As a children’s librarian, I am often asked “What can I do to help my child be a better reader?”
Parents understand the critical value of literacy skills in school and in life, and want to provide a strong foundation for their kids. Much of the time people asking the question are looking for activities their children can undertake, and indeed, there are many opportunities in libraries across Whatcom County every month.
While I heartily endorse those activities (I’m planning lots of these activities, after all), parents’ and families’ first and best strategy to help their kids become better readers is to be better readers themselves.
Children are smart and they are paying attention. We know that their little brains are sponges absorbing all manner of information all the time.
We do well let them soak up early learning and early literacy skills as infants and toddlers, scaffolding their reading readiness with fundamental understandings about letters, words, and stories. Sharing books with them, on the sofa, on the bus, at the local library story time, is a great way to build those skills.
But we need to let them soak up our examples of behavior, too. We are modeling our attitudes about and inclinations toward reading all the time, whether we mean to or not. And if we are not reading ourselves, regularly and curiously, we are demonstrating that reading is not important. Children are smart and they are paying attention.
The good news is that reading is interesting and gratifying and expansive. There are lots of things to read and lots of ways to read, and any and all of it communicates value. Here are a few simple things you can do to establish a home and habits that show your children how valuable reading is to you:
Have lots of reading material around. Novels. Memoirs. Histories. Cookbooks. Fill your home with things to read. Having it at the ready will make you more likely to pick it up, and the great variety will impress upon your kids how broad and interesting literature can be.
Read in different formats. Books are great, but they are just the beginning. Read magazines and newspapers. Read instruction manuals and cereal boxes. Read audiobooks (yes, it’s reading). And read on your devices.
Whatcom County Library System and Bellingham Public Library both provide access to downloadable material through products like hoopla and OverDrive, putting everything from classic literature to contemporary comics just a few clicks away. Talk to your kids while you download and consume digital content; let your curiosity be contagious.
Read on purpose. Make reading a ritual. Whether it’s after dinner for the whole family, or before bed, just for you, set aside some dedicated time for reading.
Read by accident. Pull a book out of your purse while you’re on line at the Department of Licensing. Have some reading material available in “the necessary” (I learned that term reading a book!). Almost any place is a place to do a little reading. Take advantage.
Being a librarian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend just a few books to get you started. These (and thousands more) are available at your library.
“Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” by Dr. Dana Suskind: As a pediatric surgeon giving children cochlear implants, Dr. Suskind came to appreciate the critical importance of exposure to vocabulary and the undeniable advantage that comes from simply hearing millions of words.
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin: A.J. Fikry is a crabby bookstore proprietor worried about declining sales and brokenhearted over his wife’s recent death. But through a series of miraculous surprises A.J. discovers the wealth and hope his stories provide.
“A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature: by Roger Sutton and Martha Paravanno: The editors of The Horn Book Magazine share their thoughts about the very best books for kids and teens, with wit, wisdom and wonder.
Thom Barthelmess is youth services manager for Whatcom County Library System.