Encouraging children to read at a young age offers benefits that last through their life.
Educators witness advantages that range from building a strong vocabulary to developing positive feelings about reading. At school age, children are very impressionable and become interested in what their parents are doing. This time is an opportunity to build that love of reading.
It sounds like an easy task, but it is more complicated than it would seem. A desire to learn everything can be a curse; it can be difficult to encourage young readers to focus long enough to read. Or to be interested in a passive activity when there is running around to do and games to play. Convincing children that reading a book is fun may seem like a monumental task. With the right incentives, a child reading a book on his own could occur more frequently than you think.
Building an internal desire to read is the most significant motivator when it comes to reading for pleasure. We have discussed the benefits of external motivators previously. They work well when used appropriately, but they do not substitute that inner fire for reading.
The goal is to encourage children to take the initiative out of a desire to read.
- Grab a book off the bookshelf out of love,
- Ask for books to be read in class,
- Take a trip to the school library,
- Bring their books to class for show and tell, and
- Allow them to read some selections out of it. Or read it to the class for them!
These are all opportunities to build that internal flame. They are reading, and being read to, because they love to read.
That devotion to reading will require effort from teachers and parents. One of the most significant ways to show a child that reading is a delight is through example. In school, if students are working quietly in class, read a book. It is a great way to give the mind a little break while demonstrating reading for fun!
If a student asks what you are reading, it is an opportunity to give them a brief description of the book. See what piques their interest as far as themes, subjects, and styles. Experimenting with different books is a great way to probe their interests. Bringing those topics to different lessons can keep their interest longer when trying to teach subjects like science and history.
No class of students is going to agree on one topic. This difference of opinion provides an opportunity to give them some control over the stories enjoyed in the classroom. It does not have to be a wide range of material; two or three books are more than enough for young students. Allowing the class to vote on the book, or giving students a choice as a reward, is another motivator. Those decisions will be part of the lesson, possibly introducing students to new books or topics!
Strategies like this work in the home too. Allow them to see you reading at the kitchen table in the morning or before they go to bed at night. Ask them to grab their book and join you. Children love to do activities with their parents, and this will encourage them to do it more often. Discussing the book as they are reading helps with their vocabulary and their understanding of the story. These are simple activities that reinforce to them that reading is something they want to do!
Intrinsic motivations drive children, and most people, more than external ones. Vansteenkiste, Lens, and Deci did a study in 2006 that found that learning done for private interest encourages a deeper understanding of the material as well as a desire to find out more. It develops good learning habits early, with an impact that will help them grow through the rest of their lives.
The number of elements it requires to build students into lifelong learners is breathtaking. It takes the commitment of parents, teachers, principals, local leaders, and the determination of the students to stay on a path that turns reading into a hobby instead of a hurdle. Without the basic building blocks of reading, books, all that effort is for naught. A variety of books is critical; as a home library builds, having books for all seasons and moods is essential for a young reader. It is essential for ANY reader.
Studies show that as literacy builds for one child in the home, other members of the family, from sibling to parents, show more interest in reading. Oxford academic journals show overwhelming evidence, as part of a global survey, that easy access to books is a crucial element to building readers. It is one of the driving forces behind why Kids Read Now distributes so many books to students in need around the country.
Our program receives such impressive results because of the number of books delivered to our students. Thousands of books are sent to homes every summer, building those in home libraries. Because of the generosity of our supporters, we have warehouses full of books. Books that explore all topics, from historical events to comic book heroes. That has provided us the ability to help more than just the homes of the students that are part of the program. Kids Read Now has been able to help the schools these children attend as well.
We have been seeing the number of students, and schools, that have participated in stopping the summer reading slide increasing over the years. Last summer, we were able to support those schools by building their libraries. Our program donated 100 brand new books to seventy elementary schools in Ohio. Those books help over 12,000 students, giving them more reading options. The more options children have when they want to pick up a book, the more likely they are to reach for one as a source of entertainment. We have seen it in our research; those 12,000 students have read over 80,000 books, close to seven books per student!
Our access to low-cost books has benefitted students in need outside of the Buckeye State. When Hurricane Harvey ripped through Houston, many of its schools were devastated. Some were able to open in mid-September, some were facing the prospect of never reopening again. The reasons for permanent closure ranged from overwhelming structural damage to loss of educational resources, including whole libraries. Kids Read Now was able to help one of those schools that were in danger stay open by donating over 2,500 books, preventing Texas from being forced to close it.
The staff and volunteers at Kids Read Now know the importance that books play in the lives of children, and those who are educating them. As our program grows, we are helping more and more students not just for one summer, or even two. By providing one of the fundamental building blocks of literacy, books, schools and families can build libraries. Libraries that are offering easy access to tales that entertain and educate families. Kids Read Now is thankful that we can play a small part in developing literacy in so many communities.
The impetus for building student literacy is typically school-related. Teachers and administrators want them to be successful in school because they know the importance of early education on the child’s future.
There are also the state-mandated goals that measure student achievement and can affect the school district in many ways. Beyond those two significant incentives, there is a third one that is important to the student. Low levels of literacy have an impact on the student outside of the classroom. And not just their ability to get homework done.
Coming from a home where the parents struggled in school can inhibit the growth of a student. Parents with low levels of literacy tend to have lower incomes. With fewer resources, there is a higher probability of housing and food instability. Students without this stability concern themselves less with the grades they are getting and more with how will they provide the familiy their next meal. Possibly where they will be staying that evening.
Parents working hard to make ends meet do not have that extra time to spend speaking with their children or helping them with homework. One indicator of student success is their vocabulary as they come into school. In a study done by Hart and Risley, students in low-income families are exposed to just one-third of the words that students in professional families. And vocabulary is essential to student growth.
With time being at a premium in low literacy homes, the learning experiences children have there can also be limited. There are very few trips to bookstores, museums, libraries, or other areas students can have educational experiences outside of the school.
Those trips may be limited by geography; lower income houses are typically not located near these centers of learning. Another limitation is their connection to the community that can help them find these unique places.
Those with low literacy work hard to hide their lack of reading ability. They use isolation as a way to protect their secret, not being involved in their community or school. Staying separate from these resources may mean they miss valuable opportunities to help their students, or themselves, outside of school.
Staying healthy can also be a challenge. From reading labels on food to understanding the medicine a doctor prescribes, low literacy has an impact the general well being of a family. Even common health issues can be exacerbated when medication is not used correctly, causing the student to miss more time from class.
They are either ill themselves, or they may not be able to leave home because of a sick relative. Missing this time can put students further behind, adding to any frustrations they may be having in school.
Schools offer a unique opportunity to break this cycle of illiteracy. Building a love of learning in school may inspire the rest of the family to improve their literacy. Siblings may be drawn to mimic what their brother or sister is doing, and become interested in reading themselves.
They may become the readers in the house, helping parents interpret bills or introducing them to new places to go in the area. Getting a parent to build their skills, through inspiration from a child or working with them personally, is a mechanism that can stop that vicious cycle.
For many children, going to school is just one part of their daily ritual. They grumble get out of their comfortable bed, have breakfast, and are transported to school for a day of learning and spending time with friends. They receive their assignments for the day, then head home to complete them before they head to bed and get ready to complete the cycle the next day. That is the ideal: a stable base for children to build their education upon.
That is not the reality for may children. As of 2013, most students come to school from low-income households. They can leave for school malnourished and tired from sleepless nights in unstable homes. Heading to school can be dangerous as well, especially if their home is in a high crime neighborhood. School can add to the struggle when they cannot stay awake, are focused on their hunger instead of lessons, and have no time at home to complete assignments. Such a fragile base is difficult to build an education upon.
There are ways that the school itself can be a place to help students from low-income or unstable homes educate students in subjects beyond the three Rs.
One way was suggested over two decades ago by Dr. James Comer, a child psychologist from Yale University. He believed that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” He developed a process called the Comer Process, known by some as the School Development Program. It is a system that looks after the whole student, helping them develop social and life skills in school along with being educated. Teams are built to help students manage their lives inside and outside of the classroom.
It takes a major commitment to apply the Comer Process to a school. There are many other options for schools to ensure that students are being supported for the time they are there.
- Building Relationships – You do not need to treat students as friends, but you do need to give them respect. A trusting relationship is a big step in discovering what is happening outside the classroom that could affect them inside of it.
- Formal Communication – Unless the home is highly religious, formal speech is not often used in low-income families. Most tests over the years are written formally, which makes them harder to understand for these students. Building this form of vocabulary is incredibly important over the long haul.
- Understand their Resources – By understanding what support a student has, arrangements can often be made by the school to offer what they do not have. Time and tutoring are usually the two things most students in low-income families need most.
- How to be a Student – Being a student is a skill that is not inborn; it is learned. Asking questions, planning assignments, and preparing for tests may not be taught in the home. Especially if the parents struggled in school. But it can be taught with other lessons.
Low-income students offer schools the opportunity to be a haven from their day to day life. They can help them with life skills they may not find at home, adding stability to what can be a very unstable existence. A stability to help them become lifelong learners.
In 2011, innovative game designer Jane McGonigal wrote a book about her experiences with gamers and how to live better through games. The book was Reality is Broken, and it discussed how to improve life through gamification.
Offering rewards for people to achieve has become a staple in our everyday lives, from points on credit cards to badges in apps. Every little win gives us a little burst of dopamine that makes us want to reach out for one more attempt. There is always one more carrot to make us want to take one more step towards our goal. We have discussed before how goal setting and rewards can help motivate students to achieve. But there are other ways to build that excitement for learning.
Chapter four of Reality is Broken begins with the story of an experiment that discovered that success is motivational, but to be entertained and encouraged by failing may be more motivational. The M.I.N.D. Lab studied how gamers reacted to success and failure in 2005 by using the Super NES game Super Monkey Ball 2. It is a game where you “bowl” with monkeys in clear balls. A gutter ball sends the monkey hurling into space with an entertaining graphic. The monitored subjects reacted well to hitting the pins with the ball, but they were more excited when the ball went off the side.
Their reasoning? By failing, and receiving something positive out of the experience, they are encouraged to try again. It is a combination of a challenge that they feel they can overcome and the opportunity to overcome it that keeps the gamers returning to the game. Learning a new piece of information releases the same dopamine as earning a badge in an app. According to a study done by The Princeton Review, 90% of high school students are focused on the results of their work, while only 10% are focused on the process of learning. Making the process of learning engaging keeps the students interested in the lesson. It becomes a challenge they want to achieve.
The Center for American Progress surveyed students from across the country and came to similar conclusions. Up to 37% of fourth graders surveyed stated that their math problems were too easy. The highest performing students overwhelmingly agreed (67%) with the statement “Schoolwork is interesting,” while a much smaller percentage (40%) of lower performing students agree with this declaration. Students that lack challenges are not engaged. If they are not engaged, they are not learning. Instilling a love of the process of learning makes it much more likely that they will achieve better results in the long run.
Students that discover at an early age experiments and unknowns in learning can be as enjoyable as the successes also discover doing the wrong thing becomes less intimidating. Accepting the challenge of the unknown becomes part of the process. Learning becomes a journey, filled with exciting new challenges to overcome instead of something to fear. As the Super Monkey Ball 2 players learned, the fun of the game is not always the success. Sometimes it is the joy of the journey!
In the middle of the summer, it can be difficult to keep children motivated to read. There are pools to play in, friends running up and down the street, and for many, little desire to be reading anything.
School is not for another month, and there is not a scrap of homework in sight. They have a small stack of colorful and exciting books to read, and even more of them will be coming as they finish each one. Without the motivation of assignments or encouragement of teachers, reading over the summer could fall the wayside.
There are multiple ways to keep students motivated to read over the summer. These tips are just as valuable during the school year as well, encouraging students to read for pleasure as well as for homework and information.
- Create a fun environment – Getting children to do something they do not want to could be a labor worthy of Hercules. Creating a fun reading environment will make them want to read, not force them to read. Instead of external motivation, they become internally motivated, making it more likely they will grab a book as a fun activity.
- Give them choices – Allowing children to have say in the books they read and when they read them gives them control. Children that are interested in a topic will spend hours exploring it. Providing books on that subject strengthen the association that books are for more than homework.
- Discuss what they are reading – As children approach preschool ages (three to five years old), they are starting to develop their standards and communication skills. The books they are reading are perfect opportunities to allow them to practice discussing with you about a topic they enjoy.
- Set attainable expectations – Children, despite what we may think, can be reasonable. Giving them specific goals, with specific rewards, is a way to encourage them to be motivated. Go the extra mile and make them visible. Make a chart where they can color in a box or add a sticker when they complete a book. These visual reminders allow them to see where they are in relation to their goal.
- Always be encouraging – When a child sits and reads, or discusses their reading, give them positive encouragement. Support from teachers and parents builds confidence in the task they are performing. Even when they do not perform to a high level, encourage them to try again and congratulate them for the work they put in will go a long way in their eyes.
Summer reading does more than preventing the summer slide. It is an opportunity to build their love of reading outside an environment where reading is required. Maintaining the momentum of reading through the summer will help students find an appreciation for reading they may not discover elsewhere.