(How) Can we read? Strategies for raising readers

Aka "literacy strategies"

In her super useful but also a little bit wackadoo book, How to Get Your Child to Love Reading (which I reviewed in issue No. 21), Esmé Raji Codell writes this about building community around the power of literacy and what a gift this service is to children:

“If children’s literature is the potato, the thing that nourishes, then we are the plowshares that ready the land for planting.”

I love this image — being a plowshare readying the reading land for my children. This is how I approach this aspect of my parenting (which, I have told you, is wildly important to me for a variety of reasons). Since the day I became a mother I have wondered how I can best serve my children in this way, and it’s in this vein that I offer the following strategies to you.

I am not a literacy expert. I’m neither a formal academic nor a teacher. Despite spending this last year teaching my daughter to read, I do not know enough about reading instruction to pass it on to anyone (nor am I the least interested in reading instruction, though of course I believe it is vitally important — it’s just not the work for me). I have neither all the answers nor all the information, and I can totally live with that, because part of the joy here for me is that I am always learning and always teachable.

What I do know about — what I have done extensive research on, and have spent the last seven years of my life living out — is creating an environment and a home where readers and the reading life can thrive. There are many different ways to do this, many opinions about which are most effective, many creative ideas, all of which have merit. What I share here (not just in this issue but in this newsletter as a whole) is my own personal experience within my own little family — the things I have done and am doing to raise readers and create a culture of reading in our home. My methods, ideas, tips, and advice are neither exhaustive nor “right,” merely my own, and I pass them to you with the intention of helping you consider your own situation and the children in your life.


Create a literacy-rich environment

What the heck is a “literacy-rich environment?” I like to think of it as a fun, DIY mixture of things that can be personalized for your family and home (in truth I think of it like an octopus, with many different arms all attached to the same body). Here are some things we have done in the past and/or continue to do to create a literacy-rich environment for our children.

We:

  • Read. Every day. Multiple times a day. This is numero uno. Not saying everything else is pointless if you don’t read, but it’s a bit like building a house with no foundation — the structure might stand for a bit but the first gusty wind is going to bring the house down

  • Possess a variety of books, whether by owning them or borrowing them from the library or both

  • Ensure we offer different types of reading material for all ages: books, magazines, newspapers

  • Create easy access to said reading material — see the January issue of (How) Can we read? for more on storing books and reading nooks

  • Make certain that the children see the adults reading (and that if reading is happening on a device, that activity is transparent — i.e., making it explicit by saying something like, “I’m reading the news on my phone. Listen to this…”

  • Listen to audiobooks frequently, during time at home and in the car — see the March issue of (How) Can we read? for more about how we do audiobooks

  • Watch shows and movies together (yes, this counts! I am convinced one of the major influences on my growing up to be a writer was the tremendous amount of TV I watched as a kid. Say what you will about Disney movies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Duck Tales, Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and all the old shows and movies I watched with my grandparents — I still love Bewitched with a passion — they were all, are all, strong examples of narrative, rich character development, imagination, and creativity)

  • Tell stories — whether these are oral storytelling tales, stories from adults’ childhood, or simply recounting our days (special shout-out to my parents and grandma, who field the demand, “Tell us a story!” at least weekly and comply with patience and love)

  • Engage in pre-writing and writing activities: coloring (for pre-writers and writers alike), drawing pictures/writing letters to family, writing and illustrating stories in mini books (made by hand and provided — the Target Dollar Spot is gold for these), making lists of all kinds, bringing a clipboard in the car and tallying things we see or doing driving scavenger hunts I’ve made up

  • Host our own Poetry Teatime — see the February issue of (How) Can we read? for more about our Poetry Teatime

  • Make weekly trips to the library and frequent (about once a month) trips to a bookstore, new or used

  • Ask for narration, aka retelling (rather than a formal practice, where my children know what we are doing, I merely ask them to tell me back the story of what we just read, or more often, ask them to tell me where we left off in a chapter book — e.g., “What happened in the last chapter?” I do not prompt them though I will ask questions if they are struggling. If narration sounds like your jam I highly recommend the book Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass).

  • Strew (simply casually laying out books, games, items, or resources of interest for your kids to interact and engage with, usually without your involvement)

  • Appreciate art by having artwork on our walls and in various places in our home that are child-friendly and change often (i.e., hanging great artworks at their level and swapping them out every few weeks or so); sometimes we even talk about it

Please note that “literacy rich” is not necessarily the same as “print rich.” It took me a bit to figure this out. At first I was focusing on things like labels around the house (my bathtub has had a small sign that says “bathtub” on it for three years running — print rich) while forgetting about things like watching movies together (literacy rich). But if you define literacy — as I do — as not only the ability to read and write but also the construction of knowledge and the ability to think, then how to cultivate it expands exponentially. Almost everything is fodder. It matters less what you do and more how you do it.

Connect everything to reading and reading to everything

I mean two distinct things by “connecting everything to reading and reading to everything.”

The first is about finding information. When we have a question about something, I make a concerted effort not to always reach for my tiny digital overlord/phone. We all know search engines are wildly convenient — and there is much to be said about search and the development of inquiry skills, which I believe are vital — but there is still (unbelievably) information in books that hasn’t made it into the vault of the internet yet; there are things to learn in books that the hive mind has either forgotten or ignored or both. Just as I want my kids to know how to ask good questions in order to pull up good answers online, I want the same for them in life, specifically the physical world of books. So I try to be mindful and think carefully about what books we have where we might find the answers to whatever we’re wondering about. In practicing this, two interesting things have occurred: one, my 6yo has started saying, “Do we have a book about [whatever it is]?” and two, when we find what we’re looking for, we often also stumble across something else — further information, or adjacent information, or something that sparks more conversation and investigation — which just goes to show that falling into a rabbit hole doesn’t only happen online.

The second is about linking real-world experiences to our reading life, and vice versa. This was an idea — a way of parenting, really — that I stumbled on somewhat accidentally when my first child was about 6mo. Out of the blue bath time was, for some inexplicable baby reason, hard: she disliked the water and spent much of her time in the tub upset, even freaking out. I immediately decided we needed swim classes — the parent-tot kind, where I humbly and purposely created my own nightmare and chose to insert my postpartum, still-nursing body into a swimsuit, in public, for 30 minutes a week so that my baby could learn to be comfortable in the water. (It was worth it.) In preparation for these classes — perhaps because I sensed from the very beginning that my child is a person who needs advance notice of transitions, changes, and/or new things but more likely because I am that person — we started reading about swimming. I will be forever indebted to Anna McQuinn for her wonderful book, Leo Can Swim (all of the Leo titles, along with big sister Lola titles, are superb), which we read over and over (usually in the bath tub) along with My First Swim Class by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Maisy Learns to Swim by Lucy Cousins. (A few years later when solo swim class became the issue, we went back to some of these and added Saturday is Swimming Day by Hyewon Yum, which remains the best book I’ve found about fear of swimming.) By the time we got to our first swim class, we were ready.

That experience taught me something valuable about my child as well as who I could be as a mother — I took the idea of “preparing by reading” and used it for everything, which then expanded into simply “reading about everything in our lives” when possible, without becoming neurotic about it (something I have to guard against with the utmost vigilance at all times, being an obsessive Type A kind of person despite my best efforts). Sometimes I anticipated events or changes (the birth of a sibling, for instance) and sometimes I realized after a challenge arose that I could apply this technique (sharing with said sibling, which is an ongoing, never-ending learning process). Regardless of the timing and my own clear personality preference to handle life this way, I have been surprised, even shocked, at how effective this can be.

A (incomplete, to be sure) list of things to which we have made life-to-reading and reading-to-life connections:

  • Daycare life

  • Getting new shoes

  • Weaning

  • Potty training

  • Going to the doctor and/or dentist

  • Going places regularly: grocery store, library, zoo

  • Having surgery

  • Traveling by car; traveling by plane

  • Moving from wherever one slept as a baby to a big-kid bed

  • Birth of a sibling

  • Parent traveling for work/pleasure

  • Getting dressed/ready for the day

  • Going on vacation (the actual going but also the place)

  • Getting and caring for a pet

  • Starting kindergarten

  • Making healthy choices during lunch at school and not just eating a cup of ranch dressing (ahem, highly specific to a certain child I know)

  • The death of a friend*

  • Manners

  • Respecting and honoring our elders

  • Learning to tie shoelaces

  • Learning to ride a bike

  • Feeling feelings (all of them)

  • Upcoming birthday; upcoming birthday of a sibling

Once you start looking at whatever’s coming up (or whatever is happening) through this lens, it’s easy to find what you need. Time for new shoes? Check out Shoes, Shoes, Shoes by Ann Morris; Shoes for Me! by Sue Fliess; Red Dancing Shoes by Denise Lewis Patrick; Whose Shoes? A Shoe for Every Job by Stephen R. Swinburne. Time to switch rooms at daycare? Try My First Day of Nursery School by Becky Edwards; I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas; Oh My Baby, Little One by Kathy Appelt (I reviewed this in issue No. 9). A dear friend of mine says, “Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems” and that seems to be at least somewhat true thus far, but I’ve found regardless of the size of the kid or the problem, reading can — and does — help.

*I am writing a whole special edition on the topic of loss, death, and grief, which will come out the first week in May

Form your own household literature circle

In her book Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, Jane Mount writes: “The first known ‘literature circle’ in America was founded in 1634 by a Puritan settler, Anna Hutchinson, as a women’s bible study group. Her group was eventually banned by paranoid Puritan men.” Of course it was.

Since then, though, the popularity of book clubs has pretty much exploded. Mount writes that by 1990 book clubs numbered 50,000 in the U.S. and by the year 2000, there were twice that many. (I met one of my very best friends in a book club when I was 25 — I know she’s reading this today because she is still, 13 years later, as loyal and loving as ever. Hi Maggie! 👋🏻 )

In her book, The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids (which I reviewed in issue No. 33), Sarah McKenzie calls this “creating a book club culture at home.” She’s talking about the same thing as a literature circle, in essence, I just like “literature circle” better, what can I say? 😂

I want to — and do — talk to my husband and children about books all the time. We’ve somehow, by hook or by crook (and by all these things I’ve shared with you over the past few months) built this into our family life so that it is as much a part of who we are as pizza and movie night every Friday, and porch picnics, and ice fishing. I might read a book and then my husband will listen to it on audio and we’ll discuss it. My 6yo might fall in love with an audiobook and I’ll check it out to read after her so we can chat (I reviewed Emily’s Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary in issue No. 28 for this very reason). My 4yo might look at a book (“reading” is pre-reading; it counts!) and love it and I might pick it up later and then ask her about it. We might read a picture book that has a recipe in it and try the recipe. We might read about a place and then go look it up on the map or the globe. We might stumble across a fact about a planet and then spend 15 minutes in our hallway discussing whatever it is we learned vis á vis the solar system we have hanging from the ceiling. After awhile, in the shared reading experience, we develop points of mutual reference, inside jokes, memories of the story or the reading of the story with or alongside one another. The point is that in the wide, wild field of reading, we meet somewhere inside it over a specific book and have a moment — or many moments — together because of it. That’s a literature circle. That’s a book club culture at home.

Forming your own household literature circle, whatever you call it (out loud or just in your head, like I do), is easy once you connect everything to reading and reading to everything — you already have the common ground of both the thing that you’re reading about and the reading you’re doing about it.

Read things, together and on your own, and then talk about it. That’s it. (It’s very fun.)

Support choice (aka reading freedom)

Full disclosure: choice is a hard one for me. It takes everything in me to control my visible, physical cringe response when my children bring me the stack of books they have picked off the library shelves and it’s half Disney franchise characters. I think about what I will say when we get home and they ask me to read them: those books are TERRIBLY written, unpleasant to read, boring as all get-out and I will want very much to say no, but the answer is always yes.

I fully understand the arguments (which I hear coming most often and most vociferously from Charlotte Mason enthusiasts, whom I respect for their ardor and commitment to principle and often — though not always — agree with on this point): that, essentially, taste breeds taste. I get that. I operate that way in our home, with the books on offer for my children. When I buy books I am not buying twaddle; I am not buying anything with cartoon characters of any ilk (unless they began life in a book, like Arthur or Angelina Ballerina or Llama Llama, whom my husband believes has a legit anxiety disorder); I am not buying poorly written or poorly executed titles (and these are not limited to books that spring from children’s media and toys — there are an excruciating number of awful books out there).

But.

And it’s a big BUT.

I want to raise readers. I want to raise children who love to read and who love books and who go down whatever rabbit hole their interests lead them, even if I don’t see the appeal or even think it’s particularly worthwhile. I want to raise people who think, and think for themselves — not just as it relates to choosing books — and I will support them however I can. How can I do that if I’m telling them, either explicitly or through my actions, that what they’re interested in isn’t good enough? (For one thing, I am not the arbiter of taste in all things. Who am I to say what someone else enjoys? For another, and much more importantly, it’s their reading life, not mine.)

I like what Donalyn Miller writes about her sixth graders in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child:

“I believe that students should be empowered to make as many book choices as possible, including the books that we read together. The idea of students clamoring to read favorite books feeds into my goal of getting them excited about reading. By valuing their opinions, even about the books we share as a class, I let them know that their preferences are as important as mine.”

Ah, and there it is — valuing their opinions, and letting them know their preferences are as important as mine. This is a major tenet of my parenting, so why wouldn’t it apply to reading?

Their choice matters.

So when they bring me the twaddle from the library I immediately compose my face and swallow my sigh without a word and read a book I hate (and most of the time, they know it’s godawful and they don’t ask to reread it anyway) and it’s all over in a few minutes. But what I have gained in those few minutes is the win of supporting my kids. And what they have gained is the knowledge that I have seen and accepted their interests and their choices, just as they are.

Choice is the right of every reader, whether the reader is nine months or nine years or 99 years old. Let’s get out — and stay out — of the way.


Read

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the single most impactful, single simplest strategy you can possibly utilize in raising a reader: READ.

Read.

A child who grows up being read to will become a reader.

But you have to read.

A study (to which I have since lost the link 🤦🏻‍♀️ ) by University of Warwick professor Adam Swift and UW-Madison professor Harry Brighouse discovered this:

“Evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t — the difference in their life chances — is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.” 

Think about that for a second. Whether or not you read to your child has a bigger impact not just on their literacy in all its forms but on their chances in life than whether or not they receive an expensive private education.

I repeat: if you want to raise a reader, you have to read.


Today’s takeaways, or some things to consider:

Think about your home and your life…

  • How have you created a literacy-rich environment? Is there anything you can add? Does anything need tweaking?

  • If you haven’t created a literacy-rich environment, where can you start? What is one thing you can do to make this happen?

  • What’s going on in your life right now, or coming up soon, that you can connect to reading?

  • Are you anticipating any big changes that might be worth beginning to read about now? How can use you books to support your child?

  • Do you discuss what you’re reading, together or on your own, as a family?

  • Have you ever purposely read the same book as a family member? What elements of the idea of a literature circle can you implement in your home?

  • Where do you land on the idea of reading freedom? Do you believe developing taste is more important than choice, or vice versa?

  • What is your reaction/what do you do when your kid/s want to read a book that makes you cringe? How can you support your children in their reading choices, even if you don’t agree with them?

There are many different ways to be a good parent — and probably a million different ways to raise readers. There is no right way or wrong way, merely the way that works best for you and your people. If you’ve got a good thing going, great — keep on keepin’ on! If you don’t, it’s okay: it’s never too late. Start where you are. But do start.

The ultimate goal is not to teach children to read (that is just a teeny part of the whole thing) but to love books and reading, to foster a self-image that affirms: I am a reader; this is what I do because it’s part of who I am. It doesn’t really matter how that happens, how one gets there exactly, just that one does.

And if you are asking, well, why? Why is this the goal? Why does it matter?

It matters because reading is, more than anything else, foundational — truly essential in every way — to becoming an educated person. I am not talking about education as schooling, but rather education as enlightenment. Education as the lightbulb moment. Education as learning, in its most basic sense — knowing something one did not know before. Education as access to everything beyond one’s own mind.

Edith Hamilton, an esteemed classicist in her time (probably best known now for her excellent Mythology) said this about education in her book, The Greek Way, which was published in 1930:

“It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up in the world of thought — that is to be educated.”

This is the gift you give when you raise readers, when you are the plowshare that readies the land for planting — the adding to life, the being-caught-up in the world of thought and as such, the being-caught-up in the big, beautiful, complex world itself.


If you’d like to read more on the topic of literacy strategies, I recommend any/all of the following titles:

  • The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction by Meghann Cox Gurden

  • Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox

  • Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook: Eighth Edition by Cyndi Georgis (I reviewed this in issue No. 12, though any edition is useful)

  • The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids by Sarah McKenzie (I reviewed this in issue No. 33)

  • Storytelling With Children by Nancy Mellon

  • Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

  • The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller

  • Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children's Storytelling by Emily K. Neuburger (this is a fun book)

Thanks for reading,
Sarah
@can_we_read