Every evening Julie Stanley and her three kids gather in their living room for storytime. Reading to her kids is a tradition that’s been going strong for 10 years, starting when her oldest, Caedance, was just a baby. While the books have changed since then—Harry Potter is the featured tale right now—the appeal hasn’t. “They love that bonding time,” says Stanley. Caedance and her younger brother, Ronin, 8, are now sharing that experience with their younger sister, seven-month-old Davey. “They read baby books to her. It’s tons of fun.”
When it comes to developing good reading habits, parents who prioritize reading to kids are on the right track, says Diane Banks, manager of children’s programs at the Toronto Public Library. Learning the mechanics of reading—like letter sounds and how to blend them—is an important skill, but if we want children to read on a regular basis, we need to instill a joy for it early on and continue to foster that joy as they get older. “A child who loves reading will practise that much more,” says Alyson Shaw, a paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and an assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Ottawa. With screens taking centre stage in entertainment these days, developing your kids’ love of books might seem like an arduous task, but with a bit of effort and creativity, it is possible.
Never force your baby or toddler to sit through a whole story. Instead, let them grab at the books and play with them if that’s what they want to do. (Hint: Board books are great because they can withstand being banged around and chewed on.) You can point out familiar places or things in books, like “dog” or “baby,” to start building vocabulary.
Stories that are singsongy or rhyming will capture their attention and also help them begin to discern the smaller sounds in words. Babies have to hear lots of different words and speech sounds long before they ever turn an age where they start reading, says Shaw.
Check out your local library to see what programs they have for reading with babies and toddlers. Many offer storytime, music groups or weekly parent-and-me gatherings, where you can learn new songs and meet other parents.
An important part of reading is comprehension—understanding what’s going on in the story and beginning to make predictions about what will happen next. When you pick up a new book, look at the cover and pictures together with your child and talk about what it might be about. Or, after you’ve read a book, ask questions about the plot or what they liked about the story.
Show your kids that reading can be done anytime and anywhere. Keep a bag by the door filled with books (be sure to switch them up frequently so your kid doesn’t get bored), and take it with you whenever you leave the house, suggests Barbara Lepp, a former teacher who now works as an independent education consultant and provincial coordinator for Manitoba of the International Literacy Association, in Carman, Man. Read at a restaurant, the doctor’s office or an older sibling’s sports game.
At most libraries, kids can get their own card as soon as they are born. Banks encourages this, but says getting one around the age of four or five is the sweet spot, since at that age they know what it means to be a member of something and can get excited about that. When you’re at the library, let your kid explore the books on the shelves and take home a few that interest them. Be sure to check out upcoming events the library is holding, like author meet-and-greets or crafts and other activities.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make once their kids start learning to read is to stop reading aloud to them. Build comprehension skills by choosing something that’s above your kids’ own reading level, so the stories remain engaging and they can continue to add new words to their vocabulary.
Kids are watching what you do, so make sure they see you pick up a book or a magazine every once in a while. If you’re reading on your phone or tablet, tell them what you’re reading and why you’re interested in it, says Banks. Talk to them about books you’ve enjoyed, what your book club is discussing or what you’ve learned from an article you looked at earlier that day.
Remember that reading extends beyond chapter books. Graphic novels, comic books, sports stats, the information on Pokémon cards: That’s all reading, says Shaw. Lepp agrees: “Don’t discount the interests your kid has—they will lead him into books.” If your kid loves movies, read movie reviews together. Or, if a story has both a book and a movie version, read the book first and then watch the movie together, and discuss the differences. Find out what your kids’ friends are reading and suggest they read them too, or organize a book club.
In the Stanley house, Caedance is a voracious reader: She and her friends even have a book club, where they meet once a month to discuss what they’re reading. Ronin is a good reader, even if it’s not his first choice of activity. “He likes books about animals and facts, so I encourage that,” says Stanley. She’s confident, though, that she’s instilling a love of reading by continuing to read aloud to him. “It’s inviting him into that world where reading can be for pleasure,” says Stanley. “I know it will come for him.”
Not all kids will love reading from the get-go, especially if it’s difficult for them. But don’t panic. Try to find something your child is interested in, like sports stats, movies, or board games, and incorporate reading into those activities. Talk to a librarian or your child’s friends’ parents to find out what books other kids enjoy reading. Graphic novels and comic books totally count—never tell a child these are not “real” books, says Barbara Lepp, a former teacher who now works as an independent education consultant and provincial coordinator for Manitoba of the International Literacy Association, in Carman, Man. Try audio books, too—they can act as a “gateway” to reading.
But if your kid doesn’t like reading because it’s hard for them, it’s important to look at whether there is something getting in their way. Have their eyes checked to rule out any vision problems, and schedule a conversation with their teacher to see if there are any particular concerns. Your child may benefit from an assessment to determine whether they might have a learning disability. Finally, try to make reading a fun experience. “Reading should never be a punishment,” says Diane Banks, manager of children’s programs for the Toronto Public Library.
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