It’s the second week of school (here in New York) and the dreaded reading log has come home. In principle, we should not be having arguments about the reading log. Over the summer, my second grader read plenty—no one assigned her to read and no one suggested she read for a certain amount of time. But then her teacher sends her home with a chart and instructions to read 10 minutes a day, and suddenly I have to start harassing her to do her reading, and she is asking me to time her. As Pamela Paul and Maria Russo (both editors at the New York Times Book Review) point out, reading logs are “a perfect way to turn the joyous and free-form experience of reading into yet another data-generating performance for grown-ups to evaluate.”
But their new book How to Raise a Reader is not about what school could be doing better to teach reading or to measure how well our students read or even to encourage them to do so. That is the subject of another book (or a thousand). Instead, the authors want to explain what parents can do to encourage a lifelong love of reading in their children.
And it’s a good thing someone is doing it. According to a Washington Post analysis of American Time Use Survey data, the share of Americans who read for pleasure has fallen by more than 30% since 2004—dropping from 28% of Americans age 15 and older to 19% in 2017. And we should expect it to fall further as the number of leisure minutes is increasingly eaten up by screen time.
But How to Raise a Reader is also not a book about what kids should avoid. It is about how to subtly and not so subtly encourage your children to substitute something much better for them and much more interesting than screens. Their first and most obvious suggestion is for parents to start reading themselves. Instead of picking up the phone at every opportunity, pick up a novel. My own father still reads at traffic lights. The idea that no amount of time was too small to read something made an impression on me at a young age.
Their other suggestions in the book are less obvious but also smart. Give books as presents to other children and adults. Whenever anything is wrapped, it is obviously a treat and children learn this lesson early. Also, other parents really appreciate that you haven’t added to the piles of plastic junk in their homes.
They also suggest going to the library and making a big deal out of getting a library card, writing: “A child’s first library card represents a rite of passage, and it is often the very first official membership card in a young life.” I confess I have been largely remiss on this front, mostly because my children take out several books at a time and then leave me to search for them all over the house. We opt for the more expensive route of the bookstore. But letting children pick out what interests them while you are somewhere else offers them a great feeling of independence and ownership of reading. Books are a way that I spoil my children. I spend too much money at that the bookstore. When they beg at other stores, I hold my ground. When they beg at a bookstore, I give in.
There are some great tips in How to Raise a Reader for parents who are generally mindful of encouraging reading. For instance, the writers advise parents not to give away books that children have grown out of, noting, “When it comes to books, with a few exceptions, a child is never really too old for anything.” Indeed, my children often go back to picture books after they are perfectly capable of reading chapter books. They will read them to each other and to an audience of stuffed animals.
Russo and Paul also know that becoming a better reader often comes in fits and starts. Children go in and out of phases. They whip through a particular series, but then when they finish, nothing quite compares. Children are also often a little overwhelmed by the choices. So Paul and Russo recommend leaving small piles of books for children to pick through in strategic places.
Indeed, the advice in How to Raise a Reader seems a little like Feng Shui instruction. As with many parts of parenting, it may be easier not to tell kids exactly what they should do, but rather put books in strategic places to bring about the desired results. It seems a little sneaky, but it’s probably worth it. As Paul and Russo explain, "the latest research shows that children who read at home are also better at self-regulation and executive function—those life skills that make us happier and well-adjusted…By being part of your child’s reading life…you’re helping her become someone who controls her own destiny."