In today’s fast-paced world, reading often rides in the backseat of the entertainment car. While advances in technology have made for impressive entertainment choices, it’s important to remember that reading is the only entertainment medium that’s also an essential life skill.

Among other benefits, reading boosts intelligence, provides competence in school and for future jobs, and inspires the imagination like no digital medium can.

When I was in primary school, my mum or dad took us to the library every two weeks. My sisters and I would plop ourselves down on the floor of the children’s book room and skim the titles — our heads tilted at 90 degrees. The checkout limit was a dozen books, which never seemed like enough. My parents, both avid readers, instilled in us a love for reading.

Without too much effort, you can teach your children to read and love it, keeping in mind a few simple tips and cautions. Try introducing your child or teen to some classic books and magazines you may have read in your younger years. You may even find some unexpected discoveries along the reading journey.

Benefits of reading

Research shows that avid readers:

  • Read better, write better and concentrate better.
  • Are quicker to see subtleties.
  • Have an easier time processing new information.
  • Have a better chance for a successful, fulfilling adult life.
  • Have many interests and do well in a wide variety of subjects.
  • Develop an ability to understand how other people think and feel.
  • Acquire the ability to sift information and to understand how unrelated facts can fit into a whole.
  • Tend to be more flexible in their thinking and more open to new ideas.
  • Weather personal problems better without their schoolwork being affected.

Given all the benefits of reading, it’s no wonder parents want to instill a love for reading in their children. And with the explosion of information in the workplace, only avid readers can stay well informed with relative ease.

Teaching your children to read

Start now. No matter the age of your children, you can start teaching them to appreciate reading and to want to learn to read for themselves. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, offers the following guidelines to help parents know what’s appropriate for different stages of development:

  • At four months of age, a child is able to listen and observe.
  • When reading, your arms should encircle the child in such a way as to suggest support and bonding, but not imprisonment.
  • By six months, the child is more interested in grabbing a book to chew or suck on rather than listening. Bypass the problem by giving him a teething toy or other distraction.
  • At 8 months, he may prefer turning pages to steady listening. Allow him to explore this activity, but don’t let him take the book away from you.
  • At 12 months, the child’s involvement grows to turning pages for you, pointing to objects you name on the page, even making noises for animals on cue.
  • By 15 months and the onset of walking, his restlessness blossoms fully, and your reading times must be chosen so as not to frustrate his immediate interests.
  • By 2 years old children are interested in everything and need names for those things. So plan to spend more time on each page naming items in pictures.
  • Once a child is calm in the presence of books and more inclined to listen than to rip, introduce interactive books, like Pat the Bunny or I’m a Little Mouse.
  • Familiarity is important in developing a lasting relationship with books, so the toddler years are a good time to purchase books to read and reread.

With 3 and 4 year-olds, you can start them reading for themselves by teaching initial sounds of letters. Alphabet books, magnetic letters on the fridge and drawing letters on paper can be fun and instructional. "The trick in this is to never quiz your child. Teach letters casually," author Mary Leonhardt writes. Another idea is to write words on index cards and tape them to the things they name, such as a chair or piano.

Cautions for Parents

Below are a few words of caution for parents trying to develop their child’s reading ability.

Mary Leonhardt, author of Keeping Children Reading and Parents Who Love Reading, Children Who Don’t, writes:

  • "Don’t do anything that will make reading seem like a chore. It’s better to have your son do just a little bit of reading at home at first — he’ll read more later, trust me — than to have him read a lot, but only when you’re forcing him."

  • "Some children are very slow to catch on to reading. Some children have a specific learning disability that makes reading harder. Some children have an attention deficit disorder and have trouble concentrating. Some are just immature and have trouble settling down to learn anything. If your child has a specific problem, it’s important to get help for him. But it’s also important to communicate to him that he can learn to read; it just might take him a little longer. I’ve had students say things like, ‘I’ll never read well; I’m dyslexic.’ Except in a tiny percentage of cases, that doesn’t need to be true."

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, writes:

  • "Expect negative consequences if teaching your child to read becomes an obsession. Experts in psychology and education emphasise the importance of unforced learning during the formative childhood years. ‘Avoid compulsion and let early education be a matter of amusement. Young children learn by games; compulsory education cannot remain in the soul’ was the advice offered by Plato to parents."

  • "Another big mistake is stopping reading to children too soon. The older the child, the less he is read to — in the home and classroom. Parents and teachers might say, “He’s in the top fourth-grade reading group — why should I read to him?” The reason is that a child’s listening level is often higher than his reading level. Children can hear and understand stories that are more complicated and more interesting than anything they could read on their own."

What they read

At first, you may concentrate on finding the right reading level or the right subject to interest your children and encourage them to read. Once they become proficient, your role switches. You become the gatekeeper of what they read, which is important — and a job that only you can do. To help you keep ahead of what your kids are reading, take a look at book review sites, such as Knowing your child and reading a review will help you decide what materials are of value to your kids and allow them to get the most out of their reading experience!

© 2009 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Published at

Andrea Vinley Jewell

Andrea Vinley Jewell is the former managing editor of Focus on the Family magazine.

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