Release Date: September 7, 2004 This content is archived.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Anyone who knows children, knows that you can't "make" them do something they don't want to do, and that holds true when it comes to reading, although reading itself is a requirement for academic, economic, social and future parental success.
"Parents can, however, help make reading a palatable, pleasurable activity, one that children ultimately will pursue on their own, to their own tremendous benefit," says Melanie Kimball, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Information and Library Studies, University at Buffalo School of Informatics.
Kimball, who conducts research on reading and literature for children and youth, as well as library services for young people, points to research showing repeatedly that children who find reading a pleasure have a much easier time understanding and learning math, geography, history and every other academic subject. Non-readers, on the other hand, pay a very high price in terms of academic failure.
"Although some children have learning or behavioral problems, this is not true of all non-reading children." Kimball says. "It is more likely that no one has encouraged in them the simple enjoyment of reading, which is a very important parental job."
She notes that the American Library Association estimates that there are 27 million functionally illiterate adults in the United States, many of whom are the parents of young children. "This helps explain why 34 percent of fourth graders in this country can't read a simple, age-appropriate poem," she adds.
Kimball stresses that even if they have not been readers, parents still can encourage, teach and help their children to read in a variety of ways. They include:
1. Limit the amount of time a child spends watching television. All television-watching isn't bad. A 1982 meta-analysis of 23 studies dealing with television viewing and achievement in various academic areas -- as well as additional studies in more recent years -- found that watching up to 10 hours of television a week is beneficial and correlates positively with reading achievement. Above that amount, however, the correlation is negative; reading achievement declines sharply with increased viewing. When the children do watch television, Kimball says parents would do well to engage in "guided viewing," helping their children choose programs and discuss those programs with them.
2. Read yourself, read what you like and let your children see you reading. "Children model the behavior of their parents and older siblings." Kimball notes. "If parents can't read, they need not feel ashamed, but need to seek the free help available to get them started." She advises parents who don't read much or don't like to read to start perusing materials with which they are comfortable, whether they are comic books, graphic novels, magazines or newspapers. "And they can read in their native language, as well as English," she says. "The point is to let children see that reading is something their parents' value as a worthwhile activity."
3. Read aloud and often to young children who do not yet know how to read for themselves. "Start with picture books for little kids," Kimball suggests. "Even non-reading parents can do that. Tell them the story, although they will want you to tell each one 40 times. Then let them 'tell' you the story. This is an imitation of reading, and is part of the learning process," she says, "and once they can read, let them read to you. That, too, is part of the process."
4. Make reading time special. Make it a time to relax before bedtime, or a time during which you sit down with your child over cocoa or a cup of tea -- a nice time shared by the two of you. Kimball suggests parents also read to older children, to. Reading to children, she adds, offers the opportunity to introduce new material beyond their reading level. Chapter-by-chapter readings of age-appropriate mysteries, fantasies and adventure stories that provoke anticipation often prove very satisfying to youngsters.
5. Let children pick out their own books and other reading materials. "Let your child get a library card," she says. "It is likely to be the first official document with his or her name it. Then take them to the library! Librarians are trained to help find the very kind of book a specific child -- even a non-reading child -- might want to dip into, based on the child's interests, hobbies, fears, what other children find appealing and what's going on in their lives."
6. Be sure there is a place at home to read and a time to do it. "Ideally it would be a comfortable, quiet place with good lighting, indoors or outdoors," Kimball says. "Enthusiastic readers always will find a place to read, but if you are encouraging a child to read, help him or her find a spot that makes it a little easier. Give the child time to read. Don't constantly interrupt or tell them they're reading too much, or too long."
7. Don't criticize what your child as chosen to read. Once you've made your recommendations and suggestions about what to read, respect a child's decision. Some children will not like "The Secret Garden," even if you loved it. Comics, fantasy, science fiction, picture books, mysteries, animal stories, romances, novels and non-fiction material of all kinds will appeal to different children at different ages and times in their lives and can enrich them in different ways. Be patient, Kimball says, even if it seems that your child has been reading nothing but "Spiderman" for three years. Remember that many research scientists developed their interests as children immersed in science fiction.
8. Finally, talk with children about what they read and what they think about it. You will learn a lot about their interests and opinions that you may not learn any other way. If you can get them to write about their reading -- in a journal, for instance -- that's even better. Kimball says children who write about what they read tend to become better writers and readers. Their comprehension goes up, and that skill will be applied to all academic subjects.
"Reading opens our minds to new ways of thinking and seeing. It enriches our lives and broadens our experience. It is a tool that all of us need in order to get through life with satisfaction and accomplishment, and it's fun," Kimball says.
"Once a child has really found pleasure in reading, he or she will do it on their own, for their own reasons and won't have to be threatened or cajoled."
Kimball says that parents who want to steer their child toward quality books might want to look at the reading lists on the ALA Web site at http://www.ala.org/ala/librariesandyou/recomreading/recomreading.htm.
It includes lists of award-winning book recommendations by librarians and reading specialists. She also recommends the book, "Choosing Books for Children" (University of Illinois Press, 1999) by Betsy Hearne.
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