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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 06/30/2010

How and what to get kids to read this summer

By Valerie Strauss

If you are secretly in despair that your child will never willingly read a book this summer, Micki Freeny has some advice for you.

Freeny is the coordinator of children and youth services at the D.C. Public Library, and her thoughts on how to get kids to read may surprise you.

She doesn’t think, for an example, that adults should force kids to read. And young people can have valuable reading experiences even without picking up a book. Magazines count. So do graphic novels, manga and even comics.

“We’d love to make literature readers out of kids but we just think that any practice they get is worthwhile.” she said.

Here’s part of a conversation I had with her:

Q) Let’s talk about the kind of kid who doesn’t like to read books. What do you do?
A) One way that a lot of people probably don’t consider as useful is by using books on tape or CD. They are really wonderful for a number of reasons. They use some of the same brain functions as regular books. They give kids a sense of narrative just like reading a book. These aren’t like video representations. They are entire books, so kids get the whole sense of narrative, the whole sense of vocabulary within context. And books on tape or CD can introduce kids to literature they might not otherwise read. They can also actually lead a kid into an actual book.

Q) How?
A) Kids can be spurred into read a book because they get impatient. A friend said they were listening to a Harry Potter book in the car and they go to a very poignant part of the story when they arrived at their destination. The teenager just picked up the book and kept on reading. I talked to another friend who has successfully used books on tape a reader who had a lot of challenges. When he got into middle school they used books on tape with the book itself. He had a lot of trouble reading but followed along in the book as the tape played. It’s an exact reading. And most of the vendors from whom we buy our books on tape are of really high quality. They use controlled studios and many of them use Broadway actors exclusively.

Q) What I want to know is how you can get a child or a teenager who doesn’t want to read to actually pick up a book and read it.
A) We find that forcing kids to do anything kills it altogether. We think having lots of books around that kids can read can entice them. They can read in very small chunkets, maybe just a chapter. There’s fabulous nonfiction that kids can just read a little bit here and there.
We find that the other thing parents shouldn’t do is limit the activities that children love because they don’t read. Rather parents should use the activities to encourage them to read. If a child is really into entertainment, there are lots of books about it. A reader’s guide to the Simpsons, for instance. We all love the Simpsons.

If they are really into cars, there are magazines, like Car and Driver, or Road & Track, or Motor Trend. Have them sitting around. You can borrow them from the library rather than buy them right away.

And you do this with whatever the child’s interest is. Sports. Biography. Have the newspaper sitting around, or point out something about the child’s favorite player.

Show them the value of reading.

Q) So reading magazines and listening to books on tape is as valuable as reading a book?
A) Some people never become readers of narrative or books. But they become able to read and have some skills even if they never learn to love to read. Those of us who love books find that really horrible. But it’s okay.

Another thing: Kids should see their parents reading. Because kids do model what they see. So, having books in the house, taking them along on trips, playing books on tape to pique their interest in really good books, it’s all helpful.

Also, I can’t tell you which ones but there are some video, computer games where reading and writing are strong components. So we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand.

Q) What about family reading time, where everybody reads something of their choice at the same time. Does that make sense?
A) I talked to the head of our teen department about that.... He said that that works with some kids, but for others that would be the kiss of death.

Q) What if your tween daughter only wants to read magazines about Justin Bieber?

A) It’s not high literature but we feel that sometimes reading things that parents think is garbage leads kids to reading good stuff. Just like books in series aren’t the best literature. But that’s true of a lot of things adults read as well. When we put together our summer reading lists, we put some classics on there to appease the educators but we try to put on books kids really like.

Q) Kids should be able to choose what they read. Right?
A) Yes. A couple years ago we were soundly criticized by one of the writers at a newspaper because we had some easy books on our 10th grade list, for instance. But we shouldn’t denigrate kids who are reading easier things. Some kids need time to catch up to their own age level.

Q) And I’d guess that some kids get more confident when they can read easier books. It sort of helps them crack the reading code if they are having trouble.
A) Right. That’s why we should let them read what they want. We also shouldn’t denigrate graphic novels. Many people think of them as comic books, but they’ve come a long way from the comic books of decades ago. Some of them are pretty decent, pretty good literature. And they kind of spur kids on to read other things.

The subjects range from fantasy to biography. They are challenging for people of older generations because the mechanics are so different but for kids they are pretty easy. And they attract a lot of kids who might not otherwise read.

That holds true for manga [which refers to comics originally published in Japan], which kids read back to front. Again, we feel those kinds of tastes shouldn’t be denigrated. We all have different tastes and that’s true of kids as well.

Q) Comics?
A) Even the comics in the paper. That’s still reading. And they take the same kind of skills to interpret. Also reading from the web.There are lots of magazines on line that kids can read.

Reading is reading. We’d love to make literature readers out of kids but we just think that any practice they get is worthwhile.

Q) Any other advice?
A) A long time ago there was a TV show called “Eight is Enough” that was taken from a book [by author Tom Braden.] The author said that he used to take books he wanted his kids to read and put them on the highest shelf and tell them they were forbidden from reading them. Of course, the kids wanted nothing more than to read the books.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 30, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Reading  | Tags:  best books for teens, books on tape and value, d.c. public library, getting kids to read, graphic novels, great books for kids, justin bieber and magazines, reading, reluctant readers, tom braden  
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Finally! Simple, doable ideas.

Posted by: mamaspearl | June 30, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Check out the Alex Awards for some great books that are actually written for adults but appeal to young adults.

Our favorite from the 2004 Alex Awards is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

We also enjoyed 10th Grade by Joseph Weisberg from the 2003 List.

Posted by: Nemessis | June 30, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

There is an advantage to a family reading time, though; if everyone is reading at the same time, no one is saying, "Oh, come on and play ball--you can read anytime." Rose Kennedy enforced a rest period in the middle of the day, supposedly so they would all read for an hour. (I personally suspect she was less interested in getting them to read than she was in getting them all to sit down and shut up at the same time!)

Another mistake parents make is to allow a youngster to put off a chore or bedtime until a television show is over, but a book has to be put down the moment the parent says so. Give the kids the idea that reading to the end of the chapter is as good an excuse for not doing something as watching to the end of the show, and reading is not something you do if you don't have something better to do.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 30, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Why do parents who did not work with their children to enjoy reading before they attended school now think that their children should read?

If you teach them to enjoy reading before they enter school the only problems are:
1. waiting for them to get them out of the car until they come to a point in the book where they will stop reading.
2. Paying for the books and magazines that they want to read.

For parents who have young children.
Take your young child and read to them in the public library.

Make sure your child sees you reading.

Use audio books on car trips but make sure the books are interesting.

When your child starts wanting to read Roald Dahl by themselves you can start to relax.

Posted by: bsallamack | June 30, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

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