Raising Readers

When I was fifteen I spent the entire year looking forward to getting a drivers license.  I took a driver’s education class in school.  I studied the manual.  When I got a learner’s permit I heckled my parents to go driving with me.

I wanted to drive.  I knew what vistas the world of driving would open up for me.  With my license in my wallet I could go anywhere at all.

What does this have to do with books?  Stay tuned.

Would you call your child a reader?   I know several elementary school teachers who say they fight a constant battle to get children to (1) read and (2) enjoy it.   Since the early 90’s, overall reading test scores for fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders have stayed mostly steady—no real gains, but no real losses.  And yet the teachers on the battle lines report they must fight harder and harder to achieve the same modest results.

As a child I was ridiculously fortunate.  My dad loved books and was able to turn a trip to the library on a school night (with the ice cream cone that always followed) into a treat.  He read to me frequently.  We went through entire books together—long ones.  Treasure Island, Huck Finn—when I was in sixth grade he read me “The Tell Tale Heart,” and it cost me a night’s sleep, but I loved it.

Corny as it may sound, plopping down on the big bed while my dad read to me as a child was better than watching television.

Granted, the television of my childhood wasn’t the TELEVISION of today.  It wasn’t a 60 inch HD screen with a sound system rattling the windows.   That, of course, is part of the modern problem.

When books have to compete with giant screens for the attention of children, it’s likely that books will lose.   Flashing lights and loud explosions have a way of commanding the attention of us all.  As parents, I think we need to make sure that in our homes the activities of screen time and reading are not in competition.   You read, and you can watch TV.  But if push comes to shove (as it often does in our busy lives) reading comes first.

Personally, I think reading is worth fighting for.  Reading helps young brains analyze and decode a confusing world.  Reading is, above all, interactive.  When we read our brains have to work to understand.   When we read, we act.  When we watch TV we only absorb.

Modern parents fight a much tougher battle than my generation in turning children into readers who, above all, want to read.  The distractions are more enticing, the time is more rushed.

If I was a parent today I would start as early as possible.  I would teach my child from his first words that soon he will be able to read, and that reading is the best thing in the world.  I would bribe children with cookies to get them to the library.  I would occasionally tell them the TV is broken and they have no choice but to have me read to them.  Yes, I would tell them a lie to get them to like books.

Your competition is formidable.  That’s why you must start so early.   There’s nothing wrong with brainwashing your child to believe that reading is the coolest thing on earth.

Be sneaky.  Tell your child’s teachers about what you’re up to.  Enlist them in the cause.

Fight for your children.  It’s a war that will be won quietly, with them wrapped in a blanket on your lap, or with your arm around them on the couch.  It is a tender, loving war, but it’s a war nonetheless.  And you must win it, despite the odds.  Children for whom reading is bore, or an acknowledgement of failure, face a handicap that will dog them all their lives.

By the time I was fifteen I knew that I really, really wanted a driver’s license.  It’s true—I wanted one almost as much as I wanted my own library card.

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