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  • Sophia Lam

How to help your children fall in love with books

Literacy expert and author of Growing Readers shares some tips on how you can open your children’s world up to the joy of reading in today’s demanding environment

Books have some tough rivals in the competition for children’s time today, says literacy expert Kathy Collins, who was in town to deliver a talk to teachers at the Hong Kong International School’s Literacy Conference on Tuesday.

Reading often doesn’t top a child’s list of priorities in the digital age, Collins tells the Post during an interview. Children lack the time they need to read out of class, and parents are often too busy to find time to read aloud to their children.

“Kids are over-scheduled nowadays with clubs and sports – everyone is tired, parents included,” she says.

The guest speaker, who works closely with Columbia University Teachers College, had always imagined herself becoming a teacher of social studies when her student years were over – until she found she had an interest in literacy work, when she was engaged as a research assistant on a literacy project at the same school. She later became a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn where she wrote her first book, Growing Readers, about literacy instruction.

“One thing that has changed since 22 years ago, when I started teaching, is the expectations of children as readers.”

Why are Hong Kong parents not reading to their children?

What was once something to enjoy and fall in love with has now become assignment-driven, Collins says. “Reading used to be about exposing kids to different genres and opening up new interests, but now it’s always ‘read this to demonstrate that’.”

“I feel like reading has grown cold and clinical,” she adds.

With teachers now saying that teaching reading as a tested subject “feels scary”, Collins says this reflects the fact that schools have been focusing so much on skills and strategies that they are not supporting kids’ reading habits or helping them find books to fall in love with.

“If parents and educators can lay the groundwork that reading is pleasurable and that books can be their friends, teachers or escapes, children’s reading lives will flow naturally. Think of an adult, when you’re stressed out by a job or a child to care for, your reading life will probably flatline,” she says. “I think parents and teachers always make the mistake of thinking that reading life is always ratcheting up. It is quite fluctuating, on the contrary.”

If your child is a reluctant reader, here are five tips to create an encouraging reading environment for him or her:

1. Start early

Studies have shown that reading aloud or singing lullabies to a baby in utero can help them recognise the parents’ voice when they are born. “It preloads the connection with the baby,” Collins says. “It is important to nurture a positive attitude towards reading from a young age because that is when reading is the most pleasant.”

2. Nagging doesn’t help

This tip is based on Collins’s own experience with one of her sons. “Reading came a bit harder to him, but pushing and nagging weren’t encouraging him to read. Sometimes we [would] start reading thicker books together. I’d read the first few chapters and let him finish the rest,” she says.

A common mistake among parents, according to Collins, is to wishfully envision a child’s reading habits. “I would imagine my son to read before bed and bring his book to the breakfast table, but he wasn’t that kid,” she says. “As parents we have to rework our vision and try to see how we could fit reading into who the child is, instead of the other way round.”

3. Read aloud to your child

Parents should understand that even if your child is, as educators put it, “reading conventionally” – reading the words – it is still important to leaf through books together with your child. “It provides a moment of intimacy when you feel physically connected. That way you can continue to model to your child the social nature of reading,” Collins says. “I’ve been reading aloud to one of my sons, who is a more reluctant reader, until he is 13.”

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4. Stimulate discussions during reading

Parent-child experience doesn’t end in reading aloud. The most important part of reading aloud is to pause occasionally to discuss what’s happening in the book with your child. Ask them how they feel about the characters in the story, and ask them how the story makes them feel. “Within the book-caregiver-child triangle, you enjoy the story, make meaning and, most importantly, make moments together,” Collins says.

5. Keep their reading options open and follow your child’s interest

Explore the spectrum of genres. “Following your child’s interest is always the first thing, be it funny wordplay books, ‘serious books’, or even wordless books with vibrant pictures. Information books may not pass as beautiful bedtime stories, but if your child is interested in the topic, have a go at that,” Collins says. There’s not a “right” type of reading material, according to Collins. “If your child has chosen it, that is the book they’re meant to read.”

Collins also warns parents against “dictating” what their children should read or force-feeding them harder books to help them thrive. “A lot of research states that young children should be given the liberty to decide what to read,” she says.

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