“If my children liked to read, they’d get a solid formation, they wouldn’t go stir crazy on rainy days, they wouldn’t be easy targets for media propaganda.” So then, how does one awaken in children such a desirable attribute?
The number of qualities a child acquires by imitating those around him is incalculable. If you yourself read regularly with visible pleasure and interest, if family conversations pleasantly revolve around books read by members of the family, then a large part of the work has already been done.
Before learning to read, a child gets familiar with books on mother’s lap. Quite often, a little one left to himself will have “read” a picture book in 30 seconds; he will have seen everything and looked at nothing. With mother, one takes the time to examine every drawing: Where is the cock? What color is the cat? So doing, the child develops an ability to concentrate while acquiring a rich and precise vocabulary.
When books are a part of the family’s universe, at about five or six, a child will ask to learn to read. He wants to do as the grown-ups do; he is tired of having to have help to read a story; he wants to understand the allusions he hears in the conversations of the older children. Offer him a alphabet book, and until it’s time to go to school, teach him to recognize the sounds of his language. Home instruction may go further if mother has some training or a teacher’s advice.
The apprenticeship of reading is paramount. Reading must become easy enough so that the child’s attention is no longer on the act of reading but on the content of the book. Relentlessly banish books that employ the global or semi-global method; they only produce a catastrophic percentage of illiterates or mediocre readers. Only the phonics method conforms to the analytical processes of the intellect as exercised by the brain.
As soon as the child begins to know how to read, provide him books adapted to his still limited capacity (simple vocabulary, big letters, short stories or longer ones divided in short chapters) and do not hesitate to read with him, taking turns in order to help him and to spark his interest. What should be done if his reading is still not fluent by the end of first grade. Not all children progress at the same pace. If mother is unable to help a child catch up over summer vacation, or if the gap is too great, it might be better to have him repeat first grade, with the teacher’s agreement, in order to assure a solid foundation rather than advancing to the next grade where he may have trouble keeping up and run the risk of becoming discouraged.
An enjoyable book may become the basis of other activities which in turn may call for further complementary reading: a novel about the Crusades might inspire the child to construct in cardboard his own knightly accoutrements, but for this to be more exact, he’ll have to research it further in books. And what did fortresses look like? What about the life of King St. Louis?
For truly reluctant readers, one might devise a big game-contest that will occupy the family during vacation and send the children back to their Mother Goose or Brothers Grimm or Middle Earth for clues and answers.
Reading needs a few favorable conditions: a bit of solitude and silence. The noisy games of the little ones and compact quarters may constitute real obstacles for some children, who need to be helped. During summer vacation, the warm hours early in the afternoon offer a propitious time for reading. While the little ones lie down for their nap, the older ones take to their books and the household enjoys a moment of quiet.
It is understood that only good books find entrance into the house. For a book to be declared good, its hero need not be a saint, but a wholesome, upright background in which the action unfolds is indispensable. Much is gained by talking with the children about their reading, asking them what they liked and why, and what they might have found to criticize and why.
Can the reading of comic books contribute to developing a taste for reading in children who don’t have it? Without entering into the debate on the advantages and shortcomings of comics, let’s be realistic: experience shows that a child who already likes to read and often reads real books will be able to relax with a comic book without detriment; but that the exclusive reader of comic books rarely develops into a genuine reader since his laziness is satisfied with merely “reading” the drawings.
Where can families find good reading on a reasonable budget? Public libraries offer too many frankly bad books for it to be prudent to let children explore them alone. Parents will be able to find in bookstores the classics of children’s literature at modest prices. Lending books between families, while affording the opportunity to teach children to be careful with books and respectful of other people’s property, is also a solution. Traditional Catholic publishers make an effort to offer high-quality books for children, and grandmothers and godparents will find many gift ideas there.
So, good reading to you!
Translated, with slight adaptation for English readers, from Fideliter, No. 190, July-August 2009. For reading suggestions for the whole of childhood, you might like to consult Dr. John Senior’s “What Everyone Should Read: The Thousand Good Books,” The Angelus, May 1997.