Raising readers

January 12, 2020

Can parents help instil a love for reading in children? It might be easier than it is often considered

As a children’s literature academic living in a country where a scholarly study of children’s literature is still in its infancy, there are a few public responses that I have grown accustomed to over the years. Some of them, regarding the content of my studies and the notion of children’s literature as a Mickey Mouse course: “Aww, that’s so cute!”, “It sounds such fun, did you ever have to properly study?”, “Must be scoring!”; whereas others are more closely associated with whether or not I was able to dissociate my childhood affiliations to beloved texts such as Pollyanna and Matilda while analysing them as an adult critic.

Another group of people equates “children’s literature studies” with “writing for children” and is often disappointed when I mention no aspirations in that domain. All these, however, are expected responses and I’ve learnt to navigate my way around them in social conversations. Having said that, there’s one question that continues coming my way, that I feel I haven’t been able to answer in its entirety: “how can you make children read?” Part of the difficulty in responding to this is that as a child I enjoyed reading, a habit that continues to this day. Anyone not deriving some sort of pleasure from reading, even transitory, is unimaginable for me. Hence, my personal experience doesn’t shed light on the exact combination of experience and exposure that turns non-readers into readers.

The other reason is, of course, the nature of the experience itself. A love for reading is ultimately an act of love; and therefore, in essence, cannot be forced. All we can do, as well-meaning adults, is to provide our children exposure to books and an environment where bibliophilia can be nurtured.

This piece deals with the latter.

The following paragraphs focus on ways we as parents, guardians, teachers and care-givers can provide a nurturing environment for reading to the children in our care. Some of these are inspired from years of “experimenting” on my nephews and nieces and others come from my experience as a teacher and more recently, as a reading coordinator.

Parents must be seen reading around children. Anyone who has any direct or indirect exposure to children, especially younger ones, will vouch for their imitative behaviour. It is one sure-fire way of inculcating the habit of reading in them. There’s no need to worry if reading doesn’t come naturally to parents. All they need to do is to let their children see them taking an active interest in books. It can be anything from an easily accessible magazine to a rare edition of a beloved classic. What matters is that their excitement for books emanates to their children.

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be—
I had a Mother who read to me.

(The Reading Mother, Strickland Gillian)

This stanza highlights an important truth: reading aloud to children not only provides them with an exposure to books in preliterate years, but it also strengthens the parent-child bond and leaves a positive influence on a child’s developing mind. Studies have shown that children who were read to have a wider vocabulary, increased phonological awareness, better syntactic development and far more developed comprehension skills than their peers of the same age.

Reading bedtime stories is one of the best ways to add reading time to the daily routine. Working parents may utilise the ride to and from daycare for this purpose. When it comes to reading aloud, when, where and how one does it is of secondary importance than how regularly it is done. Parents who read a short picture book, a chapter of a longer book or even a poem each day to their children begin to notice that their children start looking forward to the “reading time.” As the children grow older, the reading-aloud can be substituted by reading-along or shared reading adventures, where children and parents take turns to read aloud to each other.

Most parents would not force all their children to wear a similar kind of clothing, so it is not fair for them to expect all their children to enjoy the same sort of books. Children have varied interests and to develop a lifelong habit of reading, parents need to let them find the books that speak to them. For some it may be fairy stories, for others, it may be comic books or even an encyclopedia. As long as the children are enjoying what they read, be it a poem, magazine article, a manual of their favourite game, short story, graphic novel, fantasy, realistic fiction or non-fiction, parents should let them read and develop their own taste. Even while reading aloud to them, parents should make sure that they vary the kind of books they read, especially if one or two children are being read to at the same time. Furthermore, they should encourage children to read in different languages as the main purpose is to let them enjoy reading.

Parents should encourage children to choose the books that they want to read. Guidance regarding the appropriateness of content regarding age is advisable but beyond that, they should frequent libraries, bookshops, or online purchase sites with their children and let them select the texts themselves. For younger children, a feasible thing to do is to give them a choice between two or three titles. When children have selected the books themselves, they are often intrinsically motivated to explore them as well.

It is said that “like attracts like.” Applying the same principle, parents should make sure that they take their children to poetry recitations, storytelling centres and libraries, but places where they can find other children their age. Hearing other children rave about books will make reading appear “cool” to them, and thereby generate interest and excitement.

These days we have a lot of options available for instance, Children’s Literature Festival which is organized by Idara Taleem o Agahi in different cities, the storytelling and activity sessions by libraries such as the British Council, Alif Laila and Children Library Complex in Lahore and even storytelling sessions at the local bookshops. Parents should stay vigilant about these events and happenings on social media, talk to other adults and make sure that children experience some aspect of book culture. This also helps children find like-minded friends who can influence further reading choices.

Lastly, it may appear controversial given how we often see book reading as a safe haven from all the screen time children are exposed to, however, I suggest parents should not discourage children from e-reading. A lot of youngsters already consider reading an obsolete hobby, add to it the insistence on printed texts, there’s a possibility that they would abandon reading altogether. So instead of forcing them to do something that they don’t want to do, parents can utilise e-reading to instil in children a love for reading. Some e-readers even come with a read-aloud function that can be a valuable resource in teaching pronunciation and intonation to language learners.

In no way exhaustive, this list can be quite useful in parents’ quest to raise a voracious reader.

The writer is a Lahore-based teacher and a distinction holder in children’s literature and literacies from the University of Glasgow. She tweets @ReadLikeMatilda.

Children and books: Raising readers