Interview: A Librarian Shares Ways to Grow and Cultivate Strong Readers

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Children in the Library
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A recent study links children’s reading habits with strong school performance—that those who read for pleasure show an overall higher performance in math as well as subjects like spelling and vocabulary than those who rarely read. So what exactly is “reading for pleasure” when it comes to young children? And why do some kids plop down on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon to read a book, while others run from the notion like it’s animal sacrifice?

I decided to reach out to a school librarian, someone on the front lines and observing young readers on a daily basis. I interviewed Tiffany Whitehead, a library media specialist at Central Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who also blogs over at Mighty Little Librarian.

Geek Mom: What are some of the traits you see in kids who are voracious readers at your school? What characteristics do these kids tend to have that reluctant or less-avid readers do not?

Tiffany Whitehead: My most voracious readers are very confident in their reading interests and preferences, sometimes to the extreme that it’s difficult to get them out of their reading comfort zone. For many of them, their preference is toward science fiction and fantasy. They love books (especially books that are part of a series) that allow them to escape to a totally different world. Less avid readers definitely lack this awareness of their reading preferences. In fact, many reluctant readers think they know what they like to read best (for example, they’ll say, “I like to read mysteries”), but in reality they very rarely even complete a book in the genre they think they like best.

GM: How can parents cultivate young readers? What are some “dos” that parents can employ to encourage their children to read for pleasure? (Books that have movie or video game tie-ins? Starting a book club with friends?)

TW: I think the best way that parents can cultivate young readers is to expose them to an abundance of reading materials. Bring them to libraries and bookstores and let them explore. Encourage them to keep trying new books until they find something they really enjoy, then use that to match them to new books. Take advantage of online resources like Story Snoops [which offers children’s book reviews from a parent’s perspective; search tools help identify fiction for all types of readers] to look for books that you think your child will enjoy and have conversations with them about what they’re reading. But most importantly, make sure that they always have access to lots and lots of books!

GM: What are the “don’ts” that can smother a child’s joy of reading? (Making kids reach a certain quota of books over the summer, making them read books that are above their reading level, mandatory home book reports about what they are reading?)

TW: Don’t force a child into reading a book they don’t enjoy. If they start a book and reading it seems to be painful, encourage them to find something else. Take the reasons that they give for not liking a book (it’s too hard to read, not enough action, confusing because it takes place in a fantasy world) and use that to help them find something different that they may like better. Instead of forcing them into any kind of book regimen like home book reports, reading books on a certain level, or reading a particular number of books, talk with them regularly in a positive tone about what they’re reading. And again, make sure they have plenty of exposure to lots of different books!

GM: Reading for pleasure can be summed up, in my mind, as engagement. When kids are excited about something and want to engage with it—go deeper in their learning and understanding—then they pick up books and material about it. They want to become the experts. But in the world of standardized testing, of nonstop social media, of gaming, their time for reading is limited. What does “reading for pleasure” mean to you? And is it easy for kids to do these days?

TW: To me, reading for pleasure means that you are getting satisfaction from the act of reading. For those kids who are avid readers, they’re always going to make time for reading because it’s what they love. However, for most kids, time has to be set aside for reading. At first it may not be a pleasurable experience because they would rather be doing other things, but if the moment happens where they forget about everything else and find themselves absorbed in the book they are reading. . . THAT is reading for pleasure! For this to happen, we have to set aside time every day for students to read, both at school and at home.

GM: One of the study’s findings is that children who were read to regularly by their parents at age 5 performed better in tests of math, vocabulary, and spelling at age 16 than those who were not read to. What are the benefits for continuing to read to your child, even when they have the ability to read independently? (My two sons, ages 8 and 11, still love to be read to at bedtime, even though they regularly read on their own.) Do you encourage kids to read on their own by a certain grade? When is the cutoff?

TW: Reading aloud to children is so important for a number of reasons. It gives them a reading role model, helps to build fluency by listening to a fluent reader, and it’s a social act as well. Kids do need time for independent reading, but I don’t think there’s a cutoff for reading aloud. Last year at our school, we did a One Book, One School initiative where every teacher (6-8 grades) read Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to their students. This was a really powerful force in our school to be able to have school-wide conversation about this book, and the kids LOVED being read to. . . they would beg the teachers to keep going!

GM: What is the ideal scenario you can imagine for getting kids fired up about books? Hook them on series vs. Newbery winners vs. pop-culture tie-ins?

TW: I don’t think there’s an ideal scenario that will work for all readers. Different kids have different interests, and we need to be aware of that. I find that having conversation, getting to know my readers’ interest, and following up when they return a book works for most students. Providing as many opportunities to read, interact with, and talk about books as possible is the way to go. From fun book displays to book challenges to virtual book clubs, I do everything I can to provide students with chances to get excited about books and reading. Building a culture that supports and encourages a love for reading, either at home or at school, is definitely worth the effort!

What do you do?

Thank you, Tiffany, for sharing your expertise. And for GeekMoms out there, what do you do to encourage reading for pleasure at your house? What are some ideas that work for your children?

Two of our three kids regularly read for pleasure, while the third tends to pick up a book only under heavy coercion. Here are a few ideas that we’ve tried, and we’re using them again on our reluctant reader:

  • Parental buy-in: We often have Mom and Dad reading the same book either ahead of time or at the same time, so Junior doesn’t feel like he’s doing the work alone. It also generates great conversations around story, plot, and characters.
  • Book talk: We talk about books other kids are reading, books Mom and Dad are reading, books that are popular right now and why. And to make things especially tempting, we talk about books that Junior might not be ready to read yet. That always seems to catch his attention.
  • Movie tie-in: If we know Junior might have an interest in the movie, we read the book first with the promise that we will watch once we’ve read the book.
  • Reward system: Bribery is definitely in our parenting toolbox. If a dollar or a trip to the bakery motivates Junior to read a book, we’ll do it.
  • The fairies left it: Sometimes if it seems Mom and Dad are pushing a title, Junior rejects it. But if the books are just lying around the house and Junior “discovers” them on his own, he’s much more likely to read them.
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