Is Reading Dying Out? Time to Plant Some New Seeds

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Last week I posted about growing up in a small town in the middle of the twentieth century and how my surroundings contributed to my development as a reader. Of course, we are living in different times, but there is value in examining “seeds to reading” and how we might plant them today. I will suggest a few activities and hope that you will add your own.

Seed #1 — Our Choices Reflect Our Values

As Mary Engelbreit would say, “No matter where you go, there you are.” We are no longer in the 20th century and the definition of “middle class” seems to be in flux. We have the freedom to define our values for our children, and that’s a good thing.

  • Talk to your child about what it was like when you were growing up. Tell them about your favorite books and why you enjoyed them.  Invite them to think about what kinds of books they (would) enjoy reading and why.  Talk about how the world has changed, how it is the same, and how that affects the choices parents (and children) have.

Seed #2 — Reading Parents

  • Let your child see you reading books, magazines and newspapers in traditional formats. You may also read on your devices, but your child knows (or will know) that you do other things on your devices as well. Point out interesting stories and information and relate it to your child’s world.
  • Make reading a part of your daily routine and a part of special occasions, such as family vacations and travel. Let your child see your pleasure in a new book or new magazine at home or on the road.

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Seed #3 — Ready to Read

  • Start with story. Tell your young child stories – simple ones that you make up or remember. They might not understand the story at first, but they will see your pleasure in sharing it. You’ll find that they’ll ask you again and again to hear more about the characters and what they do. Then encourage them to make up their own stories. (Eventually, you’ll probably hear them entertain themselves or others with the adventures of their story friends.)
  • Give your child a head start on reading and loving books by purchasing or borrowing them from the library. Board books are perfect for small hands, and you needn’t worry about chew marks! Picture books are for you to share with your child, to help him or her connect books to story.  Use the words in the book (if there are any) or invite the child to help you make the story up.
  • Buy a set of alphabet blocks and introduce your child to the sounds of letters and building words. Point out the corresponding letters/words in the books you share.

Seed #4 — Beyond Reading Skill to Reading Pleasure

  • As you continue sharing stories with your child, talk about the kinds of stories he/she enjoys most. Make a trip to the library or bookstore and ask for assistance in finding more books containing similar stories.
  • Introduce your child to the other subject areas of the library or bookstore and explain the differences between fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and other reading categories. Check out or buy from a new category.

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Seed #5 — Reading Materials at Home

  • Our homes speak of what is important to us. Make it a practice to have reading materials available in most rooms, in a place that the child can have easy access to them. It’s never too early to start a child’s personal library!
  • Celebrate if books are left on the sofa or a magazine is left open on the dining room table. This means that reading (or a close approximation) is going on.
  • Use holidays, birthdays, and vacations as an opportunity to add to a personal or family collection of books. Buy books for gifts and/or double the pleasure by involving the recipient in the purchase by visiting a bookstore or website for selection.
  • Don’t forget magazines! There are excellent choices for all ages. They are a gift that repeats itself throughout the year if you purchase a subscription and you can choose between mail delivery and electronic format.

Seed #6 — Library: Favorite Destination

  • We have already mentioned visiting the library to choose books. Expand your knowledge of what your library offers your family by paying a visit to explore services. Ask for brochures or fliers and to be put on the mailing list for programs or events, especially those for children.
  • Most libraries have a website with electronic resources, so be certain to include this in your exploration. You may find print and audiobooks for children and adults that can be downloaded to your reader.  Some libraries also offer electronic versions of magazines for a variety of subject interests and for all ages.
  • Make your library’s summer reading program a tradition. School-age children lose some of their reading progress made during the school year if they don’t practice during the summer months. Special events planned by the staff help to offset or eliminate this loss by encouraging children to check out and read books when they attend library programs.
  • Don’t forget events at the library for the younger children. Story times are usually scheduled throughout the year, even “lap-sit” sessions for babies!

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Seed #7 — A Joiner and a “Dabbler”

  • Introduce your child to and support his or her participation in activities that include reading. Scouting, Campfire Boys and Girls, faith-based and special interest organizations often include supplemental activities such as exploration by reading in their planning and programming.
  • Use your home as a studio to explore arts and crafts, purchasing inexpensive materials to create and buying or checking out books to explore technique and history of different media.

Seed #8 — Plenty of Free Time and Minimal “Screen Time”

  • Avoid over-scheduling after school, on weekends, or during summer vacation. We all need “down-time” to relax, dream, play (and read)! Even the most gifted among us deserve a break from lessons and practice – often the time when real creativity is manifested!
  • Set the boundaries for TV-watching, while allowing the child to participate in choosing which programs to watch. Try not to use the television as a baby-sitter! Explore books that have tie-ins with children’s programs or movies and discuss how they are presented and which format is preferred.
  • Technology is an important part of our lives in the 21st century – one that we can’t avoid. Boundaries give us the power and freedom to take advantage of the best that technology has to offer, while leaving plenty of room for the enjoyment of traditional reading formats. Limit the time for playing games that aren’t building skills or contributing to your child’s development and concentrate on those experiences that enhance reading. Be judicious about allowing children to have their own devices and consider those designed for children.

We all need “down-time” to relax, dream, play (and read)! Even the most gifted among us deserve a break from lessons and practice – often the time when real creativity is manifested!

Seed #9 — A Community of Readers

  • Become a supporter, volunteer, and/or enthusiast for organizations that focus on reading, literacy, and a love of books. Join the friends of your library and donate your time and/or money to their activities. Volunteer to tutor a student in reading or other subjects at your local school. Build and supply a “little free library” for your neighborhood. Donate books to the friends’ book sale, to local jails and prisons, or to the hospital. Take literacy training and volunteer to teach an adult to read.
  • Promote your local creative community by supporting local authors, poets, and artists and their work. Purchase their books at local book stores or library events, book signings, and book fairs or festivals.
  • Become a voice for the importance of reading through your local city government, state government and (especially during these times) the federal government. Let your representatives know support of  libraries and museums is part of responsible government and that you expect them to make sure that funding is adequate. Volunteer your help (and donate your money) to local campaigns for library services and/or facilities.

Questions for You: What ideas or practices would you add to help grow more readers in your family? Your community? What are your greatest challenges in promoting reading?

A Special Request: Every blogger appreciates “likes” and “shares” of their content. I am especially asking you to share this post because I need your influence to help make the point about how important reading is to all of us.  In other words, I’m already “preaching to the choir” when I speak of reading to book-lovers, librarians, poets and authors, publishers, and educators. Please share this post with your friends and family who are not part of this group and help us scatter those reading seeds!

Eight Seeds to Grow Young Readers

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I’ve always been enchanted by beautiful libraries portrayed in books as places where characters or real-life people can retreat to read in comfort and luxury.  I have also been impressed by prodigies who begin reading at age of three or four and complete works of classical literature before they reach their teens.

My own reading life and progress didn’t follow this pattern. My reading evolved in a manner more common during the mid-twentieth century, in the middle-class small-town America. Most of us didn’t enjoy a rarified upbringing with the luxury of a home library and a special “early reading” gene. We managed to become readers anyway.

I’m going to share the seeds of my early reading life, in the hopes that you will find something familiar and comforting there and to confirm that a love of reading doesn’t necessarily call for extraordinary circumstances, money, or luck.  It’s more a matter of a few seeds planted and cultivated at the right time. The more seeds planted, the greater the chance of success, even in modern America.

Seed #1 – Middle-Class Values, Mid-Century America

My parents didn’t set out to grow readers. Like most young couples following World War II, they were interested in building a family and a secure future for their children. Theirs were middle class values, inherited from those who farmed the land and worked at trades, who valued education and hard work. Family, church and community life were the institutions we knew and respected.  Everything else sprang from these institutions.

Seed #2 – Reading Parents

My parents enjoyed reading, but never referred to themselves or each other as “readers”. They both read magazines and newspapers, Readers Digest condensed books, and paperback mysteries. They didn’t read great literature, but that didn’t matter. You might find an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery in the living room, the latest issue of the Memphis Press-Scimitar or the Daily Dunklin Democrat in my dad’s office, and a copy of The Saturday Evening Post or American Heritage magazine spread open at the kitchen table. Reading was an integral part of their lives and became so in my own because of the example they set.

Seed #3 – Being “Ready to Read”

What I remember about first grade (aside from the instances when one of my classmates crossed the line and felt the sting of a reprimand from Miss Carroll) were endless exercises in basic arithmetic and practice in writing the alphabet. What I most looked forward to was learning to read.  Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot didn’t introduce me to the excitement of story or the discovery of new information in my six-year-old world-view. The important thing to me was that I would be learning a skill that my parents practiced and that brought them pleasure.

 Seed #4 – Beyond Reading Skill to Reading Pleasure

Miss Carroll, Mrs. Gunn, Mrs. Goddard and Mr. Wilson had different teaching styles, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but they all introduced the students at West School to the “what comes after” in learning the skill of reading.  Learning to ride a bike is cause for celebration, but the ability to stretch our boundaries and go beyond our own neighborhoods is life-changing.

My teachers understood this and skillfully taught us lessons in history, science and social studies by using stories to captivate us. We also learned about the world through our Weekly Reader and were encouraged read books outside the classroom.

As I progressed through school, I was blessed with many teachers who sparked a greater interest in exploring through reading.  For example, Mrs. Williams took us to her native Australia by sharing stories, songs, and history of her country.  I felt especially honored when she invited me to become a pen pal to her niece, Beth, and enjoyed reading about her life in Australia.

The year I spent in Mrs. Pelts junior English class introduced me to facets of literature that have stayed with me until today. The Norton’s Anthology was an appetizer, but reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone was a “main course” where I learned about mystery, suspense and story construction. It was here that I experienced my first “cliff-hanger” and read my first “page-turner”.

Seed #5 – Reading Materials at Home

My own collection of books was mostly limited to Nancy Drew mysteries, since we had no bookstore in my hometown. These and the Hardy Boys mysteries were available at the Blakemore Drug Store and were a favorite birthday gift for my friends and me.

While still in early elementary school, my brothers and I were fortunate to receive several boxes of discarded school books from a school near the family farm. It was closing its doors and the books were destined for the trash.  It was great fun to set up a library in our family room and to explore what the books had to offer and I could pretend that it was a public library like the one downtown.

As I mentioned earlier, my parents had personal reading preferences and I remember dipping into Reader’s Digest condensed books and the Saturday Evening Post by the time I reached junior high.  I read The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar in the condensed version and remember the heartbreaking story told in Angel Unaware by Dale Evans.

We also had a set of the Compton’s Encyclopedia and the “H” volume was my favorite because of the article about hobbies, which turned into a catalog of interests that I might pursue.  I also studied the article on housing, which featured photographs of families who lived in poverty in New York City, as compared to those who lived in new, modern homes. This brought me to an awakened appreciation of how fortunate I was.

Seed #6 – Library: Favorite Destination

The library was safe and exciting at the same time; it was my amusement park and shopping adventure combined.  It still is.

I don’t remember exactly when I started using the library.  I don’t remember story times, summer reading programs, or events especially for readers of my age.  What I do remember was probably the greatest pleasure I had ever known – going to a place with rows and rows of books, checking out as many as I could carry, and then hours of pleasure on rainy days, hot summer days, cold winter days, days when everything was wonderful, and days when nothing was wonderful except the story or book I was reading.

I remember fairy tales and books for girls like myself who wanted to find out how to be more like myself or somebody else.  I remember books about people in other times and places. I remember the freedom to choose my books and the trust in me that I would choose well. The library was safe and exciting at the same time; it was my amusement park and shopping adventure combined.  It still is.

Seed #7 – A  Joiner and a “Dabbler”

I believe that the term “bookworm” was inaccurate in describing someone like me. Our culture has often equated a love of reading with a solitary, lonely existence and “bookworms” have been pitied and scorned. My experience was that reading drew me out into the world and that participation in the available activities in my community often had a reading component that broadened my horizons even more.

My early life could be catalogued by the organizations I joined during my school years and the reading opportunities they presented.  From Girl Scouts, to our local chapter of the Federated Junior Music Clubs, to Sunday school, Sunbeams and GA’s at church, to extra-curricular groups such as the debate team and National Forensic League, French Club, Art Club, Pep Club, yearbook staff, Future Homemakers of America and others – all involved some measure of reading to participate fully.

I was a Brownie and then a Girl Scout and my manuals were treasured possessions, rather like the “H” volume of our Compton’s Encyclopedia with its article on hobbies.  I reflected on the descriptions of badges and used them as I would a catalog, making my choices depending upon my current interests.  Of course, the “Magic Carpet” and “Reader” badges were my first choices, followed by the “Storyteller” and “Writer” badges.

There was another badge, the “Dabbler” which encouraged those interested in the arts to venture into a variety of media and experiences before settling into one.  This was a practice I continued in my approach to life; an extension of the interest in a variety of hobbies.  That curiosity, combined with my love of reading, led me down many paths and permitted me to move from one interest to another without a premature concern with “finding my passion” and sticking with it.

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Seed #8 – Plenty of Free Time and Minimal “Screen Time”

Our parents’ friends often helped “curate” our television and movie fare, but no parent had to deal with devices that offered children round-the-clock entertainment with few restrictions on content.

I do admire those whose talent is recognized early and who are diligent and devoted to the many hours required to develop their gift. That was not my experience and I now understand the value of that time after school, on weekends and during the summer left unoccupied by scheduled lessons, practices, and performances.

Since television was in its infancy, “minimal screen time” simply meant that we watched programming for children and families on the three networks available to us from Memphis. Children’s programs like The Howdy Doody Show and The Mickey Mouse Club were presented after school. Sometimes we were allowed to watch I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best in the evening, but doing our homework and getting ready for our early bedtime took priority, with a few treasured minutes for reading before lights out.

As we moved into the teen years, Top Ten Dance Party and American Bandstand demanded our attention, as did movies with young stars like Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Our parents’ friends often helped “curate” our television and movie fare, but no parent had to deal with devices that offered children round-the-clock entertainment with few restrictions on content.

Seed #9 – A Community of Readers

It seemed that there was reading material wherever I went.  Theda’s and Polly’s beauty shops had stacks of magazines and time to read them while sitting under the hair dryer for thirty or forty minutes on Saturday mornings. Visits to relatives’ homes often lead me to the comfort of favorites like Home Life magazine and the Sunday newspaper comics spread out on the living room floor at my Aunt Ann’s.

Blakemore Drug Store was a favorite stop for buying a coke and drinking it at one of the small tables next to the magazine section, where I could flip through Seventeen, ‘Teen, and Ingenue magazines or buy an Archie or Katy Keene comic book. My first magazine subscriptions came by way of Blakemore’s, when I sent in the little subscription cards and was introduced to the magic of receiving monthly issues of my own.

Other reading “byways” were scattered around our small community, but I suppose that it all came back to our own living room, where cards and letters, magazines, newspapers, library books, study materials, textbooks, encyclopedias, church bulletins and paperback mysteries often came to rest. Until someone passed through, picked something up from the stash of treasure, and began reading.

Please join us for our next post, when we will explore some ways we can introduce some modern strategies to incorporate some of these “heirloom” reading seeds into our lives today.