Saturday, September 18, 2010

Encouraging Kids to Read for Fun!

It seems I can get writer's block about blogging, too. Who knew?! I've been stumped about a new topic for days so I asked Facebook friends for ideas, and they came through! Thanks to Tabitha S. for her suggestion of today's topic: How to get kids interested in reading.

Call me crazy, but I think reading should be fun. Granted, not all reading... who likes reading instruction manuals or service contracts? Some reading simply has to be done. But when it comes to reading books, especially for kids, I really do think it should be an enjoyable experience.

As you likely know, I'm a nanny as well as an author, and I've been working with kids for about 16 years now. The majority of them have had a love for books, but that doesn't mean they always nurtured it. At times I've had to figure out ways to get them back on track, and that sometimes started with figuring out what drove them away in the first place.

One of the most common things that I think pushes kids away from the process of learning to read or developing they're reading skills is having no freedom about what to read. Kids who are beginning readers get so frustrated by the stuff they have to decipher - "Judy sat down. Judy ate lunch. Judy ate lunch with Jane." If I'm bored stiff having to listen to it, imagine how the kids feel having to read it out loud! While the process of learning to read can be laborious and intimidating for a lot of kids, I wonder if it might not be a tad easier if they had some choices about what to read.

For instance, if they have a favorite character they like to read about - there's a beginner book for almost any character now, from Thomas the Tank Engine to My Little Pony. They may have their homework that simply has to be done, but if you give a child a book in their free time about something they're already interested in, they're likely to want to find out what it says.

The same can be said for older readers who are developing their skills. I never liked my assigned reading in school. Classics just weren't my thing, and it frustrated me so much having to narrow my focus like that, that I began to dislike reading. The fact of the matter is, however, that children will always have required reading so, then what?

Make reading fun! Be creative with it. When I was young, I always liked reading in "special places". Whether that was under a blanket tent or snuggled up on the front window sill, it felt more adventurous to read somewhere other than sprawled across my bed. Encourage your kids to find their own place. Maybe send them outside to read in a tree house or under a big shade tree. Even under the covers with a flashlight adds a sort of mystery to reading... so long as your child's not employing this method at midnight!

Talking to your kids about the stories they're reading can help, too. Sometimes I think kids don't get into a book because they don't understand the historical significance or the back story to the main characters. Maybe you could research the time period with your child (in a fun way so it doesn't feel like more homework!), or flesh out the setting of the story so they can feel more acquainted with the book. For instance, reading The Diary of Anne Frank can only be enhanced by having some idea what they, and others in their position, were facing.

Or you could try reading the story with your child, playing roles like you're reading a script. When I was young my mother would use different voices for different characters, acting the story out like a play rather than just reading words. You could assign characters to yourself and your child - even get other family members to join in if the story permits. It's a great way to draw your little reader in, and having them join in the fun gets them reading without it feeling like work.

And never forget the library! One of my friends commented on Facebook that she loved library day in her family, when she could pick out her own big stack of books. It's a great feeling to have so many books at your disposal, and I've never known a kid that didn't like filling up their own book bag to the brim. After all, if they spent time picking their books out, they're more likely to want to go home and find out what's inside!

As for what to read... that's subjective. Some of my favorite books have not appealed to the kids I've read to, but some of their favorites have made me feel like "accidentally" misplacing it somewhere. However, there are some that have struck a chord with both myself and the kids - a mix of classics and new reads that are destined to become classics, such as...

-Anything Dr. Suess. Who doesn't love the alliterative tongue-twisters that are Dr. Seuss books? And what kid doesn't like nonsense words? If your child's going to go around saying things that don't make sense, better they come from the genius mind of Theodor Geisel!

-The Berenstain Bears books by Jan and Stan Berenstain. I haven't been around a kid yet who didn't enjoy these books. And the Berenstains have written for many different reader levels. You can find books that have just a few words a page to much longer ones that focus on morality tales.

-The Scaredy Squirrel books by Melanie Watt. I absolutely adore these books! Who wouldn't love reading about a germaphobic, paranoid squirrel who asks his readers to use hand sanitizer before reading?

-The Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. These books are pure silliness, but in the best way possible. And they're simple enough that I've heard my four-year-old charge reciting the books to herself by looking at the pictures.

For the older ones, you can't go wrong with Nancy Drew(Carolyn Keene), Hardy Boys(Franklin W. Dixon), Choose Your Own Adventures(R.A. Montgomery and others) or Encyclopedia Brown(Donald J. Sobol). I'll refrain from calling some of these classics as that would mean I'm aging way too fast! But they're pretty solid bets, nonetheless. I've also seen kids eat up the Magic Tree House (Mary Pope Osborne) books with a spoon. My seven-year-old charge can tell you the exact numbers of the few books out of the forty-something in existence that he hasn't read. There must be something good going on there!

What about you? Any suggestions for frustrated parents? Or nannies?! No matter what people tell you in books, the best advice usually comes from those who are on the job every day!


Ethan M. said...

Good picks. The Berenstain Bears are awesome, I used to freak out as a little kid everytime I found one I hadn't read. And yeah, Magic Treehouse is pretty good. Gotta be careful of the occasional evolutionary propaganda though.

Tabitha said...

Thanks for running with the blog idea! I appreciate your insight - especially given your years as a nanny! My loved reading the Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Belden mystries. Also loved Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting and the book My Father's Dragon. My girls love anything Berenstein Bears too.

Jennifer Valent said...

Ethan, You can't go wrong with Berenstain Bears!

Thanks for the suggestion, Tabitha. Anything that helps get my brain unlocked is always welcome! And, I used to read the Trixie Belden books, too. :)

debbie said...

Great blog, Jennifer! Makes me want to go check these books out myself! :)

And yes, I read and loved the Trixie Belden series! I always liked the Trixie series even better than Nancy Drew, actually. :)

Also, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is still a favorite of mine. Robert Quakenbush's Miss Mallard series is great, too!

Carrie D.