Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Getting Kids Psyched About Books

I got lucky with my first child. When he started reading aloud billboards as we drove along the freeway, I had no idea that doing such things at age three wasn't normal. I'd like to take credit for his insane reading skillz (and I can take credit for the things I did to expose him to reading and words and books), but truly, he just came wired ready to soak it up.

He didn't learn much in kindergarten, as he was already reading at a fourth-grade level. Comprehension, inference, and some other accompanying reading skills weren't quite that high, but he could decode like a pro.

While I was pregnant with him, I was finishing my English degree, and I spent literally hours reading aloud as I paced our apartment so I could finish the assignments andnot fall asleep from pregnancy fatigue. He literally heard volumes of classic literature in utero. I can't help but wonder if that helped form some brain connections or something.

(The other kids heard plenty of books read aloud in utero, but those were Dr. Seuss and other kids books. Link? We'll never know.)

Some things we did to expose him (and his siblings) to reading early:
  • Read aloud. A lot. He got several books read to him before every nap, before bed, and at lots of other times.
  • Point out easy words and have him learn them. I started with the classic sight words, although I didn't know that's what they were called. As a toddler, he knew to expect Mom to point to about one word per page for him to read, whether a simple the, you, or car, or something a bit more complicated.
  • Let them help with shopping. Kids love finding "apples" on the list and crossing it out.They enjoy searching for words on labels. Even little kids can learn to identify the signs for the bakery and deli and eventually figure out what the sounds in the letters mean. (The store is another great spot for practicing numbers and easy math.)
  • Cook together and point out ingredients, labels, and instructions.
I had a couple of challenges getting him to actually read. One was that most books on his age level were too easy for him. The first books he really took to, thanks to their humor, were the Captain Underpants books. I know some parents cringe at those (potty humor, intentional misspellings, etc.), but to me, hey, he was reading. Those books hooked him. He read them all so much they fell apart. I got a few comb-bound, but eventually, we had to buy a new set.

Which led to my second challenge with him: He didn't like trying new books. Around 4th or 5th grade, he had two series he loved . . . and read them over and over. And read nothing else. Boys are particularly hard to find books for at that age; it seems like there are far more girl titles for the in-between reading ages than for boys.

Finding new books that sparked his interest took time and effort (including asking just about every mom of boys I could find what their kids liked and spending hours trolling the Internet for ideas), but it was worth it; eventually we broke through the block, and he discovered a bunch of other writers and books.

Child #2 learned to read well, and pretty early, if not as fast as her brother. She was always ahead of her grade on decoding, comprehension, and fluency.

But she hated reading.

Which about killed me. Getting the required 15 or 20 minutes of reading per day for school was pure torture (for both us), especially as she got older. By fourth grade, I could get her to read a stack of picture books, but she refused to try a novel, even an easy chapter book.

I was terrified that she'd never enjoy reading. Aside from the joy that reading can be, I was afraid she'd lose out on the skills literacy provides.

Two things finally solved the problem:
  • We used audio books along with the hard-copy book. So she read the text as she listened to the book. I got this idea from my teacher-writer friend (and critique group member) Lu Ann Staheli. This technique helped take away some of the intimidation factor. After reading a few books this way, she was no longer afraid of chapter books.
  • I noticed that she complained of headaches in her forehead after reading. I remembered that when my dad was young, reading always felt like work because of eye issues. When reading is physically painful, of course you don't enjoy it. A trip to the eye doctor with her confirmed it: while she had 20/20 vision for distance, she had significant astigmatism, which made her eye muscles work extra hard to keep the text in focus. That led to headaches from eye-muscle fatigue, right on her forehead, where her pain was centered. She got reading glasses, and a few days later, I found her curled up on her bed with a novel. I walked away with tears in my eyes.
Child #3 is a perfectionist. When she first started reading, if she couldn't sound out a word the first time around, she fell apart. "I'll never get it! Waaah!" Tears and meltdown.

No amount of explaining that everyone makes mistakes made any difference. We had to back up, go to easier levels that she'd already mastered, and let her have lots of success with those easier books. Then, when she felt ready, we worked up to harder ones.

She didn't like doing that, because she's also an over achiever, and she wanted to be on the higher levels, faster. She eventually managed to jump ahead, but I think it was because of the confidence she developed early on.

When she struggled with the transition to chapter books, I spent time reading aloud with her. I read one page, and she read the next. This helped her get through harder books with support at her side (and reading only half the text). But it also helped me hear what words and concepts she struggled with, so I could help her over some of those hurdles.

This year, her sixth-grade teacher required the students to read 35 books each, in a variety of genres. My daughter's goal is to double that number. I checked with her when there was about 6 weeks left in the school year, and figured she'd make it pretty easily. (And these aren't small books; most are quite thick, in the 300-page range.)

Child #4 falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. She's been surrounded by reading all her life, so it was a natural thing to pick up and strive for. I admit that as the youngest, she got read to least of all the siblings (she got maybe one book at nap time instead of four like her brother), but she got something else: instead of only picture books for bedtime, she heard a lot of novels, since I began reading to everyone at night, and her siblings were past the picture-book stage.

So while I'd still read her picture books, at a pretty young age, she was also listening to much longer, more complex books. She didn't always follow the stories or understand them (and often spent that time on the floor next to us, doodling with paper and crayons), but I really think it's helped in her comprehension, vocabulary, prediction skills, and more.

In fact, I have friends who crack up at her vocabulary because it's so advanced for her age. I think her ability to think, speak, and process at a high level is a direct result of being the youngest and being surrounded by bigger words at a younger age.

Other things we've done:
Participate in library story times for toddlers and preschoolers.

Participate in library summer reading programs.

Have family reading parties.

Nearly always buy something from book orders and the school book fairs. The only rule is that it must be a BOOK, not a toy or game. (This rule is getting harder to keep as book orders veer away from books more and more. Drives me batty.)

The kids are guaranteed to get at least 3 books as gifts during the year: at Christmas, birthdays, and in their Easter baskets. One year, when #3 was a toddler, on seeing her Easter basket, she cried out, "Oh, cool! A book!" Not, "Oh, cool! Candy!" I cheered inside. They save their gift books and treasure them.

They see Mom reading and know that Dad listens to lots of books.

We often talk about books: what we like; what we don't like. Ideas. Recommendations. Predictions. And so much more.

Sometimes we read the same books (like last summer, with the Hunger Games series), which allows for great discussion.

I let them borrow my Kindle. I make this into a very big deal, so they know it's a treat.

Every child is different, and every child will have his or her own challenges (and I'm not touching the category of learning disabilities).

Bottom line:
  • Never, ever give up.
  • Find out what the underlying reason might be for not liking books.
  • Search out the right book (because boredom might be the problem).
  • Make reading FUN and something to look forward to.
  • Make books and reading valuable, something kids can own.