Of the most effective tools for raising children who love to read is to have family story times. While many families read to children at bedtime, the best readers are read to more than just once a day.
Story time should begin the day a child is born. Let your child grow up knowing there has never been a day in his life he wasn’t read to. We don’t know when a child becomes aware he is being read to, so we want to start at the beginning so we don’t miss the critical moment. In addition, this will make story time an integral part of your parenting day from the start, not something you have to figure out how to work in later.
When reading to infants, use soft, soothing tones. Put the book where he can see it, even if he doesn’t appear to look at it. Alternate looking at the book and at the baby. Besides reading picture books, you can also read appropriate adult books, such as scripture or a subject you’re trying to learn. It’s a great time to study history or science. The baby will be attracted to your voice and it won’t matter what the subject matter is.
Once your child can sit up, choose books he can identify with. Large simple pictures with only a few words or sentences on each page, and books with repetitive text, appeal to little children. However, you can also include books beyond your child’s apparent abilities. Begin with the developmentally appropriate books and finish up with one that feels above his abilities. As your child is drifting off to sleep, consider reading a chapter from a children’s chapter book. You can also read these while your child plays quietly nearby. You may be surprised to discover your child is listening and comprehending long before you think he is—so pay attention to the content. Children can’t learn to read chapter books unless they’ve learned how to listen to them and this should start very young, no later than two or three years old.
If you have more than one child, bring them all together for family story time. In our family, each child chose one book and I chose one. I started with the youngest child’s choice and worked upward by age, finishing with a chapter from a novel. This is because the younger children have shorter attention spans. Although children shouldn’t be required to sit quietly throughout the entire story time, ask them to color or build with blocks quietly while you read. Children absorb material even while they’re playing and not appearing to pay attention. One day, while reading a sixth grade level novel, I asked my oldest to draw a picture of a complicated part of the story so I could see if she understood it. The preschoolers, who were playing in the room and who had not appeared to pay attention, asked if they could do it, too. As they explained their pictures, I realized they had not only been listening, but had understood it to a surprising level.
Make story time cozy and special so the children will associate books with security and love. Curl up together on a sofa, wrap up in blankets in the winter, and turn off the phones and other distractions. Make sure your children know story time and the children are a priority. Own a lot of books to show how important they are and re- read often. Re-read books are the foundations of book memories.
Story time builds important pre-reading skills. If you run your fingers under the words, your children will learn where the words are coming from that you are saying. They learn to associate the words and the pictures and they improve their listening skills. One reason chapter books are difficult for children is that they have to make their own pictures in their head. To make this easier, read chapter books before your children are old enough to read them. In addition, tell your children stories without using any books. Just tell them in your own words.
Increase the learning and the memories by “playing” with the books you read. Once you read a book, come up with ways to interact with the book when you’re done. You can let your children make simple puppets of the story characters. Don’t bother going online to find printouts. Let your children draw the pictures themselves. Glue them onto cardstock and print them out. Add a craft stick and you have a stick puppet. If you glue the picture onto a paper bag, you have a paper bag puppet. Older children can make them from scrap cloth. They can also use dolls and stuffed animals. The puppet theater can be a coffee table on its side, a cloth across a doorway, the back of a sofa, or nothing at all. Your children should figure that out for themselves. The more they do without adult interference the more they will learn.
Is there a craft you can do that relates to the story? Historical stories often suggest old-fashioned crafts to do. Children can draw pictures, make models of something in the story, or make something a character makes. Again, let the children decide how to do it and even what to do.
Older children sometimes express disappointment over how a story ends. Let them write a new ending for the story. Children also enjoy making their own illustrated version of a story—you can type the text if they don’t know how, a few sentences per page, and the children can make illustrations they like better.
Nothing brings a book to life like a field trip. Try to visit the site of a book or something similar. A book about a zoo should be followed by a trip to the zoo. A book about a child and parent taking a walk will be enhanced by a family walk. In fact, look for anything you can replicate from the book. Fix the same meal, plant the garden the storybook child planted, or play the same games.
When your children start reading alone, continue story time for as long as they’ll let you do it. When they stop wanting them, read the same books on your own so you can talk about them. Incorporate catchy phrases from the story into your own lives. In our family, all someone had to do was to say in a slow voice, “I read three books once,” and everyone was giggling. The sentence was meaningless to everyone outside the family, which made it that much more fun for the children. It came from a book we’d all read and we never bothered with the punchline. We all knew what it was.
Books can lead to valuable discussions on values and can allow you to help your children learn to handle situations. When you read a book about a child who is being bullied, you can talk about what your child can do if he’s being bullied. This is a safer way to teach your child than to intentionally exposing him to a bully. When a character makes a decision, you can stop after your reading session to talk about the choice. Ask your children what they think of that choice and how they would have handled it. The plot will allow you to explore how things can happen as a result of choices people make and you can express your own feelings about those choices, as well as finding out how your children feel about them.
Story time should be a frequent activity throughout your day and it should be treated as a highlight. This will lead your children to associate books with pleasure and encourage them to learn to love reading, as well as preparing them to learn.