How to grow a reader

“Lila is already reading!”

“Jayden started reading when he was 3 years old.”

“Jesse has been reading chapter books since kindergarten.”

As a licensed reading specialist and the parent of a kindergartner, I can’t help but notice the push for children to start reading before kindergarten.

What once was rare — and only for children who were developmentally ready — now seems to be the trend and an expectation among parents.

It’s the latest “keeping up with the Joneses” related to our children’s academic performance, and it’s starting before our kids have started formal education. 

When I hear these pronouncements, the mother in me wonders if my daughter, the child of a licensed reading specialist, should be zipping through Magic Tree House books at age 5.

But then the trained educator in me takes over: While some children are developmentally ready and eager to read before kindergarten, most are not. 

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, cautions parents (who often feel guilty if their children aren’t early readers): “There should be no rush to have a child reading before age 6 or 7. That’s developmentally the natural time.” 

Comparing reading progress among pre-K kids isn’t logical because every child develops at a different pace.

Just as every child doesn’t walk or learn to talk at precisely 12 months, the same is true with developmental readiness for learning to read.

My educational training, research and experience have taught me to focus on what matters most — helping my daughters grow into lifelong readers. 

Therefore, the bigger question is, really, how do you help your child grow into a reader? 

Build reading value 

How many books are in your home? Does your child get to see you reading and enjoying books, magazines and newspapers? 

Studies have shown that the more books there are in the home, the higher value kids place on reading and the more enjoyment they get out of it. 

Parents can reinforce a value of reading by purchasing books or by making regular trips to the library.

Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that kids who own books display positive attitudes toward reading and become stronger readers as a result. 

Consistent library visits have, of course, also been shown to boost kids’ reading attitudes. And kids especially enjoy getting their own library cards. 

Expand on interests

Children should choose books based on their interests: In fact, picking out, or self-selecting, books based on personal interests is one of the Minnesota state standards for reading.

Children are expected to begin practicing this self-selecting skill in kindergarten and to become adept at it by second grade. 

Brainstorm a list of your child’s current interests. What fascinates him or her right now? Is it trains, dinosaurs or horses? 

Perhaps you’re trying to prepare your kiddo for a major change, such as getting a pet, a first-time dentist visit or starting kindergarten?

Books are an excellent way to expand upon your children’s interests or ease them through a big change by providing context.

Kids can experience something new through a beloved character before taking a big risk themselves. 

Even if your child’s obsessive interest in airplanes, insects or volcanoes is driving you crazy — or you think you’ll lose it if you have to read another Pinkalicious or Pete the Cat book — continue to fan those flames.

Kids who are given the choice of what to read become kids who love to read.

Daniel Willingham, author of Raising Kids Who Read, concurs: “Choice is enormously important for motivation.” 

Test scores and research studies have shown that kids who read for pleasure consistently outscore kids who read because they have to.  

Drop everything and read

Mention the words “DEAR time” to reading teachers, and eyes will light up. 

DEAR stands for “drop everything and read,” and it’s an invaluable practice. Find a time in your family’s schedule to curl up together with a pile of good books. 

DEAR time can be right before bedtime, but it doesn’t have to be. Choose a time that works best for your family, or try out different times until you find the right fit.

Aim for at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. If it feels difficult at first, set a timer for 15 minutes and slowly build up to more time. 

Setting a timer also helps you (and your kids) avoid getting fixated on the clock.

You might even find yourselves going far longer than 30 minutes once you settle in and let yourself get lost in the stories. 

Begin family DEAR time with read-aloud books for children who can’t read on their own. “Reading aloud is the catalyst for the child wanting to read on his own,” Trelease said. “The more often a child is read to, the more likely it is the child will associate reading with a daily pleasure experience.” 

As your children learn to read, DEAR time can include each family member independently reading a self-selected book.

Be sure the parents and caregivers in the house are reading as well. It could be a book, magazine, newspaper or even the mail, but everyone should be reading something. 

The International Literacy Association supports the importance of adults modeling literacy skills.

Young children, according to the association, learn the uses of print in their lives by watching adults read, make lists and use of literacy as they go about their everyday lives. 

Although eventually transitioning to independent reading is the goal, don’t stop reading aloud to your kids entirely.

Reading aloud provides benefits for kids of all ages — even teenagers — including an enriched vocabulary, increased reading fluency and a pleasurable association with reading. 

Find just-right books

Just-right books are books kids can read independently while comprehending 98 percent or more of the information. This means your child doesn’t struggle with more than five words per page. 

Before children are able to read, just-right books are books they choose based on their interests, or they might be their own personal go-to books — predictable, repetitious books that build vocabulary and sight-word knowledge from repeated readings, such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

If your child demonstrates an interest in learning to read, you can try leveled books designed for new readers with simple text and targeted phonics, such as Scholastic’s BOB books or HarperCollins’ I Can Read titles. 

However, it’s important to let kids take the lead on reading these books. Nothing kills a love of reading faster than forcing children to struggle through a book with words that are too difficult for them as “reading practice.” 

The same goes for sight-word flash cards, phonics workbooks and similar activities known as “drill and kill” methods because they provide reading “drill” practice and lead to the “kill” of any intrinsic reading motivation. 

The gift of reading

Remember, learning to read is a developmental task and kids will do it when they’re developmentally ready. As a parent, it’s your duty to wait for your child to be ready and not push reading development. 

The single best thing you can do to prepare your children for learning to read is to read aloud to them from books they love and are excited to read. 

As Kate DiCamillo, nationally recognized Minneapolis children’s author, advises: “Reading should not be presented to a child as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift.” 

Laura Ramsborg is a licensed K-12 reading specialist, middle school teacher and freelance writer. She is a mother of two daughters and lives in Bloomington. Follow her on Twitter at @MsRamsborgReads.