You are what you read.
That idea was eloquently expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
Experts agree that the earlier in life children are exposed to books and to different vocabulary, the better they learn new words, and the more they benefit from everyday experiences. Not only does reading build vocabulary (research done by Hayes and Ahrens (1988) found that even children’s books contain far more rare words than prime-time television, cartoons, and even 3x more than conversation between college graduates) but it also increases our capacity to learn other subjects.
There are multiple advantages in reading to kids, and there is plenty of research to back that up.
One of the very best gifts you can give your children is the gift of a love-of-reading.
How do you go about establishing a reading culture at home?
1. Build a Home Library
Create a print-rich environment for your children. Immerse them in words and language. No matter your circumstances, you can come up with something.
Our first apartment was tiny, so we only had room for one small bookcase, which we built ourselves, in our children’s bedroom. We also filled baskets with books and tucked them all over the house. Baskets require hardly any space and they help you to keep books tidy and organized. Plus, you can find really cute ones!
Our first home — a little bigger but still small — had several bookcases spread throughout the rooms. My husband built two bookcases into a corner of our basement schoolroom, at right angles to each other, creating a ‘book nook’. I painted a large tree on the wall there, with branches that crawled up the walls and across the ceiling. That book nook was our greatest regret about leaving that house when we outgrew it several years later.
Our current home has plenty of room, and we were able to build my dream library with tons of shelves and cabinets, a long, deep closet for all of our homeschool supplies, and a deep, comfy window seat complete with nooks and crannies for children to hide with books. The room was just a concrete floor and studs when we started. I built all of the cabinets and shelves, but my kids helped to install them, sand them and stain/paint them. We had a lot of fun creating it!
Even though we have a dedicated library now, we still have bookcases in all the other rooms, including bedrooms. Plus we stack them on all of our nightstands and end tables. It’s important to have books all over the house!
2. Establish a Library Shelf
One great way to really cement a reading culture is to make regular library visits habitual. An inordinate number of library books comes with problems, though. You have to keep track of the books, but they still have to be accessible.
A dedicated shelf (or drawer, cabinet or laundry basket) will make it easier to find the books that need to be returned to the library. It will cut down on (though probably not completely eliminate) the panic of finding a book on the due date as you try to scramble out the door!
The top makes a fun place for themed displays, too. When you visit the library, aren’t you drawn to the books they set out on their displays? I especially love how they set up the children’s area, with stuffed characters and whimsical decor. What if you used that same tactic to entice your own children?
3. Be a Reading Role Model
Read for leisure. Show your children that reading isn’t work. Cuddle up with a good book and you’ll model how reading can be just the thing to make your day.
From waiting rooms to music lessons, make sure you’re equipped with reading material. You never know when you’ll have some downtime. Put away your phone and show him that reading is a fun way to pass the time.
Draw attention to all the wonderful things you read. While driving, give your kids a taste of the exciting plot of the book you just started — kind of like a movie trailer. When you explain why the sky is blue or why penguin dads hatch the eggs instead of the mommies, tell your child which book helps you know these facts. You’ll show him how knowledge is shaped by the things we read and how reading connects us to the world.
I like to bring my book to breakfast and lunch and read while I wait for my children to gather. It’s only a few minutes, but it always leads to great mealtime discussions as my kids ask me about the book.
4. Read Aloud as a Family
My most effective secret weapon is to read aloud to my kids even as they become better independent readers. Sometimes I even start reading one aloud until they love it and then leave it around for them to pick up on their own.
Hearing stories read aloud strengthens speaking, listening, writing and reading and comprehension skills. It also increases vocabulary and grammatical understanding.
But my very favorite thing about reading aloud together as a family is that it gives us a shared language. When we were sightseeing in Boston and one of my kids found a sextant in a museum (a sextant is a navigation tool for sailors, featured in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch), the rest of the family ran squealing to see it.
When my daughter mentioned kidnapping a friend as part of an initiation ritual, I couldn’t help but quote Huckleberry Finn and we all had a good laugh together remembering the part where Huck, Tom and the other boys instituted the rules for their ‘robber gang’. They planned to kill all the men, kidnap the women (who would fall in love with them) and children, and each of the boys had to put up family members as collateral for secrecy. Huck put Widow Douglas and Mrs. Watson up as his collateral since he had no family.
We really have a great time discussing and laughing over past read-alouds as a family. We have inside jokes, a shared vocabulary — a shared language. It’s a precious treasure.
5. Establish Reading Rituals as a Family
Bedtime stories make a great anchor for a soothing nightly routine for babies and toddlers, who are prone to fussiness in the evenings. It’s fun to reserve a couple of special books specifically for your nightly ritual. Your baby will learn to anticipate them.
Another fun way to establish reading routines is to keep audiobooks in your car and listen to books instead of watching movies as you travel or spend time in the car.
Not all of your rituals need to be daily or weekly, either. Rituals can be associated with holidays or rewards. We always give our children books as holiday gifts; books in their Easter baskets, each child opens a book the morning of Christmas Eve, books for birthday gifts and books as awards and rewards. Those become much-anticipated rituals and traditions.
Weekly during the summer, and frequently through the rest of the year, we have D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) camp at our house. My kids joyfully anticipate it and are even willing to complete extra chores to earn it! When I announce DEAR camp in the morning, my kids will scramble to finish up their chores, and will even help each other. We then make a quick library run for new books, stop at the grocery store for a few snacks, and head home to spend the rest of the day curled up in various nooks and crannies throughout the house.
No matter which strategies you decide to try as you create a culture of reading in your home, my very best tip for teaching your children to love books is to have fun with them! When your children interact positively with books, they will naturally be motivated to continue seeking out books and other literacy materials as they grow. Your biggest trouble will be getting them to stop reading when it’s time to do chores or school work or practicing or go to sleep.
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