why you should read to your kids even when they can read for themselves

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, here’s a slightly condensed version of an article I wrote for our school newsletter. 

Most parents understand the benefits of reading to their preliterate children, but too often neglect this important pastime once their kids start reading for themselves. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease asserts that reading aloud helps increase a child’s attention span and improve his listening skills.

A child’s listening level tends to be higher than her reading level, which means that you can and should be reading fifth grade books to a child in third grade, for example. By doing so, the third grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read for herself, something she’s ready to hear and understand. Slightly above-level books tend to be motivating for kids – they want to see how the book ends and want to grow in their own reading skills in order to enjoy more complex material.

Reading aloud to kids is also a nonthreatening way to grapple with difficult issues, Trelease suggests. Through the story, your child can experience a certain kind of challenge – with you at his side – and there’ll be an opportunity for you to talk about it together. You can use the story you’re reading as a starting point for a conversation, asking questions such as, “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” and turn it into a coaching session, which will probably stick with your child much longer than a lecture would.

Besides, reading aloud is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. I find that the conversation about a book we’ve read may continue for days after we have read it. It becomes part of our family’s shared experience.

an evening of reading and talking about books

My sons and I had last Friday evening to ourselves, so after an early dinner we settled down on the couch together with a stack of new books from the library. Earlier in the day I’d been able to collect six of the Star of the North Picture Book Award nominees and so I thought we’d read, discuss and rate them. What a fine stack of books it turned out to be.

First we read Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz because my boys thought they would like it best. This book introduced some martial arts terms that they were interested in learning more about. They thought the book was okay, but neither ended up choosing it as their top pick.

Penny and her Marble by Kevin Henkes was okay and it got us talking about paying attention to our conscience, but it wasn’t as good as some of the other books we’ve read by Henkes. None of us gave it the highest ranking.

My older son and I liked Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. We found it to be a compelling true story and declared it to be the best of the three we’d read so far. As it turned out, it stayed right up there at the top after we’d worked our way through all six books. It’s a bit long to hold the attention of a five-year-old, but was fine for an eight-year-old.

Next we read Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel. My boys found some of the injustices mentioned in this book unbelievable, and were appalled to hear about Clara’s broken ribs. It’s kind of a heavy topic for kids this age, but the book ends on a positive note. We thought it was almost as good as the Growing Table book we’d read just before it.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt is a light-hearted story that appeals to a kid’s sense of humor. This is the story out of this bunch that my five-year-old liked best. We read it twice, the second time paying attention to how the boy in the story addressed each crayon’s concerns in his final picture. We read it the following day as well.

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert is autobiographical in nature. I think it’s probably most interesting if you’ve already read several of her other books because she discusses her writing process with examples from previous books. It was fun to learn about how her parents helped cultivate her interest in art and books. I thought it was probably the second best book of the six we read that evening. One of the librarians said it seems to be more for adults than kids, but I’d say there’s plenty there to inspire a child in his or her creative pursuits.

This reading and discussion took a good hour and a half, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening as a family. We’re looking forward to reading the other four books on the list soon so we can finalize our vote.

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.

sharing a story and a game

As we were driving toward St. Paul’s east side, my seven-year-old son was in the back seat muttering something about having the worst mom ever. My four-year-old was in an equally foul mood, demanding to know why I hadn’t scraped all the frost off his window.

I turned on the radio. The announcer informed us that it felt like 18 degrees below zero at the moment and the wind chill advisory would be in effect until noon. “I told you we should have stayed home,” came the accusation from the back seat. No, we most definitely should not have stayed home, I thought. What we need right now is something to turn our eyes off of ourselves and our petty grievances.

When we arrived at our friends’ home, I got a grocery bag full of books (procured during a recent book drive) out of the trunk and we went inside.

We were greeted by a preschool and an elementary aged boy, their parents, one set of grandparents, an aunt and a few other relatives. Their boys and mine started pulling books out of the bag and previewing them. The children’s mother studied a board book about body systems, anatomy for kids basically. “These are the lungs?” she asked pointing to one of the diagrams.

“Yes, lungs,” I said. She studied each page of the board book. The grandfather had chosen a book as well.

One of the boys was looking through a book called 1000 Monsters. Soon four boys were watching the monsters change form as they flipped the three different segments that made up each page. After a bit, I picked out a level 2 graded reader with a cartoonish crocodile on the front. I read it aloud to everyone in the room. The words were easy enough that several of the adults could follow along. Many of them laughed at the end. They got the joke.

I told the mom that I read to my boys every day and that reading to your children – or even just paging through the books and talking about the pictures – helps kids do better in school, no matter which language she’s using.

“These books will help us with our education,” Na Ni Moo said. She already knew what I was trying to explain. She told me about the library that she used to go to while she lived in the refugee camp. She said she had learned a lot by reading library books. The best part was that there were books in her first language.

Then, behind me I heard, “Osprey power, activate!” My sons had introduced Eh Ku Moo to their animal powers game. What better way to spend part of your winter break than sharing a story and a game with friends?

helping kids become lifelong readers

I just finished Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller with Susan Kelley. Written by teachers, the book provides a lot of practical ideas about how to reposition reading instruction “around the habits and attitudes of lifelong readers.”reading-in-the-wild

But there’s more to the book than classroom management strategies and lesson design, and I found much of it is relevant for parents, including the authors’ research findings about five characteristics lifelong readers share. They found that lifelong readers:

dedicate time to read

have reading plans

choose their own reading material

discuss books and their reading with other readers

show preferences for genres, authors and topics

I appreciated the ideas about how to help children develop in each of these five areas. It’s not surprising that one of the most important ways we do this is through modeling – and explaining our own processes to our children.

a book I enjoyed as much as my preschooler

In honor of “I love to read month,” I’d like to tell you about a new book we discovered last week.

sophie's squash

Sophie’s Squash pulls together several elements that are familiar to my boys: gardening, the farmer’s market and story time at the library. It resonated with me as a mom because it so accurately portrays the determination and imagination of the typical preschooler. We all liked the cute illustrations and satisfying ending.

The story begins one fall day when Sophie and her parents visit the farmer’s market and buy a squash. Before they can cook it, Sophie claims it as her own, draws a face on it and wraps it in a blanket. It’s “just the right size to love.” Sophie’s new “baby” Bernice goes everywhere with her. Her parents try several strategies to get the squash from Sophie before it starts to decay. But nothing works and Bernice starts to look a little blotchy. Soon even Sophie recognizes the problem. She comes up with a solution after talking to one of the vendors at the farmer’s market – a solution that probably has her parents thinking, “here we go again.”

the science of character

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I picked up How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough because I thought it was a book about parenting. And though it does provide some useful information for parents, it also has a lot to say about formal education in our country. Some of the information in the book applies equally well to parents and teachers – and policy makers, for that matter.

The author points out that people tend to associate childhood success with intelligence, as measured on standardized tests, but he argues that what matters more are character traits such as grit, self-control, zest, conscientiousness, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Current research suggests these character traits are rooted in brain chemistry and are molded by the environment in which a child grows.

One segment of the book describes the ways that some parents do (and do not) prepare their children to face the world on their own. The author discusses the challenges for children growing up in poverty but also for those growing up in affluence, with its “potentially detrimental effect on students’ character development.” Parents are cautioned to avoid inadvertently shielding their children from experiences that can lead to character growth.

It all sounds so good in theory. But then we get to real life, and my first instinct is to want to protect my boys. Like today when my five-year-old reported that last evening in choir Ben and Paige directed some unkind (and rather adult-sounding) words toward him. This wasn’t a first offense, either. It suddenly took some effort to avoid getting upset, recognize this as a potentially character-building experience  and process it with my son with that aim in mind.

That love your enemies stuff? It’s hard at any age.

first library card

In the summers, my siblings and I used to ride our bikes about five miles to the nearest bookmobile stop. On our first visit, we applied for library cards. That small piece of orange tag board with a tiny metal rectangle in it became the ticket to a world of learning and exploring through books. Early public library visits turned me into a life-long library patron.

And when I had kids, I started taking them along.

Today, our older son got his first library card. It has a picture drawn by a child and the word “imagine” on it. He used it to check out three books.

What do you remember about your first library card?

the beauty of a (mostly) wordless book

Gem

My sons and I first “read” this book last week. We studied the pictures and came up with what we thought was a suitable interpretation for the watercolor illustrations, most of which are not accompanied by any words.

This morning the boys were reviewing the book with their daddy, who interpreted a few of the pictures somewhat differently. A fair amount of discussion ensued, with both father and son supporting their views from the text. Then, the younger one wanted to keep turning back to one certain page asking, “What happened?” He needed to hear that part of the story again and again.

A wordless book offers lots of opportunities to talk about the “text,” to extend the conversation and to introduce new concepts and vocabulary.

Have you got a favorite wordless book?

enroll your child in a summer reading program

Some of my earliest memories of summer reading are associated with the book mobile. My siblings and I used to ride our bikes about five miles to Sobieski, where the book mobile stopped, and fill our backpacks up with books. (I’m not sure I always finished mine before we had to take them back. I think my sister Clair always did.)

Now my goal is to share the joys of summer reading with my boys. So we’ve signed them up for a summer reading program. Such programs offer a great way to encourage children to discover new things, travel to exotic places, or  enjoy the beauty of language through books. I’ve looked at a few summer reading program options:

Half Price Books – Feed Your Brain

Who: children age 14 and under

What: Read for at least 300 minutes in a month to earn a $5 coupon.

Barnes and Noble – Imagination’s Destination

Who: children in grades 1-6

What: Read eight books and keep a reading journal. Take the completed journal to a store to get a coupon for a free book.

Pottery Barn Kids – Summer Reading Challenge

Who: children under 10 years of age

What: Read all the books on their book list and then visit the store to receive a free book.

Scholastic Summer Challenge

Who: school age children and teens

What: Log minutes reading and win prizes online.

Sylvan Book Adventure

Who: children in grades K-8

What: Select books, read them, take online quizzes and win cool prizes.

After looking at these options, we settled on our library program, which offers a child the choice of one book to keep for each 10 hours of reading completed.

The best thing about a reading program – any reading program – is that it keeps us reading all summer. (Doesn’t it seem that there are fewer distractions in the winter?)  It is my hope that this routine helps foster a life-long enjoyment of reading. Perhaps if we regularly read to our children, one day they’ll choose to take advantage of the extra time summer affords for sinking into the luxury of a good book.

What summer reading plan do you recommend? Why?