By Malia Jacobson
Children who read well have a leg up in school and life. But raising a confident, joyful reader isn’t as easy as slogging through a bedtime story each night before tuck-in. Per the University of Michigan, research highlights five fundamental components of early literacy: Phonemic awareness (or the ability to hear and identify different sounds, or phonemes, within words), phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and fluency. When any one of these areas isn’t up to par, children struggle with literacy.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 65 percent of fourth graders read at or below the basic level; these children will fall behind as academic difficulty ramps up. Read on for simple steps to take at every age to foster a love of reading.
EARLY YEARS 0-5
Many parents know the importance of daily reading, and hearing a story or two at bedtime is a common ritual in American homes. But parents often don’t realize that how they read to young children is just as important as establishing a nightly reading habit in the first place. When reading to small children, who are just beginning to grasp the concepts on the page, it’s vital for parents to add valuable context for children, says Carolyn Dickens, president of Motheread, Inc., a literacy education organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She recommends introducing the book’s topic before even opening it up. “So with ‘Goodnight Moon’ you could say, ‘I’m going to read you this book about a little bunny and their room. It looks a lot like yours!’”
Asking open-ended questions (I.e. “How do you think she felt then? What do think is in the box?”), called “dialogic reading,” helps create a richer, more meaningful reading experience for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, notes Dickens.
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Today’s children increasingly read on pages not made of paper: Think tablets, smartphones, and other devices. Publishers Weekly reports that 21 percent of children’s books sold in the US are digital. Technology is a part of who we are, notes Dickens, but paper books have real value for children, particularly for those under age 10. “Real books are immediately accessible to young children. They don’t have to look for a charger or ask a parent for a password for a device; they just need grab it off the bookshelf and open it up. They have more power and control over the experience.”
Paper books also offer benefits when caregivers read to more than one child (any parent who has ever asked children to “share” an iPad will agree). To make paper books a permanent part of your child’s life, put them on birthday and Christmas wish lists, make regular trips to your local library—and be sure to let kids see you dipping into a real-world, ink-and-paper book regularly, too.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Engage the page
Teens who struggle with reading fluency may avoid reading for pleasure, says Kaitlyn Fetterman, a middle school special education teacher and literacy expert in the Methacton School District in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. “But in my experience, I've found it may only take one book to change a reluctant reader into a bookworm. Engagement is a huge factor for teenagers, especially if they classically dislike reading,” she says. She recommends using a child’s interests to guide book selection: Jocks may enjoy reading a biography of their favorite coach or player, while those who love fantasy video games may enjoy science fiction.
Parents should also consider a teen's reading level. A teen who reads at a ninth-grade level will struggle with a book written at a twelfth grade level. When a book is challenging for a teen, pairing it with an audiobook can help make the text more accessible, says Fetterman. With so many books written for today’s young adult audience, teens have more to read than ever—and more ways to begin a lifelong love affair with the written word.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.