How To Raise a Reader in a World of Digital Distractions

It’s the second week of spring break and my son actually asked if we could go to the library to get some more Beast Quest books. I never thought this day would come. He’s devoured 3 books in 3 days. Last year at this time my son would groan if I even mentioned an outing to the library. I consider this a huge parenting victory.

Raising a reader is not just the luck of the draw or the result of passing on book-loving genes. I deliberately set out to instill a love of reading in my sons and these techniques have finally paid off.

Digital distractions are everywhere. Apps and games that show videos of newer, more exciting games to download before you can level up, TV shows with amazing special effects that make my 80’s cartoons (Jem and the Holograms, anyone?) look really tired, and phones with beeps, bells, dings and all the other noisy sound effects that have become part of our modern world. So, why is raising a reader still important?

Why Raising A Reader Is Important

“Evidence suggests that children who read for enjoyment every day not only perform better in reading tests than those who don’t, but also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge and a better understanding of other cultures.

In fact, reading for pleasure is more likely to determine whether a child does well at school than their social or economic background.”

So, how do you raise a reader in a world full of digital distractions all vying for our children’s limited attention?

The following techniques are strategies that I have adapted from my time as an elementary school teacher and through trial and error. While you do not have to start your reading routine at birth, the earlier you start, the better. Don’t worry if you are beginning with an older child. These strategies will still work, but they may be met with resistance at first. Stick to your guns and before you know it, you will have an enthusiastic reader in the house.

1. Set Up a Reading Routine With Your Baby/Toddler

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Make reading a routine part of your day. Do not skip it, even if you feel like your baby/toddler is getting nothing out of it. First of all, you are setting the stage for the future. Secondly, babies and toddlers absorb much more than we realize.

I used to read 2-3 books before naptime and then 2-3 more before bedtime. As my children grew, this routine never varied. Now that they have dropped their naps, we still read before bed. My children have never questioned this routine because it has always been a part of their lives.

There has never been a better time to read to babies or toddlers. A dizzying array of board books with sensory and tactile features fill the shelves of all the local libraries and superstores. These days pop-up books are amazingly-crafted paper masterpieces. You will enjoy them, too (or maybe not after reading That’s Not My Pirate for the 176th time).

2. Go to the Library

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Make trips to the library a regular occurrence. We go every two weeks. Attend the singing/story time sessions. You’ll learn some great songs to sing at home and the librarians often choose really good stories for the age group.

I know how difficult it can be to go to the library, especially with an active toddler, but don’t give up. I almost lost my youngest once when an entire preschool class came into the children’s area at once. One moment, my son was at my side looking at books, and the next moment, he was gone. Panicked, I looked for him among all the other children. He wasn’t there. So, I ran for the front door. Sure enough, my 18-month-old was already out the door and headed for the street. I scooped him up just before he stepped into traffic. After that, I went to the library in our neighboring city that had its children section at the very back.

If you make library attendance a priority, one day the library will be a magical place for your child. Keep your eye on the prize. I still remember how excited I was to go to the library to get the next book in the Nancy Drew series. When your children experience this excitement you can pat yourself on the back. They now have access to books that will help them escape exam stress, teach empathy, develop a moral code, and even allow them to experience battling a scary monster or two along the way.

3. Tips for Encouraging Early Readers

When your children transition into reading, make it less of a chore by taking turns reading the pages. I especially love the Usborne My First Reading Library for young children. These books have a child’s part and an adult’s part. The adult reads the small print and the child reads the large print. The stories are more interesting than most early readers because the adults are able to provide additional backstory and the children enjoy the novelty of reading with a parent.

If your child is a reluctant reader, read the story to him/her first. This takes the pressure off. Sometimes, I pretend to really struggle with sounding out a word. I make each sound slowly and then try to blend it a few times. Finally, my son can’t stand it anymore and he tells me the word. I thank him and have him ‘help’ me read more words on the page. This practice gives him confidence and helps break down his resistance to reading.

If your child is learning a certain phonics pattern at school, go on a ‘book hunt’ for words with the same pattern. A book hunt is just opening the book and searching for certain words on the page. Teach your children how to skim the page for these words. Skimming is a really important skill. Good readers do this instinctively while reluctant readers often remain fixated on reading text word for word. Reassure them that they don’t always have to do this. Sometimes we just skim to locate information.

For early readers, make sure the reading session is not too long. Young children have short attention spans. If they stop focusing, end the reading session early. You can complete the book for them and tell them you are sure they will be able to read a few more pages the next evening. Go with your instincts. You don’t want to make the before bed routine painful and frustrating.

Finally, continue to read aloud to your child. After they have read their early reader, go on to read 2 to 3 more books for fun. This ends the reading routine on a positive note and allows your child to just enjoy good stories.

When my husband is away both of my sons climb into my big bed for a joint reading session. They look forward to this and there is usually a lot of laughter. When my husband is home, we split up and read with each child separately because they are at different reading levels and my eldest enjoys stories that are way over my youngest’s head.

4. Comprehension Checks for more Proficient Readers

Reading comprehension is important for understanding the content that is actually being read; otherwise, readers can’t make sense of what they read and will have problems succeeding in academics, notes Penn State. Having strong reading comprehension skills is also necessary for passing academic achievement tests and for being able to read effectively for one’s career.

You must check your proficient reader’s understanding to ensure that he/she comprehends the story’s content. If the story content is too difficult, your child won’t enjoy the book.

When my son became a more proficient reader he was invited to participate in a reading scheme at school. While he was able to decode well, I found him racing through the reading scheme books to try to move up to the next level. Often, he didn’t understand what he was reading. I put my foot down and made him read me the first two pages of the story to make sure it was at an appropriate reading level. Sometimes, it wasn’t so I sent the book back to school. For more help on selecting ‘just right’ books, see this post.

Once my son read me the two pages, I let him finish the chapter on his own. Afterward, I asked questions to make sure he wasn’t just rushing through the book. Since he knew I was going to ask him comprehension questions, he had to read carefully.

Continue to read aloud to your proficient reader! Don’t stop once your child can read.

Each night I read a chapter of a book above my son’s reading level. We both look forward to the story. We are reading the Percy Jackson series now and I often have to make myself stop after a chapter because I want to keep reading. Reading above your child’s reading level will help his/her vocabulary development and allow you to have more sophisticated discussions about the characters and their motivations. My son loves to predict what will happen in the story. Sometimes, I throw out wild predictions myself and my son is able to refute them by using evidence from the story. I know his high school English teachers will appreciate this skill one day.

5. Use Psychology To Motivate Independent Readers

These days my son reads me a couple of pages from his school book so I can check in with his reading. Then, I read a chapter from our shared read aloud. When I finish, I grudgingly allow my son to stay up an extra 15 minutes to read on his own. Because he thinks I am letting him stay up extra late to read, he is really enthusiastic about it. What 8-yearo-old doesn’t want to stay up past his/her bedtime? In reality, I stop our read-aloud 15 minutes before I want him to go to bed, so he just thinks he is staying up extra late.

During this time, I let my son read any book he wants (even if it is not my first choice). Last year, my son loved the Captain Underpants series. So, he read these over and over again each night. This year he has moved onto Beast Quest. Some nights, he just wants to read his Pokemon handbook and that is okay, too. I am just happy I have raised a reader.

Phonics for Active Kids

Phonics for Active Kids

Pointer Reading

When I was teaching elementary school I had a mantra: The person doing the work is the one doing the learning.

This idea came from Harry & Rosemary T. Wong’s classic book for new teachers,  The First Days of School.

I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted coloring, cutting, gluing and laminating really cute learning centers only to have children complete the activities in 5 minutes flat. Who was really doing the learning? Not the children.

Fast-forward several years. I’m now a busy mom of two active boys. I often have to remind myself to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and let them do the work.

When I wanted to help my eldest with reading at home, I did a Google search for ideas. I discovered pages and pages of adorable activities on Pinterest. When I visited the pages and took a closer look, I realized just how much parental preparation was involved.

I know better now. These great ideas involve a lot of work by parents with very little learning as a result. So, I have compiled a list of my top phonics activities for busy parents and active kids. The beauty of these activities is that you can reuse them for all kinds of learning from spelling practice and vocabulary development to memorizing math facts…the applications are endless.

Keep in mind the importance of novelty for active children as well. When they start getting bored, switch it up and try something new.

1.  Word Hunt    

Hiding Word

It’s a Monday after school. As soon as I unlock the front door my son dashes into the living room to find his phonics words. Why is he so eager to do phonics?

He’s excited because his task is to find the words of the week I have hidden around the living room. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek except he finds eight words instead of a person.

These eight words usually follow a phonics pattern I introduce every week or two (depending on how organized I am). Last week we worked on words in the -an word family (can, Dan, fan, Jan, man, pan, ran, tan….).

As my son seeks the hidden words I tell him if he is freezing, cold, warm, hot, hotter, or red hot chili pepper hot…Ay! Yay! Yay! He loves it.

When he finds a word, he reads it to me. Once he has located all of the words we stick them onto a large piece of construction paper and hang it on the refrigerator.

Preparation: 5 minutes                                                                                                                       

First, fold a piece of paper in half vertically. Then fold it in half horizontally two times so you have eight rectangles. Write 8 words on the paper and quickly cut them up. Hide them around a room in the house.

This is your chance to use all the scrap paper you save to be more environmentally-friendly only to have your children pull out a brand new sheet of paper for every project.

How This Activity Fits Into a Phonics Scheme?

 How does this activity fit into a phonics scheme for young children? A Word Hunt is good to do once a child knows his/her letter sounds. For more on introducing letters and sounds see this blog post:  Teaching Letters and Sounds To Young Children

My son has just started decoding (reading) short vowel words so I am focusing on word families first. By learning just one pattern your child can learn many words at the same time. I have included a chart of common word families at the bottom of this post.

If your child’s teacher assigns words each week, just hide these around the house.

2.  Finger Spell the words of the week.

Only use this for words that can be decoded (read) using sounds. This is a great activity for beginning readers and kinesthetic learners.

I start with c.v.c. words (consonant vowel consonant – e.g. cat). First, I say “cat”, then I make each sound and hold up one finger per sound (like I am counting to three).

Once I have all three fingers up and I have made each sound c-a-t, I then bring my fingers back together as I say the entire word again.

There are many variations of this. You can tap each finger with your other hand as you make the sounds or tap them on the table. Here is a good video of finger spelling in practice.

3.  Read a word, shoot a basket.

This is pretty self-explanatory. For an easy indoor activity (when it is wet or cold outside) you can use a crumpled up piece of paper and try to shoot it into a wastebasket.

Have your child read the word and then shoot a basket. You can make each basket worth 10 points. Keep score. Encourage your child to beat his/her score the next time you play. You can even take a step backward each time your child scores to make the activity more challenging. Play outside if you have a basketball net or just use a large trashcan and a real ball.

4.  Read a word, score a goal

 This is the same idea with a soccer ball and a goal. Do it at a park or at home and make your own goal with cones or even backpacks strategically placed on the lawn. You can set this up indoors and use a soft ball, too. If you are at a restaurant have your child read a word. If he reads it correctly he gets to flick a crumpled up napkin ball or candy wrapper ball through your finger goalposts.

5.  Write the words on a whiteboard

Once you kids are writing, have them write on different surfaces. Let them use dry erase pens to write on a whiteboard, or use sticks to write words in the sand. Go outside with the sidewalk chalk or even make the letters against a wall with a flashlight (torch) in a dark room. Have your child “write” a word on your back with his/her finger and you try to guess what it is.

6.  Use a pointer to “teach” the words to other family members.

 Have your child use a pointer to “point” at each word as he reads it to an audience (a play sword works well if you don’t have a pointer). My son uses his pointer to read the words hanging on the refrigerator after breakfast. These are the same words from the word hunt activity above so I don’t have to do any extra preparation.

7.  Read a Phonics Book to a family member or pet.

 I have printed up a few word family and cvc books from The Measured Mom website and my son reads these to me before bed. Or, we read his book from school.

If my son complains about reading I tell him I will read the book to him. When I read his book I proceed to get the words all muddled up. This makes him laugh and he usually ends up supplying the correct words after I read the wrong ones. This makes the reading experience more fun for him. I exaggerate the wrong words and come up with ever more ridiculous words that rhyme with the originals.

Another strategy to use for reluctant readers is to alternate reading the pages with them so they don’t feel like they have to read the entire book.

8.  Matching

 If you have the items at home, have your child find them and match them with the words on the kitchen table. You can read “bag” and then have your child find one somewhere in the house to put with the word. (Other examples include: ham: a piece of ham, yam: pull out your yam so your child can see what it looks like, etc.).

This is a great activity for vocabulary development and can be especially good for English Language Learners. We used to call this using realia (real objects for vocabulary development).

9. Phonics Hopscotch

 Use your sidewalk chalk to write a word in a column on the sidewalk. Put a large square around each letter with the entire word together at the end. Have you child hop on one foot making each letter sound when they land on it. When they reach the end, they can hop with both feet on the whole word as they read it. If you have children of different ages you can make a more complex gameboard with longer words for older children.

10. Ping-Pong Phonics

Use a sharpie to write some letters or words on ping-pong balls.

Float them in a water table (or bathtub). Children can then fish for words by pulling them out and reading them or pulling out some letters and trying to make words with them. This can be a fun way to liven up bathtime. Once they make a word have them try to toss the ping-pong balls in a floating bowl.

11.  Magnetic Letters

Magnetic Letters

Put some magnetic letters up on your refrigerator. Start by encouraging your child to make his/her name. You can then have them put together the words of the week with the magnets.

Sometimes, I leave a little message for my son on the refrigerator. This is a good way to get him wanting to read.

Beware if you have older children! You might start to find words like “poo” and “fart” on the refrigerator as well.

Ideas:  Let me know if any of these ideas worked for you or if you have any great ideas to add to this list.

*Here are some words families you may want to introduce to your children. Depending on how quickly they pick up reading you may only use some of these…

– am – it – et – ot -ut
– at – in – ed – og – un
– an – ig -em – ock – ub
– ag – ip – el – ud
– ad – ing – ep – uck
– ack – ick – eg – ump
– amp – ell – unk
– est