Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do

  • By Daniel T. Willingham
  • Jossey-Bass
  • 213 pp.

A practical manual for instilling a love of reading in children.

As with the weather, a lot of people complain about how kids don’t read anymore, but no one seems to know what to do about it. In Raising Kids Who Read, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham makes the case that nurturing an enthusiastic reader isn’t nearly as hard as controlling the elements.

So what’s a parent to do? (Although Willingham includes teachers in his subtitle, his focus is primarily on parents.) Here’s what not to do: Don’t “break out flash cards” for a 1-year-old, Willingham warns, or “start handwriting drills” at age 2. And don’t require older children to read for a certain number of minutes or offer rewards for reading. Those things give the message that reading is work. Instead, Willingham says, your motto should be “have fun.”

Some of his recommendations are fairly obvious: Read to your young child, and read alongside an older one. Some are more creative. He mentions a game he played with his young daughter that involved writing a brief instruction for her, such as “Put away toys.” She would trot off to perform the task and then eagerly return for another note, gradually cleaning her entire room. (This one definitely sounds worth a try.)

Throughout the book, Willingham provides concrete tips for parents, ranging from how to set up cozy spaces that are conducive to reading to how to choose the right books for your child. For parents of older children, Willingham outlines what should be happening in the classroom. Each chapter ends with a handy summary of its main points.

Willingham breaks reading into three components: decoding, which is the basic skill of making sense of the letters that form words; comprehension, or making sense of what we read; and motivation.

Although English spelling makes decoding complicated, Willingham says the vast majority of kids manage to be good decoders by age 11. Motivation can be an ongoing problem, especially as children get older. That’s one reason Willingham advocates that parents start early on inculcating reading as a “family value.”

But it’s comprehension that may be the most complicated aspect of reading. As Willingham persuasively argues, reading comprehension is heavily dependent on a reader’s pre-existing knowledge and vocabulary. Just think about what it’s like to read a document that includes a lot of unfamiliar words and references, such as this abstract of an article in a scientific journal.

The book contains a brilliant illustration of the idea that reading comprehension isn’t a skill in the sense that learning to hit a baseball is. You can get better at baseball by repeatedly practicing strategies such as keeping your eye on the ball, Willingham notes. But understanding a text is more like “putting together a piece of furniture you bought at Ikea.” That is, whether you can understand a passage depends on its specifics.

Imagine, Willingham says, if the assembly instructions just offered the following strategy: “Every so often you should look at what you’re building, and evaluate how it’s going.” Similarly, teaching kids comprehension strategies, such as “finding the main idea” or “making predictions,” in the context of one reading passage, isn’t necessarily going to help them understand another.

Instead, parents and teachers should be ensuring that children acquire as much general knowledge as possible. That will increase the chances they’ll understand whatever text is put in front of them, and that they’ll enjoy reading. Willingham urges parents to start early by reading aloud to children from nonfiction books and answering their many questions, and he provides guidance on how to do that even when the questions are difficult or unanswerable.

Parents who read Raising Kids Who Read will likely find it illuminating and helpful. But inevitably, the parents who need this book the most are probably not the ones who will be reading it. And there’s not much Willingham can do about that.

Low-income parents are, generally speaking, far less likely to read to their children or provide them with the kind of background knowledge that more affluent children get at home. One famous study found that by the time low-income children reach the age of 4, they’ve probably heard 30 million fewer words than their high-income counterparts.

And low-income kids are also unlikely to acquire background knowledge at school. As Willingham details, elementary schools aren’t providing kids with the kind of systematic immersion in social studies or science that will give them the knowledge and vocabulary they need to become good general readers.

Instead, most schools jump from one topic to another because they rely on the theory that it’s more important to focus on reading comprehension “skills” than on any particular content. Similarly, standardized tests purport to measure general reading ability, but — as Willingham says — they’re really “knowledge tests in disguise.”

Over time, the divide between affluent and poor kids is compounded by what Willingham calls “the Matthew effect,” from the biblical passage that says, in a nutshell, “To them that hath shall be given.” The kids who start out reading well because they have more background knowledge keep reading more and acquiring more knowledge. By the time low-income kids get to high school, they’re hopelessly behind.

Raising Kids Who Read provides a user-friendly summary of the scientific research on how kids acquire reading skills, and it’s a practical manual for parents who yearn to instill a love of reading in their children.

“Don't expect the schools to do the job for you,” Willingham advises, because family values need to start at home. He’s right, of course. But a tougher question is what we can do for the many kids whose family values don’t include reading. Maybe Willingham will tackle that problem in his next book.

Natalie Wexler blogs about education for Greater Greater Washington. She is the author of three novels, including the recently published historical novel The Observer, based on the experience of the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

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