February 22, 2010

How to Keep Kids Interested in Reading

Reading and learning to enjoy reading are some of the most important skills a child can take away from elementary school.  Holding on to an enjoyment of reading is vital to a child's success in high school and beyond to college and career.  Reading is a key to relaxation, learning and pleasure for many adults, and I don't think anyone doubts its value.  So how can parents and teachers keep kids interested, especially during late elementary school?

For me, it's a two-pronged issue; it comes down to how parents and teachers handle two categories of reading:  assigned reading and free-time reading.

The first issue is assigned reading.  Teachers need to be very careful with the reading they assign to their students.  Some traditionally accepted reading material, although powerful, can be too emotional or complex for some children.  Teachers should really think about their class's make-up and maturity as they select books each year.

Teachers have a responsibility to push their students to new levels in vocabulary, reading ability and understanding with the books they read as a class; they also need to expose their students to issues and ideas that may be a little outside their comfort zone.  Plus, kids should read some "classics" that give all students (within a region) a common cultural experience.  With all this to keep in mind when choosing a book for the class, the teacher can't please every single student.  The key is to present the students with a challenge that doesn't overwhelm them.

Assigned reading is a sticky issue simply because it is not voluntary.  Being forced to read isn't going to be pleasant all the time no matter how kindly and thoughtfully it is approached.  The point is to avoid forcing a child to read a book they really hate.  Why be so careful?  Well, most of my friends that don't enjoy reading can actually name the book they were forced to read that marked a turning point.  They know when they stopped liking reading.  It is this sort of turning point, this life change for the worse, that we are trying to avoid.

When possible, teachers should consider giving students a choice from perhaps three age-appropriate books. Each student can make an individual selection.  The students who are reading each book can meet like an adult reading group to discuss and analyze the book.  While this sort of freedom is not always possible, teachers should take the idea into consideration for at least some assigned reading.

The second part of the equation is simpler.  Free-time reading should be truly free for a child.  They should feel free to select any reading material they like, whether it is below or above their academic level.  An older child should be able to look at picture books sometimes, if that's what they want, without being called babyish.  Likewise, a young child can enjoy a more complex book if it is read aloud and discussed.

The subject matter should be left up to the child as well.  Books like the "Goosebumps" series can be vital in keeping elementary-aged boys interested in reading (often a difficult task), but parents and teachers often discourage them, or else make it clear that they "aren't as good" or don't count as "real reading."  This is an enormous error!  A boy who is forced at school to read a book he doesn't like will resent the implication that his free-time reading should be academic or parent directed.  He's likely to decide that reading won't make anyone happy, clearly not his parents and certainly not himself.

Drawing a line in the sand over subject matter will set up a battle of wills, so that reading anything the parent wants will become "giving in."  That is not an association parents should set up.  Your child will read other things as his interests expand.  Don't pressure him.  In fact, try picking up one of his books; you may find that there's more to them than you had imagined.

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