Four Ways Adults Can Support Child Literacy

By Mitch Center

Kids are influenced by what adults do. What kids see, they imitate. As our nation struggles to educate its youth, and in particular, lay its educational foundation with literacy, it’s a good time to revisit how influential we adults can be for young readers of every age.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, uncle, mentor or even an older sibling, you have the opportunity—and responsibility—to help the kids around you fall in love with books. That’s the best way to get them on the path to success in school.

Here are four ways you can start playing an immediate role in developing young readers and help nurture them as lifelong readers.

1) Make Time

At School: Leaders and teachers need to set aside time in the day for reading. Period. Just as lunch is a non-negotiable, the same should be the case for reading. Research has shown the benefits of dedicating at least 30 minutes to reading every day. The more kids read, the better they get at reading, the more they enjoy it, and the better they perform in all academics. We cannot assume kids will read at home.

At Home: Like most parents, my wife and I don’t get everything right—we make mistakes all the time. It’s all part of the journey. But one thing we’ve found and try to do as often as we can is “family reading.” About four years ago we started a tradition of family reading. Our kids were in fourth grade and kindergarten then. We don’t do it every night, but when we do it’s great. Everyone gets their book, finds a comfortable place and reads.

2) Provide Choice

At School: Imagine if you went to a restaurant and were told what to eat every time. How enthusiastic would you be about going there? For me, the best part is the moments of contemplation, as I look at the menu, revisit old favorites and sometimes try new choices. It’s the same for books. For too many kids, however, going to school is like going to a restaurant with a fixed menu. Most schools have a set reading curriculum with pre-determined titles. That does make sense, but unfortunately required reading is often the only thing kids read.

Just as we periodically expose kids to new foods to broaden their palates, we must also help them explore books across a wide range of interests and genres beyond their mandated reading diet.

At Home: Choice should be promoted at home from an early age. Even the youngest children can choose between two board books based on color, design or topic, just as a teenager can. The choice, of course, is not “to read or not to read.” It’s what to read. Beyond what to read, it is often helpful to provide choice on where to read (couch? bed? chair? floor?), when to read (right before dinner, right after, right before bed?) and how to read (tablet? book?).

3) Read to Kids

In School: Keep reading to kids, no matter what age they are. I’ve talked with fourth- and fifth-grade teachers who think their students are too old to be read to. And yet I’ve seen high school teachers and college professors utilize picture books as entry points to deeper conversations. Our kids are not too old to be read to—WE are not too old to be read to.

At Home: Many of us started reading to our children in the womb, and then gleefully through infancy and toddlerhood. In many households, reading to kids trails off as kids begin to gain competence and independence as readers themselves. But here’s the thing—kids can understand what they hear far ahead of what they are able to read on their own. Certain words are better understood when first heard than read.

4) Talk About Books

In School: Have we said thank you to Oprah lately? The woman single-handedly popularized talking about books the way she popularized the whole “you and you and you and you get a car” thing.  So thank you, Oprah. Seriously.

There is a ton that could be done in classrooms to increase conversation about books. Principals can ask kids, “What are you reading?” Doing this provides a connection and a window into an individual’s thinking, and shows that reading is a top school priority. Teachers have the best opportunity to get kids chatting by instituting Literature Circles.

At Home:
 A recent article in The New York Times describes how teenagers have a near-allergic reaction to the question “How was school today?” I am guilty of asking that one. Sorry, son. One pivot away from that knee-jerk question—for both younger kids and older kids—is “what are you reading right now?” Several follow-ups could ensue: Do you like it? Can you tell me about your favorite part? Another fun way to get kids talking about books is to start a kid’s book club at home.

We also know from research—and from our own lived experiences—that kids who read for at least 30 minutes a day progress in measured (Lexile) reading levels faster than their counterparts who read less, and they perform better in school. LightSail Education reports seeing this leap in 2015-2016 data from schools across the country in their analysis of over 16,000 students. Once students reach the baseline of 20 minutes a day, their reading abilities take off.

So what are you waiting for? Take out your tablet, magazine, newspaper or book and get reading to, with and next to your kids or students. Let’s get our kids reading a lot, every day. When it comes to reading, there really is no such thing as “too much.”

Let’s make great books available to our kids, no matter where we see them, and let’s remember that we are the ones who could help them develop their first crush on books, and eventually fall in love for a lifetime.

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Mitch Center is a former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent and currently serves as an education consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchCenter

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1 Comment

Susie Highley

Sadly, many districts don't take basic steps that could result in many of these objectives being reached more easily: for each school to have a certified library media specialist, an always-open media center, and a decent budget to purchase materials.

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