Cultivating Young Readers

The benefits of reading are clear, and there are plenty of ways to inspire young folks to pick up a book.


Without fundamental reading skills, completing even the most basic of daily life tasks can become a daunting and humiliating experience. Though illiteracy rates have plummeted over the last century — from 20% of the U.S. population in 1870 to less than 1% by the 1980s — poor reading and writing skills continue to plague educators and students, and these issues can serve as a major barrier on the road to academic and professional success.

Though ‘literacy’ was once classified as the ability to read and write, researchers now use the term ‘functional literacy’ in reference to individuals who have achieved the level of education necessary to function in modern society. One way experts determine this level is by issuing standardized K-12 tests. However, the statistics are disheartening among low-income students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 49% of fourth graders who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals finished below “Basic” on the NAEP reading test. As these students get older, their prospects don’t improve much — 40% of eighth graders eligible for free and reduced-price meals scored below “Basic” on their NAEP reading test.

In addition to poor test scores, research indicates that Americans are simply reading less. A study from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that less than one-third of 13-year-olds read daily, which represents more than a 14% decline in the last 20 years. Although Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are spending almost two hours a day watching TV, they are spending just seven minutes reading.

This has become a tremendous problem for parents, educators, and society as a whole. The benefits of reading are clear, and there are plenty of ways to inspire young folks to pick up a book.

Benefits of Reading at a Young Age

People of all ages struggle to read. In recent years, researchers have studied the relationship between literacy skills and underlying neurological conditions. Specifically, scientists are focusing on how brain function and structure are associated with reading skills, as well as the interventions used to improve and reverse such patterns.

One 2008 study explored the effects of intensive remedial instruction on young people with poor sentence comprehension. According to the The New York Times, another study conducted at Canada’s York University in 2011 found that the brain responds to depictions of smells, textures, movements, and social interactions in a book in the same way that the brain responds to those same experiences in real-life. The study also found that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to empathize with other people on a deeper level.

Recent research focuses on the way our minds respond to digital technologies, since people the world over are dropping the newspaper and instead turning to their cell phones and tablets to read. Ongoing studies are working out how to understand the brain’s response to digital text, and the conclusions made by the experts continue to vary. A recent article in The New York Times considered several experts opinions on the relationship between e-Books and the human mind.

What we do know for certain is the clearly defined, universally acknowledged link between literacy skills and a successful education. Research tells us that this relationship is built as early as the third grade. A study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that a child’s reading proficiency by age nine directly influences their success in high school, college, and the workforce. However, these statistics are also particularly grim for students from low-income backgrounds; 83% of all low-income students read below the proficiency level by the end of third grade.

Curricula for K-3 students are generally focused on establishing and learning how to read. However, a transition begins in fourth grade as most students are expected to read in order to learn other material in the classroom (such as math, history, and science). Children who are not proficient readers are therefore limited in their ability to succeed in school, notes Abel Ortiz, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s director of evidence-based practices.

Ways to Cultivate Appreciation for Reading

The good news is that experts have developed a wide range of theories and strategies aimed at helping young readers develop literacy skills. Here is a list of a few of the most well-developed concepts in the field:

Reading to children: This is one of the most basic (yet important) ways that an adult can bolster a child’s reading abilities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends daily reading to children beginning before six months of age. From 1993 to 2005, the percentage of three- to five year-olds who were read to frequently by a family member increased from 78% to 86%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Language-rich home environments: Using big, adult words to interact with a child can actually help build and develop a vocabulary. A report from Strategies for Children found that children in low-income families are likely to have heard 20 million fewer words than children in high-income families by the age of three, and their working vocabulary is roughly half that of their more advantaged peers. Especially for children with one or more working guardians, programs like full-day kindergarten and quality early-learning classes or day-care are critical — research indicates young children should be exposed to language often and early.

Take kids to the library: Obtaining a library card and taking a child to the library on a weekly basis is an excellent way to develop positive and healthy reading habits in a child. Toddler and preschool story times are a great way to develop early literacy skills, as described in a 2008 report by Judy MacLean and Dr. Sheila Sherow. Librarians are trained to capture the attention and focus of young people with songs, puppets and pictures. Libraries also provide information about family literacy events, age-appropriate book lists, tips for at-home literacy, tutoring programs and summer reading programs for kids and adults.

Encourage exercise and healthy habits: The link between physical wellness and academic proficiency is critical. According to LIVESTRONG, a study conducted at the Medical College of Georgia found that overweight and sedentary students who took part in 15 weeks of regular exercise saw significant improvements in their test scores. One New York University professor dedicates an entire course to the study of the way students perform on a test following an hour of aerobic exercise and one hour of lecture — as opposed to students who only receive the latter; generally speaking, students who engage in both hours outperform the lecture-only group by a considerable margin.

According to the American Heart Association, only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools provide daily physical education programs (or some sort of equivalent). As a result, the burden has continued to fall on parents to find ways to keep their kids active.

Ideas for Specific Activities

Engaging and playing with your child is a great way to cultivate a love for reading. Having fun can be a great way to disguise learning for a child — here is a list of a few activities to try.

Organize a book club, reading group, or literature circle for kids (and interested adults, as well). Children will often reach a new level of comprehension if they are able to interact with each other around a text. This can include discussing the themes and character or recreating a scene through play-acting.

Many schools sponsor read-a-thons where kids can wear their pajamas, eat snacks, and bring stuffed animals. Parents are often invited and kids can read a range of texts. This could be done at home or with a group of friends.

Take a field trip to a bookstore or a library — or even a real-life place from a story the child recently read. This is a way to bring stories to life and engage students on the ways reading, literature and books are all around us.

Establishing a scheduled daily reading time (without interruptions) is a great way to develop a healthy reading habit for the entire family. If you take a vacation, make sure to bring a slew of books. If your family is on a road trip, try listening to an audiobook in the car.

Look for fun literacy and reading games on the web. There are tons of options, such as the activities available through PBS Kids and Sesame Street. These games are great because kids can have fun without realizing the brain work they are engaging in.

Research indicates that literacy is fundamental to student success; the stronger a child’s reading and writing skills, the likelier he or she is to succeed later in life. And thanks to a wealth of easily accessible resources and learning materials (courtesy of schools, libraries, and the Internet), teachers and parents can play a decisive role in turning kids into eager readers.

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