Are You Raising a Reader?

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It’s hard to know where a parent’s work ends in supporting children’s academic achievement. Witness the helicopter parent next door who’s got Kumon on speed dial and watches the classroom webcam like it’s House of Cards. We sense that she’s gone too far in her vicarious quest for success, but can’t pinpoint exactly where she crossed the line between supportive parent and obsessive micromomager.

But it’s abundantly clear where a parent’s educational work starts–at birth. Long before children enter school, parents are their first teachers, consciously or unconsciously laying the pre-literacy groundwork that will undergird all future learning. Yet we tend to spend disproportionate time pondering what other people–teachers, policymakers, enrichment programs–owe our kids. Surely we’d benefit from giving ourselves the same kind of scrutiny. Do the math: we’re with our kids more than any teacher.

Numerous studies suggest that our earliest investments in children’s literacy offer the greatest returns. And I’m not talking about burying kids under a mound of reading worksheets or relentlessly drilling letter names and sounds. (Look, Sweetie. There’s a slide and a swing and sandbox. Isn’t that super! They all start with s, which sounds like ssssss.)

I mean seeding children’s enthusiasm and capacity for learning by providing a literacy-rich home: making books accessible, modeling enthusiasm for reading, having meaningful conversations. Early on, we need to focus on smart talk, in order to build the robust oral language children need to understand more of what they encounter in print once they can read for themselves.

In short, it’s parents’ job to set the scene for our kids to fall in love with books and reading. Are you with me?

Take the quiz below to see where you stand and get some ideas for bolstering your family’s book love.

  • You started reading aloud to your baby on Day One and plan to keep it up day after day, year after year, even after they become independent readers.
  • You’ve reread favorites to your child so many times that they almost have them memorized.
  • Reading and writing are an integral part of your (and your child’s) day, from writing notes and lists to reading maps and recipes.
  • You’re not above enhancing daily read-alouds with lively character voices or a prop or two.
  • Your home bursts with books, magazines and newspapers. Children’s books reside in baskets, on low shelves and other easily accessible spaces in nearly every room in your home.
  • You read book reviews regularly and often ask teachers, librarians and friends for recommendations of book selections your kids might like.
  • You’re on a first-name basis with your local librarian, all your kids have their own library cards, and you are first in line for the annual library book sale.
  • You know the location of every bookstore in a 10-mile radius.
  • You let pages move you to tears and laughter–and let your kids see the range of book-inspired emotions.
  • You take your kids on real life adventures at parks, museums and other destinations to bring their burgeoning vocabularies to life.
  • You’re very verbal, narrating stories and daily life, and listening attentively and responding enthusiastically to your children’s responses.
  • You talk to your child at eye-level and tend to be more conversational than directive. You ask open-ended questions more than you give orders.
  • You use the vocabulary that comes naturally to you when you speak to your kids and pause to explain new words rather than talking down to them.
  • You take your kids’ stories (spoken and written) very seriously. You have the patience and flexibility to hear them out and encourage them to elaborate through writing, drawing, crafting, props or drama.
  • You read books about reading, parenting and early education to deepen your own understanding of child development and learning.
  • You belong to a book club or frequently share book recommendations with friends and colleagues. You’ve got ample pens and paper within your children’s reach.
  • You don’t have to ask your kids to snuggle up for storytime. They bring the books to you!

If you had 5 or fewer yeses, jumpstart your family’s literacy with a quick trip to the library–immediately. Get cards for yourself and your kids, if you don’t have them yet, and stock up on as many titles as you can hold. Read together daily for 20 minutes and work up to 30 minutes. Make sure to keep it fun. Use costumes, crafts and funny voices to get your kids in the spirit, if necessary. Go on, get those pages turning.

If you had 6-10 yeses, you’re laying a solid foundation for family literacy. To get to the next level, make sure you’ve got ample books and writing materials within your kids’ reach. Plan weekly library adventures and don’t forget the daily reading prescription: 30 minutes a day shows kids the way. Pay special attention to how you model reading enthusiasm. It’s not enough to read to them–you have to show them how reading enhances your life as an adult.

If you had 11 or more yeses, you are a Reading Rockstar. You are talking the talk and reading the reads. Your house is drenched in print, your kids frequent libraries, bookstores and book sales galore. In short, you’ve made reading a household habit. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is sharing your book love citywide. Volunteer with a library or literacy organization, start a bookclub with neighboring families, blog about great reads to inspire other families to follow suit.

What other ways to do you encourage the kids in your life to love books and reading?

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