When my oldest son was born, I spent the first two weeks of his life reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden out loud to him; not through any attempt to create a baby genius but because I wasn’t sure what else to do. It seemed weird to sit around quietly in the presence of another person, but he wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
He did end up being an avid reader and I like to take credit for providing such an early start, but, really, I had little to do with it. Around the age of two, he started memorizing words. People would call it “reading,” and I would assure them that he just had a great memory and was recognizing the words, but within a year he was recognizing so many words that it was most certainly reading. So, I pretty much considered myself an expert on this whole reading thing, since my kid was really good at it.
Then the second kid was born; the one who taught me that I was not an expert on anything, at all. It turns out that actually teaching people to read is super hard! The “real” parenting experts (who I suspect are people without kids) say that you have to read out loud to your children every night and encourage them to read out loud to you. The experts must have super easy (imaginary) kids, because there are some nights where I risk physical injury in my rush to get from the kids’ room to the bottle of wine in the fridge, and it is not in anyone’s best interest to delay me on those occasions. Also, I don’t know how many beginning readers these experts have heard read out loud, but it’s a process that requires a lot of patience. I’m not saying that little kids stink at reading, but if you said that, I would nod heartily in agreement.
So, I was pretty sure the second kid was never going to learn to read and I set off in search of ways to trick my kids into reading that required less parental involvement, just to cover my bases on those days I couldn’t sit through another dry reading of, “Hank’s Tortilla Factory.” Sorry, Hank.
1. Flashlight Sight Words
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Perfect for practicing spelling lists and sight words, all you need is a pack of sticky notes, a marker and a flashlight for this “Do-It-Yourself Kid!” activity. Print words on sticky notes and create a grid of words on the wall. Each night before bed, hand your child a flashlight and encourage them to shine the light on the words they know and shout out the answer. Kids love flashlights and the repetition will help them recognize the words eventually.
This method could also be useful for memorizing alphabet letters, colors, or phonics. It’s a quick way to get some sneaky studying in! Extra bonus points if you have the child print the words onto the pieces of paper for extra practice (and less work for you).
2. Make a Book Nook
A secret reading lair serves two purposes: it provides a relaxing place to focus on reading and gives everyone (including mom) a little additional space. Especially effective for kids that share a room, an extra closet or corner can be transformed into a semi-private place for inspiration and contemplation. If you can spare a storage closet, look for an item that can serve as a bench. Get creative with storage cubes or an old coffee table or trunk. If you use a closet, stop referring to it as a closet and remove the door to avoid any awkward conversations with your child’s teacher about how you make them read in the closet. You know that’s how they’ll spin it. Add some artwork, lighting and cushions and you’ve got a mini reading room!
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If you don’t have the space to spare, get creative by making a canopy from a hula-hoop and curtains. Saw through the hula hoop and thread the curtain tabs through before taping the hoop back together, attaching ribbons to the top, and hanging it from a hook on the ceiling to create a canopy for a cozy corner.
The most important part of a book nook is obviously the books. Try to provide a wide and varied collection (Geronimo Stilton is a huge hit around our house, along with Harry Potter, The Sisters Grimm, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid). It’s great to start with a series, because the familiarity of a character or story line can keep budding readers interested. Also, there is less guess work from you about what they might like when you’re shopping for books!
3. Make it a Family Affair
Create a summer book club at home by inviting the family to a monthly meeting for some cookies and conversation about what everyone is currently reading. From experience, I can tell you that meetings are more eagerly attended when held at an ice cream parlor or coffee shop. Keep it casual and fun, giving everyone a few minutes to present the story they are reading and then ask each other questions about the plot, characters or how the book makes the reader feel. It is also an interesting way to hear your family’s thoughts and opinions on scenarios that don’t normally come up in dinner table conversation.
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I’m not above bribery, and don’t think any good parent should be. I noticed during the school year that my kids were resistant to the idea of reading recreationally since they dealt with so much assigned reading. We implemented a new family policy where everyone could stay up 20 minutes after bedtime as long as they would read in bed during that time. If you didn’t want to read, you could go to bed at the regular time. Reading rates skyrocketed immediately and, miraculously, the new system also managed to cut down on the 254 nightly trips out of the room to ask for a drink. A win/win.
Despite not having great literature murmured into his ear during the first hours of life, or for many (many) nights thereafter, my youngest son reads fluently and enjoys it now that he’s 7 years old. Yes, ideally all children will be reading and being read to every single day, faces alight with a smile of serenity and interest as they eagerly await the fate of Hank and his tortilla factory…but just in case that doesn’t happen, it’s good to have other plans in place. So have no fear, even if you mess up the “expert” way, there are plenty of lifehacks that can make reading easier and more fun for both parent and child.
I’m Jamie Squillare, an elementary school teacher and bookworm who hopes to inspire kids to enjoy reading in their spare time. Follow me on Twitter for more related stories and updates.