Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Train-ing to Read

How do you help kids fall in love with reading -- and keep them passionate about it as they get older and busier?  It isn't easy, but here is how it has worked for my family:

From the time they were born, I loved reading to my sons.  Some of my favorite memories are of snuggling with them and a good book.  I always kept a story with me to read on the subway, in restaurants while we waited to be served, in line at the post office, and, of course, when we travelled.  I remember once on a long plane ride that my husband thought I was reading one of the "Harry Potter" books out loud too enthusiastically, and encouraged me to tone it down a bit for the sake of the passengers around us.  But a man in the row in front of us turned around and urged me to keep going -- he was enjoying hearing the book, too!

The downside to all of this, is that when it was time for my kids to learn to read, they were a bit reluctant to go it alone.  My older son would painfully and laboriously sound out the titles to the chapters in his beloved "Magic Treehouse" series, and even struggle his way through a sentence here and there, but it was tough going.  His first grade teacher assured me that he had all the skills necessary for reading and urged patience.  She was confident that it would all come together for him when he was ready and that if he was pushed too hard, reading would become a chore rather than a delight.  Of course she was right: about halfway through the school year, my father-in-law passed away and in the midst of the chaos of funeral planning and condolence calls, I couldn't read to my son as I usually did.  We were in the midst of a "Magic Treehouse" story and he begged and begged me to finish it with him.  Sadly, I just didn't have the time.  So he retreated to his favorite spot on the couch and read it to himself, finishing one book and gobbling down several others.  From that time on, he has been a prodigious and enthusiastic reader -- all because he had to read if he wanted to know what happened next!

My younger son presented a different challenge.  As he entered the tween years, the time he spent reading began to decline as he tired of re-reading books he already owned.  His school library was in the midst of a rennovation so he could no longer borrow books there.  Our local library had limited hours because of budget cuts making it difficult to use, and although the Barnes & Noble store near us is well-stocked with titles that appealed to him, constantly buying new books overwhelmed his spending ability (and ours, too!).  The solution?  He asked for a Kindle for Christmas, and it turned out to be an inspired gift.  Now he can download new books whenever and whereever he wants and the cost per title is considerably less -- low enough that he can buy a new book per week with just his allowance money.  Oh, and the fact that he's using a trendy gadget makes reading as fun as playing video games.

My mother had an altogether different situation when I was growing up.  When he was 7, my brother had a strong interest in trains, but only a marginal interest in reading. He'd spend hours building and playing with an elaborate train set, but even books about trains couldn't entice him to read more frequently. My parents were anxious to help him establish a love of books that would help him in years to come, and finally hit upon a plan that worked for everyone. My mom used construction paper to create a train locomotive, which she posted on the refrigerator door. She then offered him a deal: if he would read one book every night for a month, she'd take him for a train ride into Boston (we live about 40 miles away). To help him keep track of his progress, she posted construction paper train cars on the fridge for each day that he met his goal, linking the train cars together with colorful pieces of yarn. The promise of a ride on a real railroad proved to be a powerful incentive -- he read his books, he got his ride, and once he established the habit of reading, it became a regular practice.

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