9 Ways to Shape the Path for Readers

When it comes to independent reading for pleasure, trends do not currently reside in our favor.  Nowadays, students often find themselves unwittingly or sometimes purposefully falling victim to such narratives as, “I don’t have time to read,” or “I’m just too busy,” or even the dreaded, “Reading is boring.”  And with the universe of digital distraction now firmly rooted in adolescent culture, the idea of reading books for pleasure has become an almost foreign notion to many kids.  According to the 2010  position statement published by the American Association of School Librarians, “Unfortunately, independent reading is often a casualty in our fast paced, media-oriented society.”

And yet, literacy organizations and researchers continue to tout the value of independent reading.  Relatedly, strong reading skills continue to be identified as key to academic success.  But remember: skills begin and are strengthened by habits. According to the International Literacy Association (2019), “Research establishes that students with strong reading habits are more likely to reach their full literacy potential” (p. 5).

So as parents or persons of influence in the life of an adolescent, how might we approach the business of supporting strong reading habits?  Coining a term from an excellent book on change entitled,  Switch (Heath & Heath, 2010), we need to ‘shape the path.’

Ideas for Shaping the Path:

Idea One:  Create Positive Reading Memories and Moments

Humans typically base likes and dislikes on the basis of the quality of our experiences.  For example, I once had a “bad experience” with wakeboarding, which resulted in a likely permanent disliking for this type of water recreation.  And although that experience happened years ago, I still harbor the same aversion to wakeboarding to this day.  One way we as adult readers can shape a path toward lifelong pleasure reading is to create positive reading-related moments in our adolescent’s lives.  This can be accomplished through special rituals you create around reading, family read alouds, connecting through books, or other ideas listed below.  Shaping the path for a reader can sometimes mean creating positive associations with reading– any way we can!

Idea Two:  Make the library part of life

First, be sure everyone in the family has a library card.  This simple step can by an important one, as it serves as a small move toward a future of literacy.  Of course, a library card holds no power unless it gets used.  Thus, trips to the library would be the next logical step.  Some of these trips might be to find books, in which case be sure to talk with librarians about what books might be right for your adolescent. Librarians never cease to amaze me with their ability to sometimes create something out of nothing.  Ask a few questions, then watch them work their magic!  Other trips could or might be to attend special events held at the library.  Check your local library schedule to see what special events they have scheduled.

For whatever reason, getting to the library regularly is important.  Sometimes I hear, “Well, when we go to the library he (or she) checks out books but doesn’t read them.”  That is okay!  They may not read every book they check out, but the fact that you are forging a relationship with your library can make a difference!

Idea Three:  Let nothing stop you from getting books they want into their hands

I have purchased books for my own daughters that they’ve read voraciously.  And, I’ll confess here, I have also bought books they never read.  Last summer, we visited a wonderfully delightful used bookstore on the Connecticut shore and for just a few dollars, we bought dozens of books (positive reading-related memory, anyone?!).  Did the kids read them all?  No.  But this is a point I truly feel messianic about: if they want books, get them books.  Chances are they will read at least some of them.  And again, by prioritizing time, money, and effort in this way we send an implicit message that reading matters.

Idea Four:  Be a Reader Yourself

This point cannot be stressed enough.  Kids need reading mentors and models of readers in their immediate lives.  If we merely tell kids that they “need to read because it’s important,” but do not make the time to be readers ourselves, think about the message this sends.  Paraphrasing a point once made by authors Donald Graves and Katie Wood Ray, “Either we can be walking, breathing, talking examples of all we advocate for our students, or we can have them sitting around wondering why we are trying to get them into something that we are obviously not into ourselves.”  As one of my colleagues in New York City once said, “Kids follow not what you say, they follow what you do.”  We must walk the talk of readerly lives.

Idea Five:  Share and talk about books with enthusiasm and interest

Whether at the dinner table, in the car, around the house, or on vacation, initiate conversations about books.  We can do this by asking our adolescents about their reading: questions like:

  • “What can you tell me about what are you reading now?”
  • “Wow, that sounds like an interesting read.  Tell me about the main character(s)?”
  • “Are you enjoying the book?  I wonder if there’s another one in the series or like this one you could read next?”

We might also share about the books we are reading, showing how much we are empathizing with the characters, learning to see something in a new way, or loving the style of the author.

Idea Six:  Advocate for choice

Mountains of research now support the notion that kids need choice when it comes to reading material.  Hopefully, your child attends a school in which his or her voice is honored when it comes to choosing books.  But I realize some of you reading this may not be in this optimal situation, so to you I would offer a bit of advice:  Is your child being “forced” to read something he or she hates?  Since this can be a life or death dilemma in your child’s reading journey, you may wish to speak up.  Print out the recent literacy leadership brief published by the esteemed International Literacy Association entitled, “Creating passionate readers through independent reading,” and advocate for choice.  The bottom line is that this point is vital to shaping the path for a lifelong reader.

Idea Seven:  Support local bookstores

With the ease by which online stores like Amazon have created shopping, I will admit to being a customer (although infrequently).  That said, I would argue that a piece of this puzzle is to continue frequenting and patronizing local bookstores.  Make this a weekend destination, even if it means just stopping in for something you, um… were “hoping they have in stock” (even if that’s not really the case).  What could happen is that your child might just happen to spontaneously browse some beautiful new books, and…well, maybe ask you for one!  If the budget doesn’t allow, go to the library to check it out!

Idea Eight:  Be open!

Let’s face it, kids nowadays are unlikely to pick up Old Yeller or Sounder and read it.  Don’t get me wrong– I read both of those books as a kid (and loved them).  But in the last few decades, young adult (YA) fiction has exploded.  There are gorgeous graphic novels, brand new historical “Choose Your Own Adventures,” fantasy and dystopian series that unfold over thousands of pages, fractured fairy tales– the list goes on.  Using phrases like, “Well, when I was in school we had to read real books” can deliver an unintended implicit message that what your child wants to read isn’t a “real” book.  This can turn them off to reading!  Instead, be open to their choices and negotiate them with an open mind.

Idea Nine:  Dont’ force it

Hopefully you find that at least some of the previous ideas feel doable.  I would end this post by reminding all of us that we cannot force something.  As the saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  When it comes to shaping the path for a reader, think of the honey as the eight tips above, and the vinegar as the phrase, “You need to read, now get going!”

Shaping the path for a reader is no easy task.  But as the saying goes, “Where attention goes, energy flows.”  Devoting some energy to creating a reader is time well-spent.  After all, their reading lives depend on it!


Searching for the Gold and Why Gold Matters

Long, long ago- way before marriage, kids, mortgages-I played basketball in the mornings. Early mornings. “Basketball with the old guys”– well, that’s what I called it.  Every Monday, a group of us would convene at 6 a.m. in the circa 1968 gymnasium of the middle school in which I worked to play hoops for an hour before everyone headed off to work.  And although it was difficult to discipline myself to get up that early (after 21 years in education, I am still not a morning person), I typically ended up feeling pretty good about myself at the end of our session. After all, I was a spritely 27 years of age; whereas the rest of the crowd, aside from my roommate (also a teacher at the school), was probably in their mid-forties.  Forties! Wow, that’s old (was what my overconfident, naive brain told me).  So, I excelled!  I felt strong!  I felt confident!  And it was usually pretty fun.  Not having grown up playing basketball, I was well-matched with my fellow early-morning hoops enthusiasts.  I actually grew as a player.  You might say I was playing at my “just right” level.

But one day, it was suggested that instead of meeting at the middle school at 6 a.m. we meet at the high school.  Arriving at the high school, I quickly knew today would be different.  And, in fact, it was different.  These kids were actually good.  And not only were they good, they were stronger, faster, and better conditioned.  No longer did I feel so strong.  No longer did I feel so confident.  And, to be honest, it was not all that much fun.  I felt outmatched. 

So…what does all this have to do with reading? you ask.

What we want for our readers is a match to text.  We want them to feel strong.  We want them to feel confident.  And we want them to enjoy what they read!  One way to nurture such sentiment, aside from allowing for choice (I wrote about this in my last post), is to ensure students are well-matched (versus outmatched) to the texts they are holding. Dr. Richard Allington (from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) cites studies in his excellent article, “Every Child, Every Day” that what matters in reading development is “reading and rereading of text that is engaging and comprehensible to students.” (Allington, 2012)   In other words, kids need to read stuff they like and can actually understand.

But how do we know if a text is actually comprehensible to our students?  Might I suggest a couple of ways to determine a child’s match to text:

(1)  “In-book assessment”– Ask your student to show you where s/he is currently reading..  Say, “Point to the place you are right now.”  After s/he shows you, simply count 100 words ahead (and read that short passage to yourself); then ask your child to read those words aloud.  As you listen, count mistakes s/he makes (if any)- there should not be any more than four.  Then ask him/her to summarize that little bit (did s/he get it?).  Although this type of assessment is not perfect, it will give you a sense of your child’s grasp of this particular text.

(2)  Ask and Listen – This one is simple: Ask your student to tell you about what they are reading.  Then listen for a few key things:

  • Is s/he talking in specifics about the characters?
  • Is s/he talking about the setting (either physical or emotional)?
  • Is there a sense for what’s important in the story?

If the talk you hear is primarily literal or plot-driven, ask, “What can you tell me about the thinking you’re doing?”  As you listen, again be on the look-out for a few key things:

  • S/he is talking about ideas— not just text-specific facts.
  • S/he is talking in specifics (if everything is murky and general, this could be a sign that the match is not right).

If a child reads a book that’s “too easy”, generally little harm can come to him or her.  However, if a child reads a book that is too far beyond their “zone of proximal development” (a term coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky that refers to the difference between what a child can do with versus without assistance)– that is, a text that  is too challenging– a number of possible negative side effects can come into play:

1.  The child learns that reading means “sort of getting it”, versus deep comprehension.
While it is wonderful that so many students in middle school reading workshops across the country are becoming voracious readers, we have also seen many students becoming “plot junkies”; that is, they have grown to be readers that only read for the plot.  And in YA (Young Adult) lit, we know that these stories are about so much more than the plot! Think, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief or Katniss in Hunger Games.

2.  The child decides that they’re “not very good at reading.”
This can be one of the most devastating narratives a young reader can establish for him/herself.  Once a child “decides  s/he is not ‘good at’ reading,” it can take years to undo or disrupt this narrative (some parents are all too familiar with this).  Match to books can make all the difference!

3.  The child gives up, or labels him/herself as “not a reader”.
A version of the above narrative, this one can be even more long-lasting and detrimental to the reading health of a student.  Our young readers need a lot of support– lots of books, reading mentors, excellent instruction– but one of the most important supports is a strong message that reading means thinking; and in order to grow thinking, we must understand what we read.

4.  The child becomes a fake reader.
Author and Staff Developer Cris Tovani was one of the first to coin the term, ‘fake reading’ (check out this great chat with her and Education World here).  Often beginning in adolescence, students who have begun to feel marginalized in the world of reading begin to hone their craft of fake reading— that is, pretending to read.  Although Tovani elucidates the fact that many successful people in the world were “fake readers” when they were younger, this is not what we really want for our young readers.  Most of us would agree that our goals for our readers probably sound something like, “engaged”, “sophisticated”, and/or “deep”.  We are interested in supporting our readers in becoming stronger in their ability to comprehend, interpret, and apply what they read.  Not in supporting a habit of pretense!  Match to text, then, becomes extremely important.

So how can parents and persons of influence help when it comes to supporting our readers in finding books they can and want to read?  Here are just a few resources:

Scholastic Book Wizard–  If you know what level books your child has been matched with, simply set the leveling system to “Guided Reading (A-Z)”, and search for the gold!  Parameters can be set to help guide the search.  You can also use this site to look up levels of books!  Although the database is far from comprehensive, there are many books available for search.

Dr. Kimberly Tyson’s blog– Several go-to sources to find good books (assembled by Dr. Kimberly) are here on her blog, including one of my favorites, Nerdy Book Club.  Okay, the name is not a great match with teens, but the recommendations are voted on by teachers, librarians, authors, booksellers, parents, and young people.

Use the librarian.  A tried and true method!  As author Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book, Coraline) says,“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” 

Maybe the basketball metaphor (I wrote about at the beginning) didn’t work for you.  If not, think of a realm in which you have worked to become stronger– and you did, indeed, grow stronger! Or got better. Or gained proficiency.  There was likely a positive ratio of challenge to success that helped you succeed.

Now, some might argue that kids ought to be “challenged” by reading books that are “above their level”. Indeed, there are actual curriculum publishers out there advocating that kids be in “frustrational text” the majority of time.  Has this ever helped a reader to grow? Sure!  We can probably all think of a time when “playing above our level” benefitted us and helped us to grow.  But as a general rule, let’s be sure our kids spend a lot of time playing– I mean, reading– at a level that helps them to grow.  So they can experience what it is to feel strong.  To feel confident.  And to enjoy what they read.  For these are the keys to inspiring a life-long love of reading.