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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing skills in reading is a great way to do it.
Reading is essential for your child’s success in school. Reading also plays a critical role in your child’s
- social and emotional development,
- language development,
- executive functions like working memory and self-control,1
- connection to you,
- empathy and understanding of others,
- imagination (ability to “see” the story),2 and
- ability to choose healthy behaviors (preventing high risk behaviors and unhealthy choices).
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning how to read and establishing critical learning habits through reading that will extend throughout their school years. Reading is learned best on a lap, snuggled closely in the arms of parents, grandparents, and other loved ones. In fact, the single most important activity for building skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children.3
Yet, anyone can face challenges when it comes to establishing a daily reading routine with their children. A national survey found that only between 34% and 60% of families read to children every day.4 Families today are busier than ever with more demands on their time.
Children are highly entertained and stimulated by technology, so even if a family does prioritize reading, children might fight it. You might hear, “Do we have to?” when you announce reading time after dinner. While it may take a bit more encouragement than past generations to start a daily reading routine with your child, it can be a joyful experience, enrich your family life, and promote valuable skills for school and life success. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to support family reading in cooperative ways.
Becoming intentional about a daily reading routine, looking for ways to incorporate reading into your time spent together, and considering the quality of the reading experience can all contribute to your child’s development.
Today, in the short term, reading can create
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment;
- opportunity for dialogue and reflection; and
- a direct and simple way to influence your child’s positive development.
Tomorrow, in the long term, reading helps your child
- build skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- build skills in hard work and persistence;
- develop empathy, creative thinking, and responsible decision-making skills; and
- create positive learning habits that contribute directly to school success.
This five-step process helps your family establish a routine for daily reading. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about establishing a routine for daily family reading by asking open-ended questions. Seeking your child’s input and offering authentic, limited choices in designing a plan to establish a routine for daily reading offers multiple benefits.
In gaining input, your child
- has the opportunity to think through their routine and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing the routine);
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about a critical aspect of their learning — reading.
- Allow your child some choices in establishing a reading routine. Allowing choices adds to your child’s sense of control and motivation to read with you. Questions you could ask to better understand your child’s preferences include:
- “How do you want to spend your time after school?”
- “Would you like a snack first?”
- “Do you want to change into play clothes first?”
- “Do you want time to rest or run outside and play?”
- “Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time for us to read together?”
- Experiment with different times to figure out your plan for reading together. You may want to take a week and try out different times to see what works best with your child’s energy. Some families enjoy making reading together a part of their bedtime routine. Other families like to get ready for school and read a story before leaving the house to start the day on a positive note. Still others feel that reading while having an after school snack is an ideal way to transition back to being at home. Work on discovering that rhythm with your child, and you’ll go a long way toward setting them up for success!
- Once you agree upon a time that makes sense, your attempts to keep that time sacred and consistent for reading will be important to ensure it becomes a habit and routine. If you are consistent, it can serve as a predictable, non-negotiable process. Your child knows what to expect and when to expect it.
- Create a space that can consistently be used for reading time. Although reading can take place anytime and anywhere, having a designated place ensures there is a well-lit, quiet, and comfortable spot. The goal of your reading space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your child to fully focus on a story. Setting up a reading nook can be highly motivating to a child and may encourage more of their own time spent on reading.
- Create a family reading rule. Be sure to discuss (at a family dinner, for example) how the family can respect reading time. Consider if you want all siblings to read at the same time or not. If you want everyone to read at the same time, consider what would need to be in place to make that happen. Either way, agree upon a reading rule that each will respect the person who is focused on their work and will be quiet in that area of the house.
- Treat reading time as a treat, not a chore. If you save reading for after things like doing homework or getting ready for bed, then reading together can be viewed as a desirable time to be together.
- Offer your child a key role in the reading process. Whether that means turning the pages, or keeping your place with their finger running under the words being read aloud, engage your child as an active reader (even before they can read on their own).
- Allow your child to select their own books that look interesting and desirable. You can learn more about books to offer your child on the online review tool from Common Sense Media (or download their app). It offers the developmental appropriateness of each book and a sneak preview along with central themes.
Make it fun! Designing a reading spot together can be an enjoyable experience. Allow your child to pick out their own pillows, bean bag chair, or bookmarks. Perhaps they could make a sign with their name on it to designate the space.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, learning about what developmental milestones your child is working on can help you know which aspects might be more difficult for your child when it comes to reading.
- Five-year-olds like to copy or repeat stories, poems, or rhymes. They like to have a role and a choice but also thrive within a consistent routine. They tend to enjoy reading to themselves or being read to. Five-year-olds may struggle to see a different viewpoint than their own, so this is an ideal time to reflect with them on a character’s thoughts and feelings, which offers valuable practice in empathy.
- Six-year-olds are eager for surprises, new ideas, and enjoy play. They may test authority more frequently, so becoming consistent with routines that offer limited choices is important. Highly imaginative books, fantasy, and adventure may be compelling subject matter at this age.
- Seven-year-olds are highly curious about the world, so introducing books about other cultures or lifestyles is ideal at this age. Seven-year-olds tend toward greater sensitivity and may be hard on themselves if they struggle to get a word right or are challenged by reading in any way. They may need lots of encouragement and support along with the reassurance that they can learn with time and practice.
- Eight-year-olds have limited attention spans, so short stories or short chapters are ideal at this age. They bounce back quicker from mistakes and disappointment and may not be as concerned about the mechanics (and stress surrounding it) as in the younger years. They may need an exercise break if you are reading more than a short chapter.
- Nine-year-olds can get easily frustrated and can show an increase in social anxiety. This is a great time to read books about similar characters who struggle with social issues and reflect on them since nine-year-olds are beginning to try and figure out friendship dynamics. Nine-year-olds can solve word problems and conduct research in their reading but may need your support in figuring out what’s important in their reading.
- Ten-year-olds can be highly cooperative, appreciate sharing their own perspectives, and listen to others’ perspectives. Because they are just learning perspective-taking, this is a great time to discuss what characters are motivated by and how they might be thinking and feeling. They tend to be eager readers and require much time to dive deep into books at home and at school.
Research shows that many boys tend to stop reading for pleasure by their own choice around nine or ten.5 Experts suspect this is because boys tend toward nonfiction topics like books about the natural world or how-to topics. They might also gravitate toward graphic novels or comics. Experts suspect that parents can voice their disapproval of these reading choices and inadvertently discourage reading. Be sure you leave judgment of book choices behind and only encourage their reading. Nonfiction and graphic novels are excellent choices if they interest your young reader. As long as it’s safe content for children, offer your support and interest.
For a list of picture books that highlight social and emotional skill themes, check out the following: https://confidentparentsconfidentkids.org/kid-resources/picturebooks/
For a list of juvenile fiction books (7-12-year-olds) highlighting social and emotional skill themes, check out the following: https://confidentparentsconfidentkids.org/kid-resources/juvenile-fiction-7-12-year-olds/
- When your child invites you to learn more about what they are reading or asks a question, listen with interest. You can also ask prompting questions such as:
- “What interests you about this story or these characters?”
- “What are the characters feeling or thinking?”
- “Why are they making the choices they make?”
- Or, in the case of nonfiction, “What are you learning about?”
- Share your curiosity and interest in the subject but do not provide an answer.
- Model reading. Remember, your child is watching you and will notice if you do or do not read around your home. If reading is one of the activities that you tend to do in your free time, your child will observe that behavior and be more likely to pick up a book in their free time as well. If you’ve fallen out of the habit of reading, or you read before bed after your children are asleep, think about ways to bring reading into your conversations. Perhaps you can discuss a book you are reading.
- Research information together in books. Although it’s tempting to do all of your research about a topic online, be sure to include books or articles in your research process. If your child is doing a science project on animal habitats, internet research can be helpful. But, be sure and also seek out books that can provide helpful background information. This cultivates a habit for children of seeking out the information they require through books.
- Teach the essential “brain break.” Breaks do not represent weakness or a lack of persistence. In fact, human brains work better if they get frequent breaks. Children need processing time, particularly if they are studying, learning to read, or reading a longer book.
- Show what a brain break might look like. You could sit with your book and say aloud, “I am really starting to feel frustrated.” Then, move away from your seat and breathe deeply and loudly. Get a drink of water. Walk outside and breathe in the fresh air. Take your child with you to do this alongside you.
- Depending upon your child’s school, the task of reading can become highly stressful. Children pick up on that pressure and may fear they won’t be able to read with proficiency. Remove that burden at home. Focus on joy and connection. Make reading fun. The best way your child will learn to read is through practice and exposure, and that will happen if your child wants to read! Focus on enjoyment and the rest will fall in place!
- Follow your child’s lead on books. Take a trip to the library and see what they select. Give them the choice of which books to read together.
- Don’t attempt to champion a particular book. If you show preference in a title, your child might show interest, but if you hold on too tightly to the idea, it might turn them in the other direction.
- As a parent, you do not need to be a subject matter expert EVER! Your child may have questions about what they are reading. Ask yourself, “How can I provide the guidance and support for them to answer the question or solve the problem themselves (even if they get it wrong)?”
Picture books with no words can be an enjoyable break from learning the words for children. Have your child tell the story just by looking at the illustrations.
Playing story games with your child, like making up a story cooperatively, can stir imagination, creativity, and a love of stories.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When your child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me you know what’s next when our timer goes off.” This can be used when you are in the after-school routine and need that alert to move on to reading time.
- Do a “brain break” dry run. In the midst of reading one night, maybe at a natural breaking point, play “brain break.” Practice moving away from your book. Get a drink of water. Walk outside and sniff the fresh air. Then, go back and ask, “Do you feel refreshed and ready, or do you need a little more time?” If your child responds they need more time, then ask, “What would make you feel ready to continue?” Perhaps, a hug on a teddy bear or a couple of runs around the house might do the trick.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you sat down to read without my prompting. Looks like you’re enjoying it. Great!”
- Proactively remind your child to help them be successful. The challenges of daily routines seem to recur day after day. Remind in a gentle, non-public way. You can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember what time it is? What shall we read today?”
- Provide opportunities for your child to use language and words in a way that is just a bit more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond that with which they are comfortable.
Resist the temptation to nag. Children often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if you believe they are simple. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve engaged in various activities to get them excited and build a foundation for reading. You allow your child to practice so they can learn and grow.
Now, you can offer continued positive support. This support encourages your child and keeps learning to read a fun activity. Now is the time to generate excitement and positive feelings about reading.
- Promote a learning attitude. Show confidence that your child can learn anything with time and practice (because they truly can!). Your comments and reflections will matter greatly in how competent they feel to meet any learning challenge, especially when it comes to learning to read!
- Ask key questions like:
- “It looks like you feel stuck. Could I help you sound it out? Should we look up the meaning of a word together?”
- “How are you feeling about your reading tonight?”
- Coach your child to ask for additional help. You might notice your child struggling and getting stuck even with your support. You might then say, “Seems like you are having trouble figuring out what this section means. This would be a good time to ask your teacher about this problem. You might say, “‘Mrs. Johnson, I struggled with this section. Can you help me?’”
- Stay engaged. In addition to reading together, it can be motivating for your child when they see you read your own favorite book alongside them for company.
Become aware of your own reactions to reading. Be sure that the tone and attitude you bring is one of enjoyment, curiosity, and learning.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You picked out a book and started reading. Love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you sit and read after dinner, I will let you have extra screen time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You started reading right after dinner, just like we talked about. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is choosing to read, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you’re almost at the end of your book. You must be enjoying it! Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the entire evening’s routine to go smoothly – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors that need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with your reading homework, and then we’ll run around outside or take a bike ride. Then, we can read a story for fun before bedtime.”
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.