Raising good readers seems pretty straightforward.
Much of the research on it sounds like common sense: Let children pick what they want to read, even if it's comic books or magazines; let them see you read; talk about books to them; make reading material available in your home; and above all else, read to them.
In the same way our children see us watching television, surfing the Internet and listening to music for entertainment, they should see us read for fun. If a parent loves to read, odds are good the child will learn to find joy in words, too.
So, I was surprised when a finding from the latest Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report caught my eye, because it brought to light a common mistake most parents don't realize they are making.
Most of us stop reading to our children too early.
The survey found that, predictably, the number of children being read aloud to dips dramatically as a child grows up. More than half of children under the age of 5 are read aloud to almost every day. This drops to 1 in 3 children ages 6 to 8, and just 1 in 6 children ages 9 to 11. More telling than those numbers is how the children said they felt about it: 40 percent of children who are no longer read to say they wish their parents had continued.
Their No. 1 reason was because "it was a special time with my parents."
Maggie McGuire, vice president of Scholastic Kids and Parents Channels, says parents and caregivers are a child's first touch point with stories. Reading together is a chance for a child to be exposed to new words, plus a time to relax and bond. All of these positive associations establish reading as a pleasurable and entertaining activity for a child, creating a lifelong connection to it.
"It spoke so loudly (in the survey): Keep it going as long as you can," she said.
I had stopped reading to my children when they became fairly strong independent readers, probably around first grade, and I was skeptical that my now-fourth-grader would still be interested. But I took note of another statistic in the study: The percentage of kids who said they read a book for fun between 5 to 7 days a week is much smaller among boys. About a quarter of boys said they read this frequently for fun, and that number has dropped from 32 percent in 2010. Reading frequency has also declined since then in children over the age of 8. The steepest decline has been in children ages 15 to 17, of whom just 14 percent said they frequently read a book for fun.
These trend lines worry me, especially as the data show children spending ever-increasing amounts of time in front of screens.
That night, I raised the subject with my son.
"Remember when you were younger, and I used to read to you at night all the time?"
"Yes. Where is this going?" he asked. Why are children so suspicious? "Are you writing a column about this?"
"Fine, yes, I am," I told the little cynic. I suggested that we could read together for 15 minutes at night, from whichever book he chose.
He was lukewarm to the idea. It sounded a little babyish, not so cool for a 9-year-old. But with a little convincing, he agreed to give it a try again.
There were some specific instructions the first night: Don't read in a bored voice. But don't read as if it's a baby book, he said.
I can take direction. Plus, let's just say I've always thought I could have had a shot as an audiobook reader. I should definitely get some style points on my read-aloud technique. In my humble opinion, of course.
I kept an eye on the clock and after exactly 15 minutes, I closed the book.
"Five more minutes," he said.
Ah, victory. I couldn't help gloating a little.
"I thought you didn't want to read with me anymore?"
Well, this is a funny book, and it's cozy here, he told me.
Fair enough. Maybe it's not my dramatic flair for reading prose, but I'll take it.
In the course of the week, we have nearly finished the book, and he's even read ahead several chapters on his own.
I couldn't help but smile when I saw him bring a book to me recently before going to bed.
"Can you read to me tonight?"
For a book lover, there are few sweeter words.