the previous line. You can encourage your child to ‘predict’ by reading aloud with them rhyming stories, poems and jingles. Stop before the rhyming word appears and ask if your child can guess what it is going to be. Extend the activity by making up other rhyming words that could have been used in place of the one chosen by the author.
go with the flow
We all like to suggest reading material for our children, but sometimes our own enthusiasm means that well-meant ‘advice’ turns into virtual censorship. Taken to a bookshop or library, children – from preschoolers to pre-teens – are perfectly able to select their own reading material. If their list begins to look overly repetitive or narrow, then the adult’s role is to gently encourage the addition of just one or two extra titles to the collection.
This can sometimes be achieved by suggesting ‘linking’ material. For example, if ‘dinosaurs’ dominate for too long (however long that is!), extend your child’s interest in the topic with a sideways move by offering a book on ‘living dinosaurs’ such as tuatara and crocodiles. Your endeavours are not to make your child forsake their main interest, but to enrich it.
Much about improving reading skills is down to simply clocking up the mileage. In many ways, it doesn’t matter what a child reads but how much. So try not to panic if your child is reading only comics or graphic novels. The vocab is all there in the text regardless of whether it’s in a speech bubble or a paragraph. Similarly, children can get caught up in only reading books that are from a series. It’s understandable that once they enjoy one book in a series they want to meet the same characters again and again (there’s a reassuring sense of security in this, especially for a reluctant reader). Leave your child to read whatever they are enjoying most and if an opportunity arises to introduce another text (even if it’s one of another series) take it. Above all, reassure yourself that a particular reading pattern is a phase and is very unlikely to go on forever.
Reading – just like learning to walk – is all about taking one step at a time, and in the direction the reader really wants to go.
*Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand Curriculum.