Fostering a Love of Reading

Posted by Patti Burkhead
Are you a big reader or do you fall asleep on the first page? Do you ever worry your kids aren't reading enough, or aren't reading the right books? Grammar School librarian Patti Burkhead explains ways to make reading a part of your child's life without making it a chore.
Reading is a gift we have the opportunity to open every day. A good book can carry us away to a foreign land, introduce us to characters we long to be like, and teach us about any number of new and exciting things. Best of all, we can draw near to our Lord and Savior through His Word. Most of us, even if we don’t love to read now as adults, have memories of favorite books or characters from childhood. But learning to read is a process. It takes time. And it comes in stages such as awareness of print words, word identification, and decoding. Once a child learns to read, a life-long journey of discovery begins. 

Or so we hope.

Today, fostering a love of reading and books seems harder than ever. Distractions abound. Screens compete for our attention. Schedules leave little margin for sitting still and soaking in the pages of a book. So parents often email me and ask for advice: “How can I help my child learn to love to read?” 

When I hear that question, I always think of a favorite quote I used to post each year on my classroom bulletin board: “Children learn what they live” by Dorothy Nolte. In other words, children imitate what they see and hear and experience in their homes. So, what are our children learning about reading at home? The answer to that question is more important than you might think.

I recently interviewed Seattle Pacific University Professor Dixie Massey, a reading specialist, and former Caldwell Academy faculty member. She agrees the messages we share (intentionally or not) about reading at home have a huge impact on our children. Young children imitate what they see mom and dad do. So what are they living at home? Imitation is the first piece of the “learning to love to read” puzzle. Massey offers more insight and a few practical tips.

While our kids are home, we have the power to influence them. What do they see us doing? Are we reading and enjoying actual books ourselves? Massey stresses this point. Young children cannot differentiate between reading on a Kindle and simply scrolling on a phone. Unless they see an actual book in hand, they will likely miss that connection. If you have a book, they will want a book. If you have a phone or other screen device, that’s what they will want, too.

For some children, ease of access is a key piece of the puzzle. We assume a weekly trip to the school library (or to a public library) should be all that is needed for a love of reading to grow. And for a few, it is. But every child is different. Massey shares that when her own son’s motivation to read books began to wane, she discovered he no longer enjoyed checking out books from the library because they had to be returned. He loved reading books again and again… and again. For him, finding a new book he enjoyed became pointless, because he was eventually going to have to go back to the library. Making this discovery was key to reigniting his love of reading (and to putting a dent in her wallet). 

One simple way to increase access is to keep a basket of books in the car. Keep the selection fresh and updated, but also include a few favorites that your child enjoys rereading. Having books on hand in your vehicle is a great way to entice kids to read on the road while waiting for a sibling at school or practice, or on longer road trips. Keeping one on hand for yourself provides another opportunity for modeling, too. You could even pair up with another family and trade baskets once a month! 

After years of studying reading development and raising two readers of her own, Massey offers some additional insight for parents.
  • Seasons change. Just as your interest in certain hobbies or activities waxes and wanes over time, so it is with kids and reading. Just because they love reading when they are young does not guarantee they will consistently maintain a high level of interest. But the opposite is also true. If your young child doesn’t seem to enjoy reading now, that does not mean they will never learn to love it. 
  • Harder does not equal better. Children who read “above grade level” are often prompted to read harder material for longer periods simply because they can. Parents should be mindful of the subject matter presented in higher-level materials and perhaps instead of reading higher-level materials, encourage reading wider. Suggest reading across many different genres, including nonfiction. Sometimes pressing for more reading at higher levels has the opposite effect and children begin to dread reading altogether. Take cues from your child. Rereading high-interest, easier material is not only okay but also can increase fluency and leave a margin for practice with tone and inflection when reading aloud.
  • Be aware of the fourth-grade slump. It’s a real thing. Many children seem to lose interest in reading at this level, and this is normal. Massey explains it’s partly developmental but also results when text difficulty level increases, when more reading is assigned, and when reading becomes tied to assessment in some way. 
To combat the slump, be sure reading at home is just for fun. Continue to let your child see you reading. Offer invitations to read together, to visit the library or bookstore, but don’t assign reading. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a parent is to back off for two or three months and see what happens.

Finally, give yourself grace. You may love to read and feel like you have done something wrong if your child does not display the same bent. Or you may despise reading and worry your child will inherit that trait from you. But your child is not you. God designed each of us to be a unique reflection of His image. And He doesn’t make mistakes. Enjoy your child. Learn to appreciate all He has instilled in your little (or not so little) bundle of joy. Removing the pressure will be a gift for both of you.