Even the most dedicated bookworm can find their kids are reluctant when it comes to learning how to read – and learning how to read is hard.
But setting a good foundation for reading is something that all parents can do. Award-winning author and Dean of Research and Programme Development at MindChamps, Brian Caswell, has loads of practical tips about what we can do as parents to instil a love of reading in our children.
Listen to Brian Caswell on Feed Play Love:
1. Introduce books early
Being familiar with books early on is a crucial first step for learning to read later on. While the age of five is the ideal time to start a formal approach to reading, Brian points out that introducing kids to books when they’re babies, is important for setting the groundwork. Even though, he explains, “There are areas of the brain that don’t actually come online … [before five] if there’s no preparation done before, then [reading] becomes a horrendously difficult thing for a child to master.”
When it comes to introducing books, there’s no such thing as ‘too early’. If you start them early, very young children will know how to hold a book, how to turn the pages, that the illustrations and the words are connected. “That those squiggles on the page actually do represent a spoken language,” says Brian, means that it will be easier for children to learn later that, “that squiggle equals that sound.”
2. Make reading a part of everyday life
When it comes to learning any important life skill, children need to experience it as a part of their everyday life. Brian explains that children learn holistically, so for reading that means integrating the reading experience into a broader environment that’s playful and enjoyable for kids. “The big mistake that people make in any sort of preparation of a child for future learning, is that they tend to segregate and compartmentalise the learning into literacy,” Brian says. “Children don’t learn like that.”
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3. Read with kids, not ‘to’ kids
There’s an important difference between reading ‘with’ our kids and reading ‘to’ them. “We can start preparing children to be enthusiastic, lifelong learners from the day they’re born simply by reading with them. And I say ‘with’ and not ‘to’ because there’s a big difference between reading to a child and reading with them – making it in a joint activity.”
Making reading time an activity that kids love, will influence how they feel about reading. “In the pre-literacy stage – and that is from zero to four, or five or six, even – what we’re aiming to do is to make books so familiar and so loved. The act of sitting down with mum or dad, and just curling up in their lap, reading the book, predicting what might happen, commenting on the pictures.”
Then when kids start school, they’re familiar enough with books and reading that, “when phonics are introduced, they master them very quickly, simply because reading is a natural part of their life and this is just the next step,” explains Brian. “So they can actually go and enjoy those books without someone reading them to me – that becomes a drive for learning the more difficult, or more abstract aspects of reading.”
4. Don’t choose boring books
Parents of children who have started primary school have all had the experience of sitting down to help their kids with home readers. Unfortunately, these little books can be outdated, or just plain boring. Brian agrees that choosing books that kids are excited by is an important part of enjoying learning how to read.
“The issue with any learning process is engagement. If you’re not engaged, you don’t learn. And if you’re a child, if you’re not engaged, you don’t even try to learn. If there’s no engagement in the subject matter … if the illustrations are 1950s illustrations, 1960s illustrations, which are notoriously literal – if that’s what you’re presenting to a five-year-old, who lives on Nickelodeon, who has iPads full of really exciting stuff happening all the time, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, this is much more fun’ … The message and the practice do not match.”
While as parents we might not have control over all of our children’s learning materials, at home we can choose exciting, engaging books for our kids on topics they’re interested in. Brian points out that to encourage reading, the books we want to offer our kids, have to be, “so engaging and so exciting that the kid will want to do that rather than anything else. If it’s not that sort of experience, then you can’t expect a child, even at the age of seven or eight, to be interested in learning that process.”
5. Forget teaching: focus on sharing
As parents we can get so caught up in the outcome that we forget the process. Brian suggests that reading with our kids and letting them be an active participant will engage them in the process, and this environment enables their love of learning more than any formal lesson can. “Make sure that the book is opened and touched and discussed outside of the mere text of the thing, but make sure that the text is read with rhythm with enthusiasm and with joy,” he argues. “Forget trying to teach a child to read and just enjoy the experience of sharing books.”
And if all of that is happening, and if you’re choosing texts with lots of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, what you end up with is children who predict the next word, who repeat those phrases, who bring the book back to you, again and again because they want the familiarity and they want the enjoyment and the engagement. That’s what you do. Then the reading comes naturally,” Brian explains. After all, he says, “we don’t teach children to speak. We speak with them, and they learn.”