Bookish behavior: The best way to teach children to love reading is by example

"Mother Goose Time," a Thursday morning offering from Jefferson-Madison Regional Library's Central branch, helps kids learn individual speech sounds. Photo: Martyn Kyle “Mother Goose Time,” a Thursday morning offering from Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s Central branch, helps kids learn individual speech sounds. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Reading with children before bedtime is a great way to connect with your kids and establish a routine. But creating a household in which reading is valued can benefit your child in a variety of ways, especially when it comes to their attitude toward reading and their knowledge base.

Dr. Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has authored several articles and books on the subject of cognitive psychology as it pertains to the classroom and home environment. His 2015 book, Raising Kids Who Read, gives parents and teachers concrete, research-based steps that help instill a love of reading.

Creating a learning-based environment is more intuitive than you might think. Instead of scheduling set reading times or telling your child she must read a certain number of minutes before she earns privileges (which communicates that reading is not something pleasurable), it’s best for your child to learn reading is a family value. This can be done by your child seeing you read the newspaper, or making learning a part of everyday trips to the grocery store as well as educational trips to the zoo or museum.

“The parents who raise kids who have very broad background knowledge are interested in the world and thirsting for knowledge all the time,” Willingham says. “Parents are doing this kind of stuff always—it pervades every aspect of their life and they hardly think about it because that’s just who they are.”

Willingham notes that one of the best things parents can do before their children enter school is not teach them to read but teach them the sounds of each letter. Instead of saying this is a “T,” it’s more important to tell them “T” makes a “tuh” sound. It is important to teach them the alphabetic principle that “these squiggles correspond with language” and that single letters or pairs of letters correspond to a single sound.

“If you really want to raise a kid who’s an avid reader, the whole theme of this book is that there are three components that go into reading: You have to be a fluent decoder (know the sounds of words), you need to have a broad background knowledge for comprehension and you need to have motivation,” he says.

One mistake parents might make, Willingham says, is to focus on each of these three things only when they become a problem—for instance, reading motivation tends to fall off in middle school as children become more social and involved in additional activities. Motivation is at its peak in kindergarten or first grade and generally goes down every year.

If you notice your child is struggling to read after they enter school and you think they should be further along, talk with your child’s teacher about your concerns. Teachers set benchmarks about where the class should be at certain periods and can tell you if your child is reading on par with his peers or if he needs some additional help. And some classes are structured at a slower pace for learning letters to incorporate other subjects such as art, history, science and drama into the curriculum. That contributes to a child’s knowledge base, which corresponds directly with reading comprehension.

“I specifically say to parents in the book: Do not try to teach your child how to read unless you’re really ready to do your homework. It’s not an easy thing,” he says. “I think parents should be enthusiastic cheerleaders of their kid’s reading and also a source of reading fun.”

Make learning fun

“Children who have trouble learning to read often have difficulty hearing individual speech sounds,” Willingham writes in Raising Kids Who Read. “At the other end of the spectrum, children who more or less teach themselves to read turn out to hear them easily.”

The good news is there are many games you can play with your children so that they hear individual speech sounds:

The Name Game (“Dan, Dan, bo-Ban, banana-fanna fo-Fan, fee fi-mo-Man. Dan!”)

Classic nursery rhymes are a great example of word play (Mother Goose rhymes, and Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein books are good choices.)

Sing songs your kids know, replacing the initial letter of each word with a different letter ( “Mary had a little lamb” becomes “Bary bad a bittle bamb.”)

Compound words are fascinating for kids (Explain that a scarecrow scares crows.)—J.L.

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