As school commences in Tazewell and Woodford counties in August, students return to classrooms, after-school activities and homework. Juggling the equivalency of a full-time job can discourage students from enjoying reading or from reading independently.
Research supports that engaging children in reading has multiple benefits. Reading reinforces language, enunciation, and communication skills to children, and demonstrates appropriate ways to express themselves and to relate to others. Along with fostering reading comprehension, children who read also develop strong self-discipline, longer attention span and better memory retention. These skills may account for why studies show that children who are exposed to reading often and at an early age tend to perform well in other academic facets including math, science and social studies.
However, according to Gordon Petry, an English professor at Bradley University and a former middle school and high school teacher, parents and teachers may find engaging children in reading, both inside and outside of the classroom, “Very tough to do.”
“Find out what he or she is interested in and find books that address that interest,” Petry said, “Encourage magazine and newspaper reading or short story collections, especially for those with short attention spans.”
To get middle school and high school students excited about reading, Petry recommended classic books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” both by Ernest Hemingway — Petry noted that most of his students preferred the latter; “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, which Petry said is “great for understanding World War I”; “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell; “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson; “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka; “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner; “The Pearl” and “Of Mice and Men,” both by John Steinbeck; “The Stranger” by Albert Camus; “A Christmas Carol,” “Great Expectations,” and “David Copperfield,” all by Charles Dickens; “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison; “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, which Petry called a “must read”; “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding; and “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller.
“The classics are ‘classics’ because they are engrossing, well written, and have universal themes that transcend temporal and cultural settings,” Petry said.
Petry, recalling one of his best classroom reading experiences, said, “We had finished reading Steinbeck’s The Pearl and I threw out the question, ‘Was Kino a fool to throw away the pearl?’ It turned into a three-day debate with the students finding obscure sentences that supported their side. Probably the best teaching I ever did, mainly calling on students to present their arguments.”
Petry’s daughter, Megan Larson from Pekin, is also a teacher. Larson teaches first grade and believes that a young child’s home life has the greatest impact on their inclination to read.
“Let them see parents reading on a regular basis — books, newspapers, magazines, et cetera, not phones/tablets,” Larson said. “If kids see, from a parent model, that reading is fun and not just something you do at school, they will more likely develop their own enjoyment.”
Larson suggested other ways to incorporate reading activities in a child’s home life.
“Make reading a family event,” Larson said, “Read a chapter book together, stop at exciting parts that leave them wanting more. Use voices for different characters and/or read with a lot of expression that gets kids excited about the book, too. Make going to the library a weekly event so reading becomes a natural part of the schedule and kids can be thinking about what books they may want to get all week. Set aside a time where everyone is reading and then share what they learned or their favorite part (or if schedules don’t allow this, talk about books at dinner). Read under the covers with a flashlight, in a tent, read a recipe and make it, create scavenger hunts, ask grandparents to write letters (and write them back), read in someone else’s bed, read a book then watch the movie version, read outside, take turns reading pages, read and act out a story, take kids to children’s theater shows based on books.”
Nancy Brush, a fifth-grade teacher at Good Shepherd Lutheran School, echoed Larson’s sentiment.
“I have always believed that kids need to see their parents reading,” Brush said, “Read to them every day, be excited about the book, let them know what you are reading, and why. Kids need to know what a good reader sounds like and that reading can be fun.”
Brush said her grandmother, who was also a teacher, set a good example and inspired Brush to become a “voracious reader.” Brush said, when she was a child, she enjoyed Nancy Drew mysteries by Edward Stratemeyer, any books about horses, Zane Grey’s western novels, and, when she was in the eighth grade, “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, and “David Copperfield.”
“These books were special because they appealed to my love of adventure and historical fiction,” Brush said.
For fifth- to eighth-grade students, Brush recommended “I Will Always Write Back” by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, “Last in a Long Line of Rebels” by Lisa Lewis Tyre, “The Seventh Most Important Thing” by Shelley Pearsall, “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan, and anything by Gordon Korman.
“‘I Will Always Write Back' would be a good read aloud, and lends itself to connections to social studies and science,” Brush said. “[The others] are good choices because they appeal to children’s sense of humor, and a lot of kids love adventure and fantasy.”
Parents and teachers most likely encounter different sets of obstacles when it comes to challenging gifted readers versus encouraging reluctant readers. For gifted readers, Brush said the best approach is knowing the genres and the student personally.
“The text needs to be challenging but also match their emotional age,” Brush said.
Petry agreed with Brush and said, “Gifted readers are usually eager to challenge themselves. Mention some books that they might find interesting, age appropriate, and challenging but worth the effort.”
Brush employs several different strategies to encourage reluctant readers.
“Finding the book that gets a reluctant reader to read is never easy,” Brush said. “Teachers need to read children’s literature and know their students, their interests and their level of comfort for reading anything.”
Brush said that she uses the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Award list to find stimulating reads. Brush also uses a book “Bingo” format where students have to read different genres, and Good Shepherd rewards students every quarter with a special event if they reach their reading goals.
Larson said electronic devices also can be useful for promoting reading.
“If kids are going to be on a device, have them read along with a site like Tumblebooks, Epic!, Storyline Online (where well-known actors read picture books) or Reading Rainbow. Another great digital resource is News-O-Matic. [It] is a great online newspaper for kids. It updates daily. It is nice because the articles are written for kids and are short so reluctant readers don’t get overwhelmed at having to read a long text.”
Larson said, ultimately, the goal is for parents and teachers to get kids reading anything at all.
“Let them read comic books if that is all they will read,” Larson said, “Hopefully, they will later pick up a book about a superhero. The point is to get them reading.”