Make 'em Read: more ways to encourage reading in kids

Saturday, 22 April 2017

{first published in Maeve magazine, summer 2011}

Opening scene: Six-year-old curls up in sunny corner like a cat, book clutched in hand. Cue music. Small hand reaches out and strokes cover illustration dreamily. Hand moves to edge of cover. Music swells. Hand opens book. Title page appears. Child tumbles inside and is forever lost.

Alice falls through the darkness and lands on a pirate ship with a long silver swagger. A snake slithers down the mast, deep into the jungle where a baby deer scampers past a giant rolling peach. On a snow-capped mountain, a yodelling princess calls to her nanny as she floats away, clutching an umbrella. A lion roars. A treetop spins – a new world appears… and life will never be the same again.

Life-changing, breathtaking, transforming, enlightening – books open the brains of our children like a can of beans and cram wonderful stuff in there. Books stretch the synapses in the brain. They shuffle perception, expand the imagination, drag emotion through the wringer and provide a place of solace, comfort, hilarity and fantastical adventure.

But books aren’t flash dandies. They are patient and humble. Undemanding. In a world crammed to bursting with flashing with electronic gizmos that drain the creative life force from our offspring, getting kids to engage in the written word (and its inherent lack of flashing lights and sound bytes) and kick starting the LCD screens of their own imagination can be quite a Mt Everest feat.

Whether your children are book-shunners or book-devourers, these ideas are sure to unlock an unparalleled appreciation and hunger for stories. Open wide – come inside. It’s magic.

Poppets (age 0 – 2)

Babies in-utero-young are the perfect age to start with a book. The tone, cadence and language rhythm permeating the watery environment of an unborn child will prepare them for many years of bedtime storytelling. Comforting, familiarising and entertaining, read books with rhythm (think Dr Seuss and Lynley Dodd) and use plenty of tonal variation and expression.

For newborn babies, give books as a welcome gift or have a baby shower of books, proffering your own vintage faves or modern loves. Don’t stop at baby board books – treasured classics baby can grow into are just as important.

Older infants from three to nine months thrive on visual and audio cues, so books that stimulate and offer bright contrast are perfect. Child’s Play have a series of baby books that feature interactive titles. Pop-up books are also totally engaging, though keep them away from little fingers!

Toddlers rough and tumble their books, making board books essential. It’s vital children are allowed to immerse themselves in books without parents fussing over bent pages. While I personally kybosh drawing in books, giving them a well-loved, dog-eared appearance is what it’s all about. Go ahead and let them devour their books – both literally and figuratively. If you’re feeling precious about a particular book, save it for later.

When reading to toddlers, pick your time and place. Bedtime is perfect but also choose quiet times during the day, after lunch or before naps. Don’t force a toddler to sit and listen to a book. If they can’t focus, try again later. Half a book read is better than no book read.

Keep piles of books in play spaces for children to browse through at their bidding.

Select books yourself but also ask your child to choose. And be prepared for repeat-reading demands. It’s normal, it’s nice (okay, perhaps a little mind-bending) but repetition is critical for comprehension, word retention, reading skills and pure enjoyment. Sorry, but you’ll be reciting Little Miss Spider verbatim in no time.

Keep reluctant readers engaged by using major (and often embarrassing) vocal expression and lots of loud noises. Gasps, laughter, yelling, clapping and voice changes are hugely effective.

Use props – musical instruments, toys, food, hand signals and physical movement. Get up from your chair and encourage your little one to stomp along on that bear hunt or munch through that watermelon like a caterpillar.

When you’ve finished reading, hand the book to your toddler to ‘read’ themselves. Do this every single time you read a book.

Chatterboxes (age 3 – 5)

This age group are often voraciously addicted to books, particularly picture books, interactive books and rhythmic readers. Expose them to junior fiction at this age, even if you are the one doing the reading. Be sure text is relatively minimal and drawings are included on every page.

Continue reading to this age group but encourage child interaction by pointing to words and commenting with more detail on pictures. Ask your child to read the odd word themselves.

At the end of a book, ask simple questions about the story. This helps kids become even more involved.

Using vocal inflection and voices for characters is still highly effective. Encourage kids to create their own onomatopoeia – splash! woosh! crunch!

Saturate them with non-fiction books – this age loves facts and figures, especially atlases, cooking, craft, travel and books that show how things work, like the inner workings of the body, machines, buildings. Books showing people are particularly entrancing – this is an ideal time to introduce the mind-expanding diversity of other cultures.

Creative Masterminds (age 6 10)

A huge shift occurs in this age group, when children morph from picture books to chapter books, junior fiction and beyond. Take advantage of the large variety of ‘in-between’ books by matching the tone, style and reading competency with your child. Many of these books come in series – try the first of the series, then invest in the rest if they hold interest.

Books like the Battle Boy and Zac Power series are ideal for boys in this age group who struggle with reading; these books offer storylines with large font and short chapters, studded with cool graphics and older-boy speak.

Allow your child to choose books. Don’t have delusions of grandeur about your daughter falling in love with Anne of Green Gables just like you did – it probably won’t happen (try again later!). Show your child a variety of options and allow them to be drawn to the books that hold their interest (yes, yes, even if it’s always soccer or ponies).

Children of this age continue to enjoy having books read to them, although the continued use of physical and vocal antics can be distracting; children are now able to imagine for themselves how books should look and sound. Tone it down.

Graphic novels are fantastic for both boys and girls who become overwhelmed with pictureless fiction. Storylines can be sophisticated yet the text is broken by brilliant illustrative work that adds another dimension to the reading experience. Even comics are perfectly acceptable so long as they’re complemented by a relentless offering of other more substantial books.

Humour is an enormous advantage and is sure to attract even the most reluctant reader. All things gross, freaky, silly, marvellous and whacky is perfect for both boys and girls. Try Roald Dahl, Dave Hackett and Jeff Kinney.

Wordless picture books are fantastic at this age, as they enhance an understanding of story through visual literacy. This is priceless for a child's imagination and their ability to absorb nuance.

Know-It-Alls (age 11+)

By this age, you want to give jaded, seen-it-all-before tweens and teens something a little more out-there. Many kids are more than ready to read young adult and even adult books by the age of 14 and 15, so you’ll have to just get over it and go with the flow. You can’t make them cling to the Wombles forever.

The middle fiction and young adult book markets are absolutely brilliant in their quality and variety. Kids will want to read what their friends are reading, but also encourage them to look further afield and read independent, unsensationalised talent (which is considerable). Movie tie-ins are popular at this age, so pounce on the correlation quickly.

It’s a mistake to think children are past picture books at this age. There are many brilliant books (think Shaun Tan, John Marsden, Mark Wilson and Nathan Jurevicius) that take on older themes and do them beautifully for older readers. Graphic novels are ideal now, too.

Tips to Open your Child’s Brain and Pour Stories In
  • Visit the library monthly. Book it into your schedule. Don’t forget to take the kids.
  • Ask your child to name the author and illustrator of their books. Show them where the title and subtitle are. Talk to them about the verso page (publication page) and endpapers. Take them to author/illustrator websites. Show your children books are not just flat, inert objects, but living, breathing creations made by real people and often with years and years of hard work.
  • Browse publisher websites for new releases that might entrance your child. Bricks and mortar bookstores can’t possibly carry everything and so many brilliant books are missed, especially those released by indie publishers. They say books have a shelf-life of yoghurt, too, so they'll quickly disappear unless they're classics.
  • Frequent children’s literature blogs for the latest on new books and priceless advice. My website Kids' Book Review is a perfect starting point.
  • Host a book swap if your child’s library is seriously depleting.
  • Let children of all ages catch you reading. Often.

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