Monday, March 09, 2009

BTFL Day 1: Raising Readers - Finding Time at Home

Reading isn't just a skill, it's a habit, and one that begins at home. But time for reading isn't always a priority, and even when it is, many families have difficulty squeezing it in. Here are a few simple ideas for encouraging the reading habit at home.

For Preschoolers
Children can't read if they don't know the alphabet. Once they recognize letters, they can be put together to form words. Never underestimate the power of playing with letters as a means to begin developing reading skills. Here are a few ways to have fun with letters and sneak in some reading at the same time.
  • Bathtub Fun - One of our favorite "pre-reading" activities was playing with foam letters in the bathtub. William would line them up from A to Z and then hide his eyes. I would remove a letter and he would try to guess which one was missing. Sometimes instead of removing a letter I would rearrange them. As he got older, we would spell words for each other and then read them.

  • Letter Art - Kids love to make art using all kinds of media. I invested in alphabet rubber stamps so that William's art could be adorned with letters and words. In the beginning, the artwork contained his just his name stamped on the page. Then, the objects in the scenes were labeled. Now, the art is fully described or sometimes forms the pages of a story.

  • Tell Stories - Listening and speaking are important tools for developing literacy skills. Children are born storytellers. Sometimes all it takes is a prompt or open-ended sentence to get the ball rolling. While preparing dinner my son sits at the kitchen counter and we tell stories in tandem. I usually begin with "Once upon a time there was a boy named William who ..." William then chimes in with the next sentence. Then it's my turn. If he doesn't like my sentence, he often offers to "fix it" for me. We continue this way until the story is finished. This is a great activity that is portable. We do this in the car, while waiting for appointments and other times when we need to fill gaps in our day.

  • Write Stories - When you find a book or character your child loves, try to imagine together what the next adventure might be. William was very fond of Henry and Mudge and Mr Putter and Tabby books for quite a while. Every so often he'd speculate on the kind of story he would like to see. I made him several blank books and wrote the title Mr Putter and Tabby __. William filled in the blank and then set off writing and illustrating his own story. We have many of these homemade books that became part of our regular reading routine. For a young child, there is often nothing better or more than reading your own words on the page.
For School Age Kids
When you have a child who begins to equate reading with homework and school, how do you make reading time at home fun and appealing? Here are a few ideas.
  • Cook Something Up - We need to recognize that today reading occurs in many different forms and media. We read maps, music, recipes, signs, notes, letters and more. When I can’t commit to a novel I read poetry and cookbooks. Since William loves to help out in the kitchen, particularly when I’m baking, he is my official "recipe reader." In addition to telling me what ingredients I need and how much, he delights in reading the introductions and notes about what we’re cooking.
  • Sign Poetry - Travel is actually a very good time to practice reading skills. We keep a pen and paper in the car and often play a game where we collect words and phrases for poetry. We read and write (not me silly, I’m driving!) words we find on signs, billboards, bumper stickers, license plates, etc. Once we have a decent list, we make up silly poems using the words. Lately the words Ben Franklin, fresh, gas (yes, he’s 8–enough said), stop and target keep reappearing in our poems. To keep them new we try to find rhyming words to flesh out the poem, and when we can’t think of words, we make up our own!
  • Never Leave Home Without It - No, I'm not talking about a credit card, I'm talking about a book. When I was growing up my father never left the house without a book. These days, neither do we. Anytime we leave the house for errands we carry a bag that holds plain paper, crayons or colored pencils, and a few books that William has selected. Now the mantra before heading out is "Go to the bathroom and then grab a book." There always seems to be time to read in the car, the doctor's office, the restaurant, you name it. Develop this habit now and it will last a lifetime. William packs books in his backpack every morning so he has something to read while waiting for the afternoon bus.
  • Check It Out! - Get your child a library card. When William turned five I promised him he could have his very own library card. On his birthday we went to the public library, filled out the paperwork, and he signed his name. This is a big responsibility and one that he takes very seriously. He has his own book bag for transporting books to and from the library. He loves to use the automated systems to return and check out books. Since our library has such a great web site, we can go online to look at his reading history and even get neat little printouts of the books each week.
  • Use That Card - Once your child has a library card, you need to use it. I know that this isn't always easy, but if you can make time for piano lessons, swim team and the myriad of other outside commitments your children have, you can make time to visit the library one day a week. William and I go every Friday when he gets home from school. The key here is to pick a date and make it happen at the same time each week. Your child will not only have something to look forward to, but also have a deadline for finishing some of those books. While you're there, check out some books for yourself. Modeling the importance of reading in your own life will send a powerful message.
  • Hey, What's This? - My son is at that age where he generally turns his nose up at most books I recommend directly. However, I am smarter than the average bear. Now when we go to the library I check out books I think he'll like. When he asks about them, I simply say they're MY books. When we get home from the library our routine is to look over our books. I make a big deal out of looking at mine. Then I leave the ones meant for him on the counter or at the table where he sits. Works. Every. Time.
  • Can You Hear Me? - I have an iPod dock on my kitchen counter. While I generally listen to NPR while cooking meals, I listen to audiobooks while cleaning up and baking. William is generally with me in the kitchen when the good stuff is cooking, so we listen to stories together. At first we started listening to audio for which we had the companion book. Now we listen to all kinds of pieces. The best part about audio stories is that they too are portable, making for a great listen in the car. They also fill a nice gap in the evening when we need some quiet time. Now William often lets a story lull him to sleep instead of music.
  • Light Up the Night - Buy your child a flashlight or book light and let him/her read under the covers. William will actually go to bed early if I tell him he can have time reading AFTER lights out. Reading undercover is fun and helps build independence.
  • Expand Your Horizons - Sometimes I think reading should be like the buffet at my favorite organic grocery store–there’s a whole lot of variety and one day I hope to taste it all. We need to encourage kids to try more than the same old stuff on the menu. Don't get me wrong, as I love picture books as much as the next person, but only reading from the same genre or format can get pretty old. Introduce your kids to nonfiction, poetry, folktales, biography, comic books, graphic novels, and anything else you think they might like. Eventually you will connect with the right stuff, even for the most reluctant of readers.

The most important and obvious piece of advice I can give you is to read TO your child every day, no matter how old he/she is. Make time to do it, make it routine, and make it mandatory. It should be the one thing that isn't missed, no matter what. Even though William and I frequently read throughout the day, the one time we do not miss reading together is at bedtime. We curl up together under the covers, read the books he selects, talk about them, and then talk about the day that is ending and our plans for the next one.

One more thing–Make sure your child has books of his/her own. While libraries are a wonderful resource, there is simply no replacement for owning your own books. Every child should have this opportunity. William and I spend a lot of time at consignment shops and yard sales looking for used books. We also buy online and in the bargain book section. I send book lists to relatives looking for ideas for birthdays and holidays. The gift of a book is one that will keep on giving, so make sure books get their due right along with the toys and games that are so popular.

Today's subject on Raising Readers is being hosted by Terry Doherty at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, the Reading Tub blog. You can find other entries on this topic at the following sites.

Tomorrow's posts will focus on selecting reading material.
Day 3 is dedicated to read aloud.
Day 4 looks at visiting libraries.
Day 5 is all about the future of reading and the role of technology.

Be sure to check out the entire schedule for the week at the Share a Story - Shape a Future blog.


  1. The library card is magic! I had to wait until I was six, but I still remember getting my first library card. I am saddened by how few of my students go to the library these days. My best readers buy lots of books-- and I'm glad-- but something is lost. Thanks for highlighting this reader-inspiring ritual for parents and children.

  2. Thanks for sharing such great ideas! Many of the things you listed we already do but your sign poetry is a new one. I can already hear the laughter from my 7 and 3 yr old!

  3. Tricia,

    Thanks so much for helping parents understand that reading should be fun, not an academic hothouse!

  4. I am with Dana, the "Sign Poetry" is a great, great suggestion. I like your emphasis on storytelling as well as your "legalizing" of reading under the covers with a flashlight...thank you, what fun! I am sure your ideas are going to find themselves shared by RIF in our parent training sessions. Thank you for sharing in the blog tour, I am already enjoying this week long adventure!

  5. All of these suggestion are great. When my daughter was three I started introducing the alaphabet. First at night time we would sing them to each other, you know the song. Then once she got the song down I tapped the letters on the wall next to her bed. Everynight before bed we would sing the song and point to the letters. Soon she was pointing out letters all over the place. She is now in the 2nd grade and as a above average reading level. Reading should become a habbit in all of kids lives, just like eating. Happy Reading!

  6. Oh, you are a Very Wise bear. So many great ideas. I chuckled out loud at your story of selecting books for yourself that William would enjoy. Catherine has a library card, but we haven't used it in a while ... time to dust it off.

    I love your idea of sign poetry. Now that CJ is trying to read everything in sight, this would be lots of fun!

    Thanks for being part of Share a Story - Shape a Future.

  7. I like the idea of sign poetry. I wonder if I could adapt it to school- as we walk to library, PE, music or lunch- I could have a student be the word catcher for the day with the assignment of writing a poem to share with the class. Thanks for getting my "wheels" running.

  8. My 4 year-old recently introduced me to a new game at one of the libraries we visit.

    This particular library contains a large number of stuffed animals in the "storytime room."

    My son selects a stuffed animal, i.e., Curious George, and then we have to find a board book about that stuffed animal to read together.

    If we can't find a book about that specific character, then any book about a member of its species will do.

    Last Friday, Curious George suffered many a head bump as he stood in for FIVE LITTLE MONKEYS JUMPING ON THE BED.

  9. Lovely ideas - I especially love the "recipe reader"!

  10. These are all wonderful ideas. We have made reading part of the daily routine. We always read to our son at least two books at bedtime, even on vacation.

    We do the open ended question thing all the time too. I've often thought we should write down his stories.

    Thank you. :)

  11. Great stuff, Tricia! I especially like the way you pick books out for yourself, and leave them conveniently lying around. But mostly, I love the breadth of ideas that you have here - there is truly something for everyone.

  12. The "hey, what's this" method is my absolute favorite for getting books into a kids' hands. It gives the parent a chance to make some good reading choices, but still gives agency to the kids. Love it!

  13. Thank you for your wonderful ideas, I am taking notes!

  14. I read your post with interest, but honestly doubting I "needed" it, as reading is already such a huge part of our parenting. I was pleasantly surprised to find many useful ideas. Thank you.

  15. These are fantastic ideas. I'm taking notes as well. I always love some great new ideas for encouraging literacy. I especially love the reading under the covers idea. Who doesn't love a good read by the light of a flashlight? I had to do this the other night when I had a sleeping baby in the room with me. It was absolutely more fun than reading by the light of my bedside lamp!

  16. EXCELLENT post! ~Packed full of fabulous ideas! Thank you for sharing! I'll be bookmarking this one!

  17. Fabulous post! I have only one thing to add_ put a flashlight in that book bag that goes with you on errands. Then your reader can read in the car when it's dark. My kids often read in the car on the way home from sports and activities and the flashlights make it possible.

  18. Great ideas! As a children's librarian I am of course particularly fond of all the support for getting a library card. It is a special moment and a great way to give kids access to thousands of books...ah those libraries- treasure boxes of the community. And as I say to kids who visit: "All these books belong to you!" Wowser!

  19. What wonderful suggestions! I especially like the bath time letters and the sign poetry. We will save them for a little later. Thanks for the list!

  20. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ideas!!! Thank you so much for sharing!! I made sure to definitely highlight this post over at my blog! Feel free to check it out at this link . . . . . . this definitely helped me to move outside the box when it comes to reading aloud!! Thanks again!