The typical image of a child reading includes a comfortable chair, plenty of light to read by, and a colorful book with a riveting tale. If you are looking for a great story for children, the New York Public Library has a list of 100 classic books for children. Or maybe you want to look at what Time Magazine selected for its top 100 children’s books. There is plenty of overlap between the two lists in terms of books. You cannot discuss the best children’s books without having Where the Wild Things Are or something by Dr. Seuss on the list. There is another factor both lists have in common.
There are very few nonfiction books on either list.
Amazing nonfiction books are available for children of all ages. However, most of them are not making it into the hands of students. According to a study performed in 2000, in the first grade only one of ten books on average is nonfiction. Those books were not removed from the shelf often; children were reading them for 3.3 minutes a day in high-income school districts. In low-income districts, that number dropped to 1.9 minutes a day.
Getting children into the habit of reading seems easier with fiction. However, nonfiction stories encourage students to learn different lessons. Most school texts, the ones they will need to succeed, are nonfiction. Preparing them to extract information while they read when they are young improves their ability to do the same with school texts down the road.
One lesson they learn from reading nonfiction is that they do not need to read books in a linear fashion. With the help of the table of contents, they can skip right to the information they need and read from there.
If they do not see it in the table of contents, they can look for information in the index. These are two ways second- and third-grade readers can start to learn how a textbook or other nonfictional tome can be used.
The most obvious benefits of nonfiction reading are the lessons children learn from reading the books! They can learn about Balto, the heroic dog that saved an Alaskan town, or about presidents like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. There may even be some focus on the curious critters we come in contact with in our everyday life! Encouraging children to read about subjects that interest them at a young age lays a strong foundation for learning about those topics in school. And such reading may lead them to find other topics and books that interest them.
As you build your home library, or looking through the library for new reading material, spend some time with nonfiction. It teaches lessons that fiction cannot, like how to search for information, and exposes them to different vocabulary words. Reading nonfiction can lay a foundation of knowledge that will help them as they go through school. It will be just as comfortable in that reading nook that they love while teaching them skills that help through college and beyond.
When your children get their first books in their hands, it is a good bet they are going to end up in their mouths. Exposing infants to books is an important step on their journey to becoming lifelong readers. They become familiar with the books, exploring them by turning pages, looking at the bright pictures and, yes, even biting them.
At each age, there are certain milestones in reading they should be hitting. These include starting by interacting with the book as a physical object to discussing the broader themes and details of the story they just read. Paying attention to their growth as readers keep them on track to hit that third-grade goal of going from learning to read to reading to learn.
Here is a basic outline of what to expect at each age and grade level:
Up to twelve months:
- Learn to communicate through gestures
- Understand over fifty (50) words
- Respond to books when read to
- Enjoy the tactile aspects of books, like turning the pages and holding the books
One to three years:
- Answer basic questions
- Identify images of simple vocabulary words (cow, green, girl, etc.)
- Encourage them to talk and listen during reading time
- Learn vocabulary and language concepts through repetition of their favorite stories
Preschool (three to four years old):
- Name and recognize most of the letters of the alphabet (up to 18 of them)
- Recognize the sounds associated with individual letters
- Understand how print is read (left to right, top to bottom)
- Explore books independently
- Know the difference between pictures and letters
- Imitate reading a book aloud
- Start to recognize logos and other symbols
- Acknowledge their own names in writing, as well as other commonly seen words
- Start to match spoken and written words
- Recognize basic grammar structures
- Read basic words and understand how they work in a sentence
- Write out letters, numbers, and basic words
- Use pictures and other clues to understand basic words they do not know
- Understand basic story structures (who, what, where, when, why, and how) as well as story organization
- Create basic stories on their own
First and Second Grade:
- Take big leaps in reading starting in first grade
- Read their favorite stories for pleasure
- Recognize an increasing number of sight words
- Start to recognize when they make reading errors and can self-correct
- Figure out unfamiliar words using context and images
- A good time to listen to them read and start correcting them as they do
Second and Third Grade:
- Understand how pronunciation and emphasis affects the story
- Use correct punctuation
- Use correct spelling
- Learn new words through story context
- Organize their writing into paragraphs
- Apply new vocabulary and phrases appropriately
- Read more complex books independently
- Recognize deeper themes and engage reading as a learning tool
- Hold discussions about the stories they are reading
One thing to remember about these milestones in reading: all children learn at their speed. These are all basic guidelines as to what can be expected, but by no means carved in stone. Your child may be more advanced in some stages while behind in others. Teachers and parents working together establish the best way to help each student. The most important part is to stay engaged with students’ efforts and keep encouraging them to read!
No longer required to be in a classroom for hours every day, students spend their summers relaxing and trying to pack all the fun in they can before fall. While they have certainly earned a break after nine months of school, taking a full summer off from learning is dangerous. It can lead to the summer slide and being a month behind their peers when classes resume. As tempting as it is to allow them to take the whole summer off, it is essential for parents to promote summer reading and learning.
Having children sit for an hour or so a day is not going to work. Too many other options beckon, from playing with friends in the neighborhood to playing video games. Integrating reading into summer activities is a fun way for them to learn while they still participate in their favorite pastimes. Parents don’t have to spend hours considering lesson plans or developing special activities. The activities children naturally gravitate to, with little extra planning, can be springboards into secret summer lessons.
Consider the following summer favorites for learning moments:
- Find a favorite recipe and make it – We all have a food we love. It could be anything from a favorite flavor of ice cream to a dinner on a special occasion. During the summer, you can head to the library and find the recipe for the foods your child loves. Making it together helps your child not only with reading, but with math and following instructions. There also is the opportunity to learn about the history of the dish as well in other books!
- Learn about your vacation – Most families are going to travel for vacation. According to the AAA, over one-third of families will travel over 50 miles this summer on a trip. This is an excellent chance for your child to explore the library before you hit the road! Read some books about the place where you will be going or a landmark of some significance. Maybe allow your child to help you plan part of the trip!
- Learn about your home – Not everyone will be traveling. Some people will be busy at home, taking a staycation. There is still plenty to explore in your town! Take a tour of some of the historic buildings associated with famous people who came from the area. You can help your child read the building markers, and then later find some books about those people and their lives.
- Draw a book cover – Part of reading is understanding the story. After your child is finished reading each book, grab some crayons, pencils, and markers and help draw a new cover for the book based on what was read. Talk about the picture as you are both working on it. Being creative makes the story more fun, and helps it come to life in the mind of the child!
- Reading picnic – Get some sandwiches and snacks together, grab some summer reading material, and head out to the nearest park! This is a great event for your family and a group of other families, or just some of your child’s friends. The children can take turns reading from their books, running around the area, and enjoying a day outside. Have other books on hand in case they finish theirs, or they want something different.
- Read the book; see the movie – Summer is the time when the biggest films of the year come out. Many of the books your child loves to read develop into full-length movies or cartoons. Once your child is done reading the book, pop some popcorn and find the movie on a streaming service or rent it from the library and watch it. Discuss what was the same in the film and the book, and what was different. It is an excellent opportunity to show your child how things vary when one changes to the other.
There are many other ideas to promote summer reading, like the 100 place challenge, coupons for the books a child reads, a summer reading bingo sheet, and others all around the web. With a little extra time, you can make what could be considered a homework assignment into a fun way to spend a summer. All it takes is imagination to have your child wanting to reach for a book instead of a game controller or remote!
Readers pick up books to be entertained by the stories they tell. Take Charlotte’s Web for example. It is the story of a girl, Fern, and a runt-of-the-litter pig named Wilbur. Wilbur learns that he is being fattened up for Christmas dinner, which rightfully saddens the pig. It is then that a spider named Charlotte vows to help him avoid becoming a winter meal. Through the course of the story, all of the characters have their ups and downs. Readers develop affinities for the various characters. They become real to the reader, which is critical to any story.
This is more than just good storytelling, according to a study done by Emory University. Emory researchers discovered that neural pathways in the brain stay active long after a person finishes a book. In some subjects, it was up to five days. Readers become charged by the emotions that were being felt by the characters.
Good fiction immerses the reader in the story. You feel the terror that Wilbur feels when he discovers he is going to be a meal, as well as the desperation the animals around him have to save him. But it is not always pigs and little girls on a farm where the reader feels a connection. There are many books out there that can help children develop social skills and empathy for fellow students.
The Newbery Medal-winning book Bud, Not Buddy, one of the books we offer on our Wish List, is the story of an orphan and his travels through Michigan to find his father. During the story, there are fantastic adventures and long, sad stretches for Bud. The story goes beyond something to entertain. It shows readers that there are people with different lives than they have. By feeling sad or happy for Ben, readers begin to develop empathy for him. Something that, through their new neural connections, can translate to the real world. These lessons can be extraordinarily powerful if the characters look like the student, or come from a similar background.
Books can also teach the importance of having friends. In the book My Friends by Taro Gomi, a girl recounts all of the lessons she learns from her friends. The experiences are all related to their abilities; horses teach running and birds teach singing. By showing students the power of interacting with others, this can encourage otherwise shy or socially uncomfortable students to interact with their peers. There can even be in-class exercises where students are encouraged to learn from the people around them.
Children can learn through reading the books. They can learn just as much be being read to at a young age. In a study published in April of 2018, researchers discovered that parents who started to read to their children from birth saw reductions in behavioral problems like aggression and short attention spans. This is even more important for children in low-income families where time spent with children may be scarce.
A wise grey spider teaches the whole farm, and the reader, some valuable lessons during her time with Wilbur and Fern. Lessons about friends, working together to overcome a challenge, and life on a farm are all themes that the book explores. Books teach more than the meaning of words, how they are strung together, and how they sound. They teach lessons about how to interact and empathize with people. Those are success skills that every classroom could use.
Information, once something that trickled into our lives through newspapers, radio, television, and encyclopedias, now pours into our lives at a staggering rate. We have generated as much information in the last two years as we have in the rest of human history. In one month in 2011 alone, the Library of Congress gathered 235 terabytes of data. That is enough data to hold approximately 79 million copies of War and Peace.
All of that information needs a filter. Fortunately, schools and communities have an incredible one: the library. Many people think that libraries are antiquated. They carry something called “books” that people can borrow. Some of the better ones may have a row of computers that still dial into the internet. In a pinch, you can even print there. If you need help, there is always a librarian there to help you work your way through the card catalog.
That is until you realize that over 250 libraries in the United States offer 3D printing services to their patrons. And have done so for several years now. Libraries are much more than storage spaces for information. They are dynamic spaces where groups of people come to learn, access resources, and build a life. Librarians are more than keepers of that information. Their wisdom can bring you to the right books, websites, and other materials that you could spend hours discovering on your own. They are informational tour guides.
Communities are built around and through libraries.
All of this is true for a school library as well. They could be even more important to this small, but diverse, population. With the increasing importance of test scores, investing in a school librarian is a no-brainer. Test scores in elementary schools with trained librarians increased by 35% in a Michigan study. Studies in other states, like Iowa, showed that an adequately funded and staffed library aided test scores as well.
Libraries provide another space for children to learn. They can help students navigate the internet, offer a quiet area for students to study, and encourage students to read. The staff, knowing what books a student enjoys, can help them choose books that are similar to their interests. Sometimes they are not even books the student knew they would like. Providing students books that interest them is another way to encourage students to read more. They dig into a new book they started to read in the library and end up not putting it down until they must. More reading, and reading books they choose, create better learners.
In some schools, the term “media center” has replaced “library” to describe this communal space. This shift reflects the ever-changing role of what the library can do within a school. Especially as learning becomes virtual, and students can access learning media anywhere they have an internet connection. Librarians show the students how to safely access and use school resources from home, or another space that has an internet connection.
While students are typically the ones utilizing the resources the library has to offer, they can be a pillar of support to teachers. Well-trained librarians are expert researchers. They can provide teachers with research tools and educational resources they would otherwise miss. Librarians that work with teachers offer a way to complement lessons in the classroom with displays and other resources in the library. They can also provide curious students with more in-depth knowledge of the subject through school materials.
The school library, like any library, can be a hub of communal activity for the school. A well-trained library staff with the right resources can do everything from improving test scores to inspire students to take learning beyond the classroom. It is an often overlooked resource that can be a critical component of student success. Head to the library soon and have a conversation with the librarians there. They are the ones that can will, within the deluge of new information the internet offers, show you how to surf through it with confidence.
Strategies to get students to read more have many similarities to strategies for getting children to eat more vegetables.
Much like vegetables, when it comes to getting children to read, giving them the ability to choose what they want to learn will get them to read more. Choices, like reaching for carrots instead of chips, put children into a situation where they are encouraged to perform the task that is better for them makes them more interested in doing the work.
A 2010 article by Jenna Cambria and John Guthrie offer choice as one of the key motivating factors for getting students to read.
This is not to say that everything they read has to be their choice. Lessons can be broken down to give students options for how they approach the material. What character are we going to read about today? Which lesson are we going to learn? Who wants to be the reader for specific pages?
Offering choices give a certain amount of ownership. The teacher is still controlling the direction of the class, but the students have a small say. That small investment keeps them interested in the subject at hand.
Reading about something they have selected keeps students motivated on the topic. Required reading can be a drag. It is a challenge to keep students moving forward in a book they show no interest. Even if the book is required reading, there are ways to give students a choice. Like becoming an expert on one of the topics or characters. This gives them some power over the assignment, giving them the encouragement to keep reading.
When students have the opportunity to read for pleasure, offering a wide selection of books is critical. Children today have dozens of options for how they can spend their time. Choosing the books they want to read puts that activity to the top of the list. Spending time reading for pleasure, on a topic they enjoy, encourages them to read more. More frequent reading offers a wide variety of benefits, including building a more extensive vocabulary. While having a library in the home is ideal, introducing students to the school library and the public library will help with that diversity of options.
When students read, they want the experience to be more than a required activity they have to perform. The material they are reading should be something they enjoy, not a checkmark in a box. They do not want it to be eating their vegetables because they have to. Vegetables are best when they taste good or make the meal better. Giving the students choice in what they read, either in the narrow terms of a lesson or the full range of shelves in a library, bring students closer to becoming readers that are always looking for their next book!