Fewer than one in five parents think reading is a top summer priority for their children, finds a survey released Wednesday. Most parents want their kids to play outside this summer, even though 40 percent also said their kids will lose reading skills before school starts up again and kids, on average, spend three times as many hours with screens as reading.
The summer slump isn’t the only reason kids will read less in the coming months. According to two annual reports, children are reading less in general nowadays, even if they live in wealthy and middle-class homes. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s most recent report shows the national percentage of children with low reading proficiency in fourth grade stood at 66 percent at the end of 2013. This means that about one-third of fourth graders have met the developmental milestones associated with academic success. Only 20 percent of children in low-income families read proficiently. The number of proficient fourth grade readers in high-income families fares only somewhat better, with proficiency rates in most states near 50 percent. The most recent findings of the non-profit organization Common Sense Media reported that children’s reading for pleasure, regardless of whether it is in traditional print or electronic form, has diminished.
Why are children pushing books aside? Both reports target family reading habits as the most important factors in children’s long-term proficiency. The Annie E. Casey report calls for children to be “exposed to as much language as possible in the early years to increase their chances of meeting this important milestone. To do this, we must encourage and support parents, families and caregivers to be coproducers of good outcomes for their children. This means ensuring that families are economically stable, emotionally healthy and actively engaged in children’s learning every day” (emphasis added). Research supports the fact that social interaction with family members and peers around books promotes better reading habits and more enthusiasm for reading in general. The Common Sense researchers recommend that parents set aside time to read with children and that they model reading themselves. In other words, families need to schedule reading into their packed agendas to create home environments where reading occurs daily and includes quality books.
This is an excellent time to start, since it is summer and families typically have a bit more breathing room in their schedules. Grandparents can also support parents in this as they do so many other things, enjoying the opportunity to bond with their grandkids while developing those young minds and hearts.
Families should seek excellent books to read aloud and to promote reading in their kids’ early elementary years. The business of education views books sales as separate from content and quality of the books. Early reader and picture books meant to help young children practice the skill of reading can be shallow and bland, especially those produced as movie merchandise. But content and style do matter—content provides something to think about and style provides a way to think about it.
Books As Advertisements
Instead of captivating children with wonderful pictures and plots, the book industry frequently produces books with characters from television or movies to appeal to children’s enthusiasm for the shows they watch. Some movies and programs came before the spin-off books—Disney movies or Dora the Explorer—and others began as books, were transformed into shows, and then reincarnated back into book series that are fundamentally different than the originals, such as Curious George. I have yet to read a spin-off or reincarnated series that meets the standard for quality reading. The illustrations offer little support or embellishment to the text, the vocabulary swings drastically between infantile and difficult, and the plot summarizes the action of the movie or television episode instead of telling a unique story.
Not surprisingly, children automatically reach for the familiar—the role of parents and educators should be to offer something unfamiliar in order to broaden the scope and depth of children’s knowledge. Unfortunately, the books most accessible to parents in grocery and department stores typically are produced merchandise rather than written literature, prominently featuring animated characters that parents and children will recognize from television and movies. I hear people say, “At least children are reading,” but a steady diet of media-inspired books without thoughtful dialogue or illustrations teaches children that a book cannot stand on its own merit but that its worth is directly related to the entertainment industry and that books are boring.
Recently, I set out on a quest to find treasures and perused as many early reader and picture books as I could find in the nearest public library branch. Consider the birthday theme. Sure enough, I found birthday books for most animated characters brought to life on screen:
Happy Birthday, Thomas!
Happy Birthday, Strawberry Shortcake!
Happy Birthday, [Disney] Princess!
The princess version of this theme shows princesses celebrating alone or with animal friends, no prince-husbands, royal guests, or even gifts, in most cases. Really? All these kingdom-wide searches for beautiful maidens result in lonely birthday celebrations?
Just when I had condemned birthday books to the recycling bin, Bonnie Becker’s Birthday for Bear redeemed the concept by bringing an optimistic, bright-eyed mouse into the life of a misanthropic bear. If a mouse and a bear can freshen up the birthday theme, why are companies churning out books where characters play no role, plot does not exist, and illustrations do not interact with the text?
Fun For the Whole Family
If children’s reading primarily consists of books with words they can read but content that lulls them to sleep, they will not learn to think. Easy reader books do not have to be thoughtless. I have a little book called “Dan” from the Calvert kindergarten curriculum that consists almost entirely of words with the short /a/ sound, but I still chuckle at the end: Dan ran. He ran because a large mountain lion climbed into his van. A beginning reader can handle the text, and everyone can appreciate the interaction between text and illustration.
Simple text and line drawings can sing. Mo Willems’s deadpan stories about the anxiety-ridden elephant Gerald and his optimistic best friend Piggie are prime examples. Willems uses basic line drawings but communicates Gerald’s angst so vividly that even toddlers get it. Beginning readers can read the text, and the changes in font offer them clues on how to read the book expressively. All this creates fun stories that drop hints to force children to put things together mentally, helping them become fluent readers and observant thinkers.
We need readers and thinkers. We do not need people enslaved by commercialism. To get thinkers, we should offer children humorous, poetic, and timeless books. I am not suggesting that all children need to be collegiately trained in the classics, but I do want the children who will eventually become my plumber, contractor, and mechanic to be able to read and comprehend technical language of manuals, contracts, and warranties. The trajectory of proficient technical reading begins at the same place as any other reading ability, namely in decoding text, making connections and accumulating rich vocabulary.
In the end, the combination of good books and families reading together makes the greater difference in elementary reading proficiency. While the Oompa-Loompas in Mr. Willy Wonka’s factory may overstate the matter, their song touches a modern American problem:
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Not many families will actually toss the TV, iPad, or computer, but they can make concerted efforts to use them judiciously, to resist the urge to borrow only library books with character faces on the front, and to plan regular quiet, uninterrupted times to read excellent books. The stagnation of pleasure reading and overall fourth grade reading proficiency is not simply a matter of resources—it is a matter of priority. Families are distracted by a myriad of problems, schedules, and even entertainment itself, and it requires conscious planning to find great books and to make time to read them. If the adults in American families will not read for themselves, maybe, at least, they will do it for the children.
Suggested Books to Read Aloud as a Family (with children ages 2½ to 6)
Here’s a list of titles my family found worth reading multiple times this year, starting with simple picture books and ending with longer chapter books. Remember to read more slowly than you normally speak, with deliberate pauses to give everyone time to enjoy the words and pictures.
There is a Bird on My Head, Mo Willems
My Friend Rabbit, Eric Rohmann
Click, Clack, Moo, Doreen Cronin
Muncha, Muncha, Muncha, Candance Fleming
Little Kids National Geographic Magazine (ideal for ages 3-4)
Sheep in a Jeep, Nancy Shaw
A Birthday for Bear, Bonnie Becker
Gingerbread Friends, Jan Brett (amazingly detailed illustrations)
I Spy series, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick
Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave, Quentin Blake
Madame Lagrande and Her So High, to the Sky, Uproarious Pompadour, Candance Fleming
Nine for California, Sonia Levitin (historical fiction)
What Elephant? Genevieve Cote
Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book, Cynthia Rylant
Owl at Home, Arnold Lobel
Original Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, classic edition (retold by Jane Resnick)
Esio Trot, Roald Dahl
Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
My Father’s Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett
Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl