2840669358 - Why I Hate Dick and Janephoto © 2008 San Jose Library | more info (via: Wylio)

Throughout the summer I’m going to be rerunning some older columns of mine that I wrote before I started this blog. I’m too busy vacationing and doing nothing to come up with new posts! But I thought you’d really enjoy this one, from back in the fall of 2003.

Recently, my husband and I met with some friends whose third grade son was dreading school. Reading for him was tortuous, and so school had become a jail sentence. The teacher’s solution to this seemed to be to “share the pain”. He was now to read aloud to a parent for 20 minutes each night.

I don’t know about you, but if I were an 8-year-old boy who already felt that I couldn’t read, being asked to read out loud at home would be a nightmare, even if it were necessary. And can you imagine sitting through that as a parent? Why not simply bang your head against a wall!

Perhaps the reason we’re producing such poor readers is because we take all the joy out of reading. Two years ago, my daughter was in senior kindergarten with a wonderful teacher. The school had an admirable goal of encouraging kids to read with their parents, and so launched a “book-in-a-bag” program, sending home a new book every night. But listen to the type of book they chose: “Look! The sun. Look! A bunny. Look! A turtle. Look! A cloud. Look! It’s Mommy!”. So kids who are struggling to read learn that reading is not only hard, but that it’s also mind numbingly boring.

Of course, today’s schools aren’t the only ones to blame for this inane level of story telling. The Boomers grew up with the infamous Dick and Jane: “See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.” If I had to sit through that, I’d soon be having murderous dreams: “See Dick die. Die, Dick, DIE!”

I won’t go into a discussion about why these books are structured as they are, because that’s a subject for a whole other post. Let me just say here that many kids have little incentive to read: it’s hard and it’s no fun. Let’s see how we can take the school’s two ideas—to read with your kids and to help them practise reading, too—and make these actually enjoyable for everyone. Instead of banging our heads against the wall or keeping our eyes open with toothpicks, let’s huddle on the couch together with a good book. If you want to raise a reader, that’s the recipe. It’s quite simple: Read great books to your kids. Even when they’re older.

Too often we stop reading to them because we figure they should read to themselves now, but then we miss a wonderful opportunity to connect as a family. Do you remember your favourite books when you were young? I cried when Matthew died in Anne of Green Gables, laughed with Jo in Little Women, and rejoiced with Laura in Little House in the Big Woods. As I experience these adventures again with my own daughters, it’s almost like meeting long-lost friends.

We suggested our friends go to the library and check out classic books to read to their son—like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series—and maybe some easier ones he can read himself. But some boys will always prefer the real and the gory over make believe, so non-fiction books on killer sharks, volcanoes or mummies may pique their interest better. Then we suggested our favourite trick: make his bedtime a firm 8:00 (it varies now between 8 and 8:30), but let him stay up until 8:45 if he’s reading. What kid will say no to that? As children read more, reading becomes a natural part of life and stops being so intimidating.

Some kids develop a mental block to reading because it’s so stressful at school. Sharing good books together at home and letting them read leisurely themselves takes the tension out of the activity, and lets them enjoy something for which there is no substitute. Then, when you do work on reading at home, it’s in the wider context of enjoying books together.

When your children fall into a book, they experience a world they may never be able to otherwise. Maybe if we introduce them to this magical world, they’d be more eager to read, and less likely to think of reading—and the schooling that goes with it—as an unpleasant chore.

The summer is an awesome time to read to your kids! One year, in our camping trailer, we read three books from the Little House series. When I was 14, I remember reading them on a sailboat to my younger cousins. Our first readaloud chapter book was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when the kids were 4. They could handle a chapter a day, and it only grew from there. Today they never stop reading (though Katie hated to read on her own until she was about 11).

What are you reading to your kids?Tell me in the comments, and let’s compare notes!