As a teacher of fifth and sixth graders, this is a question I hear commonly from parents. As students this age are maturing in their literacy skills and taking on more complex reading material, some kids fall in love with books. These book-lovers need little to no encouragement when it comes to reading. In fact, some kids may need to be told to put a book down every once in a while (at a family dinner, for example).
There are other kids, though, for whom reading may not come so naturally. Sitting down with a book feels uninteresting, laborious or even challenging. For those reluctant readers, I have learned a few things through my experience in the classroom that I believe parents can implement at home in order to encourage reading.
One of the most effective ways I have seen kids engage with reading is through creating specific challenges for them. Take, for example, the story of Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, former presidential candidate, and current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Long before his successful medical and political career, Carson actually struggled in school and was on the verge of failing. But his mother, who understood the importance of education, required the young Carson to read two books a week and to write a report on each one, in addition to his regular school work. Carson's confidence as a student grew, and the rest is history.
In the spirit of the challenge from Mrs. Carson to her young son, I challenge my students to read one novel every two weeks from a list of famous and award-winning books. I offer no extra grades or extrinsic motivation and it is above and beyond their normal classroom reading. Yet, nearly two dozen students in one particular semester felt inspired by the challenge and completed it by reading seven books, completing seven mini-projects, and passing seven comprehension tests during the 14-week first semester. I noticed that even for the students that did not complete the challenge, many still were reading more and making it a higher priority in their free time.
While home is very different than the classroom, I think it's possible for parents to incorporate challenge in reading outside of school. You can talk with your young reader and together set a goal (two books per week might be too much, so determine what is both challenging and realistic for your child), invite your child's friends to read the same book(s) together, or check out already-structured reading challenges from your local library.
Finding a topic, series, or genre that your child enjoys reading is crucial to getting them engaged. At the same time, it's also good to find a different genre, perhaps something outside of their typical interests to encourage them to branch out and explore something new.
One practical way parents can cultivate interest in a book is something I've found highly effective in my classroom: read the first one to three chapters aloud with your child. The first page of a book isn't always amazing. Reading the beginning of a story together helps kids get a running start and can bring a book to life. This also gives you as the parent an idea what your child is reading so that you can ask questions and discuss the characters and plot.
Reading is most impactful for young minds when it is connected to "real life." When a reader is able to empathize with a character, apply a story line to their own life, or connect the theme or topic of one book with another book they've read, their comprehension and interest are dramatically deeper. I often engage my students in conversations comparing and contrasting different books we've read together.
One memorable way that we created connections in my classroom is by hosting the author of a book we read in class. Margaret Petersen Haddix, author of Among the Hidden, actually came to meet students. They had the opportunity to interact with her and hear how the book came about.
While you may not be able to host an author in your home, another fun and practical way to create connections is through communicating directly with an author your child is reading. One of my students wrote a letter to an author and the author wrote him back...an unforgettable exchange that captured his attention and solidified his interest in reading.
Reading, especially for reluctant young readers, is a big deal. Meeting goals is a big deal, too. These are things worth celebrating! For my students, in the past we have thrown semester-end parties, complete with book-themed decor and snacks, to recognize their reading accomplishments. This might look a little different at home, but the concept is transferable. Maybe you and your young reader grab a treat or do a special activity together to celebrate their literary accomplishments. One especially fun way to celebrate reading is by seeing a film adaptation of something they've read!