Ray Bradbury is said to have made this observation:
‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’
If you think about it, that quote makes some sense. No matter how many truly fine books there are available, if people don’t read them, they have no impact.
I’m quite sure I don’t have to convince you of the value and the joy in reading. After all, I don’t think I’m the only one who has a staggering TBR list (and no, you don’t get to know how many books are on mine. So there. ;-) ). The real challenge is passing on that love of books to future generations.
And it’s not just teaching decoding skills either. It’s not even teaching skills like identifying characters, remembering information and the like, as important as they are. It’s thinking about the ideas in books. It’s making sense of them, sifting through them and comparing them critically with what one knows and what one’s read elsewhere. And ideally, it’s teaching young people about the worth of reading.
How do you do that? I think each of us has a different approach to sharing our love of reading with our children and grandchildren. And in a lot of ways, anything you do to promote reading is a step towards creating future generations of interested, engaged readers. Here are just a few things that research has shown can really promote not just surface-level literacy, but critical literacy. If they help you too, that’s even better.
A Print-Rich Environment
Just telling young people they should read isn’t enough. But you knew that. Young readers also benefit from having lots of things around that they can read. And the more variety, the better. That’s how young people decide what to think about the world as it appears in print. And that’s how they decide what’s to their taste and what is not. In other words, they learn to think critically as they read.
Now, not everyone agrees with me on this next point, but I think it can also benefit young readers to be exposed to books that are a little challenging for them. By that I don’t mean books that are too mature in terms of their themes (that’s especially true for very young readers). Rather, I mean books where it takes just a little work to understand some of the words and follow the plot. If young readers have access to some books that are easy for them, they gain confidence. If they also have access to books that are a bit challenging, they develop their reading skills so as to meet that challenge. And they get the very important message that the adults in their lives respect them enough to trust they can master those books.
So far so good, right? You can order books online, go to the library, take children to bookstores, etc.. But what if it’s not that easy? What about children from families who simply cannot afford books? There are millions of families in that situation. You can also help the next generation by supporting those readers too. Donate to libraries and book-buying fundraisers and support their efforts. There are also many fine charities and other groups that are devoted to providing books to families who cannot afford them. There’s Australia’s Books in Homes, New Zealand’s Duffy and the UK’s Book Aid International. There’s also the US’ Reading is Fundamental (RIF) and Canada’s Indigo – Love of Reading Foundation. And that’s only the beginning. It doesn’t take much effort to find a meaningful way to donate your books or your time and money to bring reading to children.
Research shows conclusively (well, at least I’m convinced) that adults who read with and in front of their children tend to raise readers. Children are better than we sometimes like to think at working out what we say versus what we really believe. They’re most convinced that wide reading is important if they see the adults in their lives reading too.
This is only enhanced when the adults talk about what they’re reading, and that includes difficulties they may have with a given book or writing style. It’s good for young people to see their adult models use strategies to understand what they’re reading and to critically evaluate it. That’s one way children learn to use those strategies themselves.
Talking about books is therefore just as important as having young people see us read. That’s how young people learn the rich pleasure one can get from discussing characters and events in books. It’s also how they learn that there’s nothing wrong at all with having difficulty reading something. There’s nothing wrong at all in making reading mistakes too (e.g. a character’s name or what a clue in a mystery means, or an author’s intent).
Oh, and one more note is in order here. ‘Talking about books’ also means, at least for me, listening. I don’t think anyone likes to be lectured to during a conversation. But it’s hard sometimes for adults not to dominate a discussion; it’s the role we often take. Asking about what a young person is reading, and then being quiet and listening to the answers can be very helpful as children and teens make sense of their books. So can respecting children’s responses to what they read. It can be difficult for instance if your child or grandchild really dislikes a book you remember adoring. But respecting that view, even as you share your own, helps encourage reading.
The thing is, children are tasked with reading a lot of things, especially in school, because they are required to do so. And it’s not always a bad thing to challenge young people to read something they don’t think they will enjoy. Sometimes those requirements mean they discover a new author or book to love.
But the problem is that with no choice at all, reading becomes a chore – a burden. It’s not fun if you have to do it and you have no say. When young readers have lots of options available to them, and they get to decide which option to choose, they’re more likely to be engaged in reading. To add to this, research suggests strongly that we find it easier to remember something if we have a personal interest in it. Don’t believe me? I’ll bet you found it lots easier to learn by heart the telephone number of your first love than the telephone number of, say, a local shop.
But back to books. Letting children choose what to read, even if you don’t think their choices are interesting, helps them learn to make wise choices. It helps them make a personal investment in reading and thinking about what they read. And it’s an important message that they are respected. Of course very young readers benefit from the guidance of adults. But the more choices young people have in what they read, the more likely they are to find their ‘reading niche.’
Going along with choice is the use of technology for reading. For a lot of people, there’s nothing at all like the feeling of a paper book – the old-fashioned kind – as you open it and turn the pages. And that ‘new book’ smell? Delicious!
But the fact is, reading is available in lots of different formats. There are e-readers, audio books and podcasts, just to name a few. Those formats are no less legitimate. And they can hook a young reader on books in ways that perhaps a paper book won’t…at least at first.
Why? Studies show (and this makes intuitive sense) that we learn and know differently. We all are ‘smart’ in different ways. Why shouldn’t our reading vary too? If a young reader enjoys listening to books, why not? Or reading them online – why not? This isn’t to say that young people shouldn’t know how to read print in a paper book. That’s an essential. But integrating technology opens up a whole new way of experiencing books, and it might just be the way that gets a young reader to come back for more.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned specific titles or authors here. That’s because teaching children to become avid, critical, reflective readers doesn’t depend on one or a few authors, or one or a few books. It’s a way of thinking.
I’d love your thoughts on this issue. How have you shared your love of reading and your skill at reading critically with the young readers in your life?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s I Am a Child.