By Tahireh Thampi, PYP Coordinator at Magic Years International School
At the beginning of the school year it is always amazing to observe the different kinds of reading experiences my students bring into the classroom. Depending on the reading culture at their previous school and at home, students often begin the year with varying attitudes towards reading. The most common of these is a combination of stress and boredom—“I don’t know how to read properly,” says A with a panicked look on his face. “I can only read very easy books.”
My own experience as a K-2 literacy teacher has taught me that a student’s attitude and the support they receive are the two most important factors that lead to reading success in and out of the classroom. Here are some simple yet meaningful ways that you can support your child’s reading development at home, all the while nurturing a love for reading.
1 – Home Library
Making a variety of books accessible to students is the most important way that we can support them. In our classroom, we have a designated area where we keep baskets of books. We call it our classroom library, which often puzzles students at first. “This is a classroom and THAT big room over there is a library.” When we teach children that they can create their own libraries simply by organizing and sorting books, we are contributing to making literacy more authentic and approachable for them.
In our classroom library, we sort books in a variety of ways—by genre, by author, and by reading level. We have book bins called “our favorite books,” which feature the books we have read over and over again, along with ones labeled “character books,” which include our favorite characters like Frog & Toad and Scaredy Squirrel. The true magic happens every few months when our units change and we re-sort our books into different categories. This helps us to notice books we may not have read yet, or to see a book in a different light—“Oh, I didn’t realize that Cynthia Rylant wrote Henry & Mudge and Poppleton!”
What might this look like at home?
A cozy area with 6-8 book baskets labeled in your child’s own writing. You might have a basket of picture books, a basket of nonfiction books, a basket of chapter books; this completely depends on the library you own and the interests of your child. And when it comes time to go to the bookstore to add to your home library, you might let the emptier baskets determine your next purchases.
2 – Reading Routine
In the same way we prioritize brushing our teeth every morning and night, we need to make reading a habit at home. As author Neil Gaiman puts it, “We have an obligation to read to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read themselves.”
Reading to our children helps expose them to fluent reading and acts as marker or goal for them; this is what I want my reading to sound like. When we read to our children we should use our smoothest voices and scoop words together into phrases, rather than sounding like robots. This is our chance to shine as expert readers and to even get a bit dramatic as we take on the personalities of the characters we read. Reading aloud to our children allows them to gain access to books far above their reading level, particularly chapter books and nonfiction texts. And let us not forget the importance of reading in your mother tongue. A love of reading is fostered when your child can hear you read expressively and fluently in your own language. While extremely important, reading to your child is only one third of the great reading work we need to be doing at home.
Next comes reading with your child. In the classroom we call this shared reading. This is a time for the adult (or older sibling) to lead the way and for the child to be an active participant. Reading with your child involves slowing down, working through tricky words together, and quieting down during the high-frequency words that you know your child can read (like the, my, we). When we read together we can often help our children to access texts that might be slightly above their level. We can talk to them about different strategies they can use to sound out words, and we can encourage them to reread a page to practice their fluency.
These two important pieces set the stage for your child to begin picking up books independently, using personal choice to decide on a book and read for pleasure. Reading by your child or independent reading can take many different forms depending on the developmental stage of the reader. For a kindergartener, this might look like flipping through the pages of a picture book while making comments about the details in the picture. You might find a first grader actively trying to solve tricky words in a leveled book, powering through book after book, all the while mastering the art of reading at their “just right” level. As children get older, they begin to transition into reading silently in their head, tracking the words with increased speed and accuracy. As Neil Gaiman says, reading aloud and reading with your child should not stop once your child is able to read independently. All three of these types of reading should coexist and become a fixed part of your home reading routine.
What might this look like at home?
Encourage your child to read independently when they come home from school. It will provide a peaceful way for them to unwind from a busy school day. If your child has an older sibling, ask the two of them to sit hip-to-hip with a book in between them. Talk to the older sibling about giving your child “wait time” to solve tricky words on their own, and to practice reading aloud their own books. Write down a few simple comprehension questions (see the next section) for your child’s sibling to ask them. Before bedtime ask your child to choose 1 picture book while you choose the other for a read aloud. If you are continuing a chapter book, decide beforehand how many chapters you will read. Setting a goal beforehand for how much you will read helps you and your child to feel prepared, and also helps to avoid the endless pleas for “One more book”.
3 – Conversations
Talking and thinking about books is at the heart of what we teach our young readers to do. It is what moves the practice of reading from an assignment to a joyful pursuit of learning. In school, we call this comprehension. We tell our students that we read to make meaning, not just to decode words. As a teacher, I can tell when comprehension or meaning-making isn’t happening by the dispirited looks on my reader’s faces. When the book in their hands is too challenging, readers feel frustrated that they are engaged solely in word solving and not understanding what is happening in the story. Checking for understanding is as easy as asking our readers a few simple questions. We teach our students to ask each other questions and engage in back-and-forth conversations in their reading partnerships. At home we can support our children’s comprehension skills by encouraging them to think and talk about books before, during, and after they read.
What might this look like at home?
Before your child begins reading you can nudge them towards thinking about the book by looking at the cover and the contents page and establishing their prior knowledge. “What do you think this book might be about?” is always a good starting point. This question can lead to more questions like “What do you already know about…?” and “Have you ever tried … before?” You can go on a picture walk to explore the structure of the book, and ask your child what their goal is while they read. Are they seeking to learn something specific or to find connections to the characters? You could also talk about the author and encourage your child to think about what they might already know about this author’s style.
While your child is reading, you can ask them to predict what will happen next and to check in with the predictions they made before they started reading. You can go back and forth between asking explicit and implicit questions. “How many people are at the party?” would be an example of the former, while “How do you think the character is feeling?” is a question that requires deeper thinking. During reading you might also be checking for understanding, particularly with words or phrases that seem unfamiliar to your child.
After your child has finished reading you should encourage them to think and reflect on what has been read. Asking children to recall the main events or key points in the text is a standard comprehension question. Take it to the next level by encouraging them to reflect on their favorite part of the story or to name a connection they made to their own lives. At this point, you might engage in a back and forth conversation based on an event in the story. Encourage your child to listen to your ideas and to build on them.
Taking the time to ask your child these kinds of questions shows them that you value thinking and talking about books. Sharing your own input and reflections on the text can build on your child’s listening skills and give them an opportunity to practice sustaining a conversation about books.
4 – Modeling
I have never thought of myself as an avid reader, and have always struggled to prioritize reading in my life. My memories of learning to read at school include a lack of agency and choice and the feeling that reading was an assignment that had to get done. I would pick up the smartphone instead of picking up a book, and I didn’t connect joy or pleasure with reading.
When I got married to the world’s most passionate reader, it completely reshaped my own reading life. My husband became a model of good reading behaviors, and being witness to these behaviors every day inspired me to join in on the fun. From a nightly routine of reading in bed to discussing authors with his friends to getting excited about trips to the bookstore, this modeling of reading in my home turned out to be the spark that I needed.
Think of a reader in your life that you admire. What is it about their reading habits that you want to emulate? This is a question that I always ask my students. We brainstorm lists of good reading behaviors that we see in the people around us. For most of my students, the reader that they visualize is an older sibling. It is becoming less common for our students to see reading modeled by adults. Perhaps this is because most of our reading is done on a device and can therefore be misconstrued as playing a game or watching a video. Or maybe we just aren’t making a conscious effort to plunk down with a book in front of our children. In my opinion, modeling is the most significant factor that influences reading success at school.
What might this look like at home?
If you’re just starting out, make a habit of reading your own book around your child. You could start in smaller doses, reading a magazine or newspaper while your child reads their books independently. GoodReads.com is always a good place to start if you are looking for book recommendations and reviews.
If you are already a passionate reader, support your child even further by talking to them about the books you are reading. Tell them about why you chose your book, what you like or don’t like about it, and share any connections you have made to your own life.
The bottom line is your child is taking their cue from you. And if that means that you need to figure out how to get excited about books, you’ve got nothing to lose.