The Writing Life: Encouraging Future Readers–and Writers

It’s that time of year, the time when school comes to a close and children are handed their summer reading lists. Many great, local libraries engage in fun contests to encourage the kids to keep reading over the summer, and even Barnes & Noble gets in the act, offering a free book to children who complete the reader’s worksheet they provide.

Her dad and I were pretty pleased with munchkin’s list this year. She’ll be preparing for sixth grade, and she has to read six books. Two are determined by the school (one, Wonder,  by RJ Palacio, will be read by the whole middle school; the other is Hatchet, by Gary Paulson). For the other four, the school provided a list with options in many different genres: poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy. Clearly, the faculty wanted every student to find something on the list that would appeal to him or her, and I think they did a great job. It’s not easy to please everyone!

But too often, the lists I see and hear about are limited to a single “approved” genre, or the books are completely prescribed, with no reader choice. There are many adults who still seem to believe that reading a graphic novel isn’t really, well, reading. And this makes me sad. Reading the written word, any written word, does delightful, delicious things for the developing brain. Giving children the freedom to make their own reading choices gives them power, ownership over the journey they’re undertaking. There are so few parts of this journey from childhood to adulthood that they will have some say in, that it seems important to give them what we can, allow them that responsibility. Kids will challenge themselves when they’re ready, honest.

Our daughter is a very bright, articulate child. She’s also empathetic to the point that it can be painful. So while her friends were reading Harry Potter in first and second grade, she was reading about candy fairies right into fifth grade. Her choices were safe. She made mostly non-fiction reading choices. Books about nature, the weather, and cats were her go-to choices, because they was no drama and conflict. Her teachers told my husband and I again and again, let it go, she’ll make different choices when she’s ready.

We took her summer book list to the store to shop two weeks ago, and she snatched up the poetry book immediately. Then she perused the other choices, and to my surprise, chose the one that seems to have the deepest, most emotional story from the realistic fiction category. It’s about a child who struggles to fit into his new school and town, suffers from constant harassment from his brother, and is overwhelmed at the secrets he’s discovering about his family, but ultimately gains confidence on his journey to acceptance, both for himself and of his family (Tangerine, by Edward Bloor). Then we moved to the YA section where she chose several weighty books with a variety of themes. All reading-level appropriate, and a few that will challenge her. But I didn’t pick them–she did, because she’s ready.

Likewise, munchkin’s school has had the students writing quite a bit. There’s been a summer reading journal most years, and even though that’s not a requirement for this summer, she’s doing one anyway. As with many schools, hers had the students write poetry before a visiting poet arrived, hosted a Young Author’s Day every spring where the students read their original work to parents and grandparents, and so on.

I would argue, however, that it’s not enough to simply lean on the school and expect teachers to produce the next generation of readers and writers. Like most families, we’re quite busy and it’s hard to fit in any more stuff. But we have to, I think, in order to truly encourage, support, and create that next generation. It takes more than reading a bedtime story (although that activity is incredibly valuable). It requires the adults in the home to show that they value the written word, either by reading it or by producing it. Visiting libraries and book stores is a wonderful way to spend time with children.

Further, children need to hear from us that we value the act of reading. In our house, we ask munchkin (and her friends!) to talk about what she’s reading, to share what she likes and what she’s confused by; we encourage her to read her stories and poetry to us, and share her reading journal with her grandparents. These small activities bolster her confidence and creativity. We don’t evaluate what she presents or writes, we just enjoy it, which gives her freedom to explore and challenge herself. It’s not easy to find the time (remember that post on making time?), but it’s essential, in my opinion. Any other great ideas on how to keep our kids engaged in reading and writing?

Here’s to future readers and writers everywhere! May summer be a time of reading and writing enjoyment for all.


Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

9 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Encouraging Future Readers–and Writers”

  1. I never have to encourage my daughter to read. And she reads way above grade level (for her last book report of 8th grade, she did CARRIE). One of the few things I liked about her English teacher last year was that although he provided a suggested list, she was free to pick books she wanted that might not be on the list.

    My boy, however, oy. He only reads Rick Riordan. And comics. I’ve tried letting him wander the bookstore, but the couple times he’s tried other authors, he’s not been impressed and that makes him less likely to try again. Maybe we need to hit the graphic novel section a little harder. Any good suggestions for a 12-year old boy?

    But I think you’re right, that schools get too prescriptive about what is “real” reading and what isn’t. I know people who poo-pooed Harry Potter because it wasn’t “deep” enough. I say anything that gets kids interested in the written word (age appropriate, of course) is reading.


  2. I have such strong memories of going to the public library with my parents and being given hours to browse the children’s section and make my selections. I think your school is doing a great thing!


  3. Nice post, Pamela! My son is five and we’re doing what we can to help him learn to read right now. He LOVES for us to read to him (two books every night, plus more if it’s a weekend) and he LOVES to go to the library weekly. He’s very, very close to reading to himself. He can sound out words but hates doing it (it IS hard) and can “read” from memory. I can’t wait until he’s reading on his own and can entertain himself with one of his many books without getting so frustrated.


  4. Love books in the house — all over. My great granddaughter likes listening to stories on her Nabi. She knows her alphabet pretty much. 2 yrs., 5 mos.


  5. Kudos to all the teachers and parents who encourage reading and writing at home! When I was growing up, we had a family reading time every evening. I was the youngest, so it was very important to me to imitate my older sibs, even if I couldn’t really read all the words. It’s important for children to have role models. Now, as Nana, I get to shower my little ones with as many books as the pocketbook allows, yay!


  6. Pamela,
    I love this post so much. And love hearing all the ideas for encouraging reading. I remember when my kids were young my pediatrician said reading to them is wonderful but it is golden JUST LIKE YOU SAID ABOVE for them to see their parents reading. : )


  7. So great, Pamela! And this is amazing: “Reading the written word, any written word, does delightful, delicious things for the developing brain. Giving children the freedom to make their own reading choices gives them power, ownership over the journey they’re undertaking.”

    Mary, Rick Riordan is a big fave at our house as well! I think those are pretty awesome and teach mythology too, so woot! Before that, it was the Hunger Games trilogy and of course Harry Potter, which single-handedly turned on my son’s reading-is-fun lightbulb (and anyone who claims that HP isn’t “deep” enough somehow missed the epic themes and issues explored therein). Anyway, he wants to read the Divergent series next. (But! Just went to Denver Comic Con over the weekend, and there were quite a few presenters who said they basically learned to love reading via comics and graphic novels, so it’s great that your son is into those, too.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s