How to teach children to love reading: The Envy System

Speaking of trying to read books to children (see the previous post,) while I always pictured that I would cuddle up with my kids in the evenings and read classics together, I’ve gradually had to admit to myself that I actually don’t like reading aloud. It’s a very slow way to get through a book, makes my throat sore, and takes away from my precious internet time. Fortunately, I’ve heard (the source was the book “Freakonomics,” or at least its writers whom I heard interviewed on a radio show) that reading aloud to kids has not been shown to be predictive of kids’ reading well. Other factors that are more predictive include having books in your home, and, (I think,) the parents’ liking to read. My mom even heard of a study in which illiterate fathers were told to hold a newspaper and pretend to read it. Their children’s reading ability improved. I also once knew of a mother who fastidiously read to her child every day, but then I overheard her confide to another mom that she herself hated reading. I couldn’t help thinking that the latter trait would probably have a more powerful influence on how the child would feel about reading than would her dutiful reading aloud (since children can read minds and always ferret out every little weakness in their parents.)

And thus we come to my system for teaching kids to love reading: You have to like reading so much that you’ll ignore your child while you finish a page — or chapter — or whole book. When children see that for sometimes lengthy periods of time, you love a book (or, ahem, an internet page) more than you love them, they’ll become curious, want to know what is so great about the book or website, and will likely develop a lifelong passion for reading. They may even teach themselves to read.

Although I’ve often given this theory as a joke, my experience is that it actually does work. With Mabel you could maybe give some of the credit for her reading ability to a good preschool or kindergarten, but Isaac was home schooled through 2nd grade, and the only formal instruction he ever had in reading was our teaching him the alphabet and helping him sound out a few words. And now he’s a faster reader than I am — and he is always trying to read over my shoulder when I’m online, or to quote entire Dilbert comics to me.

So, there you have it, folks. Ignoring your children can be a powerful teaching tool.


(An unfortunate corollary: so far, Dean and I don’t have any children who are passionate about sports. Well, Ike was passionate about basketball until about age three or four, and Henry still loves any game involving a ball — but I’m afraid it’s likely to wear off once he learns to read. And I guess Mabel and Ike do like soccer quite a bit, so maybe that counts for something. It just didn’t come about through The Envy System.)

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9 Responses to How to teach children to love reading: The Envy System

  1. Jen says:

    Zina: You are my hero. I laughed so hard reading this post. It just hit so very, very close to home.

  2. Jason says:

    I taught Tristan to read at about age 3 or 4 while reading to him, assigning him small words such as a, I, and the. When one of ‘his’ words appeared in the text of a book we were reading, I paused and pointed to the word. He read his word and then I continued. In 1st grade, he was reading at a level described as college.

    Dominic’s learning style was diametrically different. I wasn’t really able to help him read. However, he is a very capable reader and loves reading probably more than his older genius bro.

  3. Azúcar says:

    I agree, there’s nothing like ignoring your child to get them to want to do the same thing. My kid will learn to read eventually, otherwise he’ll miss out on all the instant messaging.

  4. maralise says:

    ‘It’s a very slow way to get through a book, makes my throat sore, and takes away from my precious internet time.’

    I laughed out loud. That was awesome.

  5. OhSusanna says:

    I LOVE reading aloud to my kids, but only if the book is interesting. I hate those annoying picture books with loads of extremely dull text like My Little Pony scholastic book fair books. And kids seem to love those. But I really can create a magical transporting experience for myself and the kids with a really good book. Please excuse the Reading Rainbowesque cliche, but it’s TRUE. My kids even love being read to enough that I can be mean and threaten to stop reading if they don’t be quiet. It’s one of the few things I have with my kids. I really think Ian did develop his love of reading from our reading aloud sessions, but my obvious enjoyment prolly was a huge contributing factor.

    It made me so sad to finally give up on the reading together with Patrick idea. I always pictured us reading aloud to each other since we both love to read. But Patrick doesn’t enjoy it much. I have to content myself with reading our own separate books together in companionable silence.

    It also makes me sad that Libby doesn’t join our sessions anymore; and the other night after I finished a chapter in our current book, Ian grabbed the book from my hands. When I told him that I didn’t want him to read ahead because it would ruin the experience (yes, feel free to roll your eyes at me), he said that he didn’t want to read with us anymore. Sigh. I was able to steer him towards another book, and I still have Molly and Ben for a few more years.

    One thing I do hate: Take-home reading charts. I think they are such a kill-joy. I’m sure that there are much better ways for teachers to get their students reading.

  6. zstitches says:

    Yeah, Isaac has to read 20 books this year and they have to fit into categories (1 biography, 3 by Newbery authors, etc.) and although I guess it will expand his repertoire some, I just find it annoying to have to fit it all into such specific categories.

    Mabel has to read 20 minutes/day and write a summary of what she read, and it took me forever to persuade her that she can count one book for more than one reading session — before that, she would avoid reading any book that took more than 20 minutes to read, OR, she would read a 2-hour book and count it for one 20-minute slot. I finally persuaded her to at least ASK her teacher if she could count a one-hour book for three 20-minute slots, and of course her teacher said yes. Pshew. Oh, and Mabel always throws away her summaries with the rest of her graded homework, and I’m always rescuing them from the recycling so when she’s grown she can see what she read. (I can never remember all the things I read as a kid — sometimes I’ve come almost to the end of a book before I realized I’d already read it. I guess a bad memory is nice in a way; you get to read things with fresh eyes over and over.) But maybe I should just let her toss them since she really seems not to care.

    Anyway so far this hasn’t seemed to kill my kids’ love of reading too very much, but it still feels like tedious accounting to me.

  7. American Yak says:

    I think it’s a problem society grapples with that we think children have to have a repertoire of sophisticated books read. I think, as you so aptly pointed out, the much better endowment to leave with children is a true love and passion to read. Because (as was the case with me), they will come to love reading so much (as was with me) that they will seek out the classics of their own accord.

    However, I do think there are exceptions to this case, and it’s probably wise to nurture some children in sundry classics. Every child is different, right?

    That’s my two cents.

  8. Michelle L. says:

    Hey! I think you’ve got something there! My kids are obsessive readers and I’m so very talented at ignoring them while I finish a paragraph or two….

    Now I’m off to find you on Goodreads. I just joined yesterday.

  9. zstitches says:

    Michelle, I *am* on Goodreads, I think, but only to read others’ reviews. There are one or two book reviews here on my blog if you find the drop-down category menu on my sidebar and find the Books/Movies/TV category — although in truth I read more online than I read books these days, and I also don’t necessarily review everything I read or watch. I do have one tome I finished recently I’ve been meaning to write about here on my blog, so maybe I’ll get around to that soon.

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