She bribed me. If we want to make it sound better, we can say she provided me with incentives; but the real truth is that she bribed me. That is how my mother got me to read as a child.
Love of reading did not come naturally to me. The skill of reading did. But the love of it remained elusive at first—and a strong reader must have both the ability to read and the desire to read. Why? …because if a reader does not like to read s/he will not read…and if said reader does not read s/he will not progress in reading skill. This means that, even if a child initially learns to read and excels in it academically, the child will lose ground over time in both reading and academics, as reading is critical to academic advancement.
So how do we produce a love of reading in children? One of the first ways is that we exhibit excitement ourselves about books. We also help children search out books that interest them personally. The moment I learned to love reading was the moment I became invested in the lives of the characters I was reading about—and the truth is, I still read (fiction) books primarily for the characters. My interest in reading stems from my interest in people, in understanding people, in relating to people.
Not all children are like me. Some of them want to read about specific topics: dinosaurs, horses, ships, trains, superheroes, bugs. These children may enjoy stories about these topics, or they may be more inclined toward nonfiction books. Ideally, they will be drawn to both because the two kinds of books require two different skill sets, both of which are important. Early on, though, it’s not as much a matter of what they read so much as it is a matter that they read, that they discover the awe of reading.
In college, I took a class that required me to write my philosophy of reading. Attempting to figure out that philosophy, I remembered how in grade school we would have to read something and then answer questions about it (on this slick workbook paper that was hard to write on and that I strongly disliked). The questions were basic comprehension questions, such as, “What color is the main character’s coat?”
While being able to answer that question may be important, that aspect of comprehension is about skill; it fails to engage the reader. My philosophy, I concluded, was that I did not want readers merely to know the color of the main character’s coat; I wanted them to know what it was to wear that coat themselves. This is what happens when reading evolves from task and skill to discovery and awe.
A good way to encourage this evolution is to read aloud with children. I tutored a boy once who struggled with reading. The two of us would sit down together, side by side do we could both see the book. Going a paragraph at a time to start with, we would take turns reading out loud. This gave him opportunity to read but did not overwhelm him with having to read too much at one time.
When we finished a chapter, I would ask him questions about what he might have felt if he were in the main character’s situations; or I would have him draw a picture of a scene from what we had read that stuck in his mind. (A key to reading is being able to visualize the images the words produce. Often, struggling readers get bogged down in the work of deciphering the words. Getting them to see the concepts created by the words is critical.)
In addition to reading with him, I made a point of talking with him, laughing with him, sharing my own thoughts about the book, and fostering interaction. As a former teacher, I can attest that the most educational growth occurs when the teacher and students communicate with one another. This includes giving feedback to children (e.g., “Look! That was a hard word, and you got it right on the first try!” or “Last week you had a hard time with this word, but today you aren’t struggling with it at all. See how you’re getting better!”)
Something that is important to remember when working with children who do not yet love to read is that patience makes a world of difference. Children tense up and become resistant under pressure. We need to keep giving them opportunities to read, to keep reading with them; but we need to give them time too. And maybe, sometimes, we need to bribe them (I mean, offer them incentives).
Books That Work Well with Reluctant Middle-grade Readers
Christa is the Head of the Young People's Department. She came to the library with a background in education, having spent ten years as a teacher, and believes firmly in the Young People's Department vision, "Libraries=education--empowering minds through creative investigation."