Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Raising Lifelong Readers

Raising Lifelong Readers
By: Mary Lee Shalvoy, Education columnist

Many years ago, I stood before a class of high school students extolling the joys of reading. It was my first job out of college and I taught a reading, study skills and test taking course in private schools on the east coast.

"By the end of the high school course I taught so many years ago, I caught many of the students carrying books, other than textbooks, around with them."

I talked at length to a particular group of sophomores and juniors about how great it felt to get “lost in a book.” What followed offered me a great lesson about reading.

I told the class of a funny encounter I had with a uniformed bus conductor in Dublin, Ireland while “lost” in George Orwell’s 1984. Back then, conductors walked up and down in the Irish double-decker buses collecting fares. This one day, I was completely immersed in reading the book about the hold a totalitarian government had on its people. When the conductor approached me and I saw the uniform, there was a moment when I wasn’t sure where I was. Had I entered the pages of the story? I had to shake my head to get back to reality and pay the fare.

As I told this tale, I surveyed the teens in the class and saw what looked like a herd of deer in headlights. They did not understand a word I was saying. Clearly they had never experienced that feeling of total immersion in a book. In fact, when I probed further in disbelief about their reading habits, I discovered that most of them had not completed a book in years.

“I read chapters… just enough to get me through class,” said one. “I wait to see the movie,” said another. “I read magazines,” said a girl, who had a Glamour Magazine stacked with her textbooks.

Even at the tender age of 22, I was appalled. These were children in a private school, living in nice homes and neighborhoods. I am sure their parents would have been very upset at this finding. I made a conscious effort that day and the rest of that year to encourage these kids to read, to actually finish an entire book, not just certain chapters and the Cliffs Notes for class. I wanted them to get lost in a book.

It was a great lesson because it has helped me focus on instilling a joy for reading in my own children. Developing lifelong readers is a lifelong task! Whether your children are toddlers or pre-teens, it’s never too late to start. Here are some ways to foster lifelong readers in your home:

Read everything

Anything with words represents an opportunity for kids to read. Once you get a child interested, reading small things leads to bigger and better books. Start by putting the cereal box in front of your kids while they eat their breakfast in the morning. Give them the Sunday comics. I make my kids read the recipe when we cook or bake together. I have them read the packages when we shop, signs when we are driving, and the directions to board games. Make sure that there are chapter books sprinkled throughout your house along with magazines, newspapers, catalogs and even the dictionary. There are thousands of opportunities for your children to read and for them to read to you.

Read to your children

I focused on my family’s reading habits before they were even born—their father actually read to my belly when I was expecting. Once they were born, my children had countless books in their nurseries and play areas. I read out loud to them often and made references to books whenever I could.

A great time to read to your kids is before bed. Books are an integral part of our bedtime ritual, and that began even before my kids could even recognize letters or words. I cannot count how many times I read Goodnight, Moon, Goodnight Gorilla, Go Dog Go and other classic children’s books throughout the years.

Read to each other

Another way to involve the whole family is to have older children read to their younger siblings and vice versa. While I am cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, I’ll ask one of my fifth graders to listen to their third-grade sister read. It’s a winning situation for everyone.

Read in front of your children

Children model parents’ behavior. No matter how many times you tell them to read, the only tactic that really works is to show them how. I read the newspapers with and in front of my children. My kids see a pile of books next to my bed—a result of trying to read novels and other books at night. I even read Web sites, call my children over to share information and encourage them to do the same.

Read about what interests you

If your son loves horses or sports, get him books on that subject. If your daughter is crazy about American Girl Dolls, buy her those companion books. Movies and television can act as a catalyst to reading. In our family, we try to read the book before it comes out on film. If we run out of time, we will follow the movie by reading the print version afterwards.

Read at the library

It’s free and it has just about every book you’d ever want to read. If it doesn’t you can request a book and the librarians will order it for you. Can it get any better than that? Most libraries have a weekly story time and host a number of events throughout the year.

Read instead of

….Turn off all things electronic, including the television, radio, MP3 player, computer, and video games. Set aside quiet time just for reading. Have a family book night, when each member takes a turn at reading a page or a chapter of an exciting book.

By the end of the high school course I taught so many years ago, I caught many of the students carrying books, other than textbooks, around with them. One even approached me to say that he was intrigued by my story and wanted to get that same feeling when he read a book. I hope that he did.


“20 Tips for Parents to Encourage Reading”

Reading is Fundamental


Eager Readers Web site


About Mary Lee Shalvoy, Education columnist
Mary Lee Shalvoy has been writing professionally for longer than she’d care to admit. Mary Lee started teaching right out of college, but then launched her professional writing career at educational and children’s book publisher Scholastic and spent time in New York writing textbooks for many large and small publishing companies.


There is no saturation to education.


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