I posted on my blog on Friday about the question of whether or not it's a good idea to encourage kids to read above their grade level. I was inspired by an excellent post on this subject by Dashka Slater at Babble. I discovered very quickly that quite a few people have opinions on this, as you can see in the extensive comments of both of the previous two posts, and the cropping up of other posts like this one at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, this one at Here in the Bonny Glen, and this one at Best Book I Have Not Read. I decided, based on this response, that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up here at Booklights. This is also, I think, a logical follow-up to Pam's post from last week about encouraging summer reading. Pam talked about the importance of bringing home a variety of books from the library. She said: "Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself." Like Pam, I'm not a reading specialist, but I do have something to say about this topic.
As all of the above discussions make clear, there is, in some circles, a bit of competitive pressure going on regarding kids' reading levels. I've heard about the five year old who likes the unabridged version of the Iliad, and the six-year-old reading at a sixth grade level. Melissa Wiley writes about a woman who discouraged her four-year-old from reading picture books, in favor of "something more challenging". An elementary school librarian commented on my earlier post: "I have some students who are "weightlifting" in second grade, carrying Eragon and Inkspell around rather than reading it." The Babble article says: "I hear parents dropping the names of children's books as if they were designer labels. "Junie B. Jones?" one might say witheringly. "My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she's reading the sixth Harry Potter." [Image credit: photo by ToymanRon, shared at MorgueFile. And no, I don't know exactly what this girl is actually reading.]
I can see how it would be easy to caught up in all of this. The parent who reads aloud to her child from the womb, provides lots of books, and is a role model for the importance of reading might be understandably thrilled when said child becomes an advanced reader. Particularly if teachers are encouraging the child to read ever more "challenging" books, and other parents are all talking about what tremendously advanced material their children are reading. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article says (in the context of homework, but I think there's a clear parallel), "Parents who cannot remember homework when they were in kindergarten now help their five-year-olds with up to 45 minutes a day of sheets filled with literacy and numeracy problems. Even those who doubt the wisdom of homework at such an early age reluctantly go along with it, driven by fear of their child falling behind." I know that the "fear of their child falling behind", in our competitive society, is significant.
BUT, there are problems with the relentless progression towards ever-more-advanced reading material for kids. The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back. The long-term problem is that if you turn reading into a competition, you run the risk of turning it into a chore. You run the risk of having that bright-eyed five-year-old advanced reader grow, in the blink of an eye, into a fourth-grader who won't read anything beyond what's strictly necessary for homework. And that is a tragedy.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever let your kids read books that are above their grade level. If they want to do that, and if you deem that books aren't too mature for them thematically, then by all means let them read ahead. Kids usually have a pretty good notion of what they can manage. If they find a book too difficult, they are likely to get bored with that book, and move on to something else. (As Stacy Dillon commented on my post, "I'm bored" is often code for "I don't understand"). So, I'm not saying that the occasional first grader reading the first Harry Potter book is a problem.
What I am saying is that it's not a good idea to pressure kids to read above their age level. Reading, especially in the summer, should be fun. It isn't meant to be a race. It's a pastime, a journey, a way to teach kids to love books. You don't instill a life-long love of reading by belittling the eight-year-old who wants to flip through picture books on a rainy afternoon. You don't encourage reading by turning down your nose at Goosebumps or comic books or (for teens) the Twilight books. Just because your seven year old CAN read at a sixth grade level, you don't have to deny her the joy of reading about Clementine, Ramona, Pippi Longstocking or Ivy and Bean. Just as we adults sometimes want to read recreationally, it's ok for kids, too. More than OK, in fact, it's something that can help them to maintain the joy of reading. That's what I think, anyway. And it's what many of the authors of and commenters on the posts above think, too, though I've only been able to capture a small amount of that discussion here. [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared at MorgueFile]
What do you all think? Have you felt pressure, from teachers or other parents, to keep your children reading above grade level? How do you handle this? Or have you found it to be more of a problem the other way, with your library not letting kids read above grade level?
Yesterday I was talking with a friend about reading over the summer vacation. She called to ask about the public library, but we ended up discussing how to help her son improve his reading skills over the break. Having been in a similar situation with my younger daughter, I had some ready solutions that I offered her and now you. I should mention that I'm not a reading specialist, but am suggesting a plan for summer reading that worked and made sense to me.
1. Make the Time
I am asked often enough how I find time to read. My answer is more like a mission statement: You don't find time to read, you make time to read. Reading needs to be part of your schedule like eating or bathing, because in its own way it's as important. Sure, you can go a day without reading, but why would you want to? I prefer bedtime as the ideal reading time. It's easily remembered, and it's a great way to wind down. The evening hour can also offer a spouse or older sibling an opportunity to participate. In the summer perhaps morning will work better, and that's fine, but make the time every day.
2. Bring Home the Books
Even if you have tons of titles on your shelves, summer offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the public library. Having something new to read that you have for a limited time, is more exciting. The library also gives you the chance to try something different. Pick out some folk tales from other countries. Try the new horse series. Investigate life in China or under the sea. Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself.
It's often said that boys are more interested in nonfiction than stories, so head over to the 500's of your Dewey Decimal system. It's rich with science books for kids including topics like space, dinosaurs, insects, snakes, and mammals. And these aren't the boring books you might remember from your childhood with long pages of text on one side, and one second-rate photo on the other. Today's children's nonfiction works with innovative layouts, multi-level text, and amazing photography. Ask your librarian to direct you to other nonfiction sections as well, including poetry, art, history, and biographies. Bring home a variety of books and plenty of them. (If you're worried about keeping track of them, our library books live in a basket by the couch and that's where they are read.)
3. Mix It Up
I love reading, and yet there is a stage of learning to read that makes me clench my teeth. It's exciting when your child is first sounding out words. Later, it's wonderful when you are reading together and she asks the meaning of a particular word. The part that is hard for me is a particular middle phase, where my daughters would sound out the same word for the third time within five pages. We each made it through this period (successfully) and I held my tongue (mostly), but it led me to my greatest discovery of mixing up our reading time.
As my youngest daughter was in the easy-reader stage for a long time, we learned to keep it interesting and fun. She'd read one book to me, then I'd read a picture book to her. Sometimes we'd take turns with her easy reader book. Sometimes she'd sound out words in the picture book. Other times, I'd read a chapter book to her and we'd discuss what happened in each chapter before moving on. There were even times when she would read to herself, and I'd read my own book alongside her. Occasionally, her older sister would step in to do the easy reader part while I washed the dishes. (A dollar payment most well spent.) We used this time to improve other reading skills besides sounding out and word recognition. Picture books are great for discussing art and illustration cues to the story. With their concise stories, picture books are wonderful to reinforce the concepts of story arcs, prediction, and comprehension. We'd talk about our favorite picture or the funniest part. I might remind her of a similar book or a personal connection, and soon she was doing the same thing. What could have been an exhausting stage for both of us, turned into a wonderful time of exploring, discussing, analyzing, and yes, reading.
It inspired me to try and find other fabulous cakes. Here's a few of my favorite ones. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. All the pictures are from Cake Central, unless otherwise noted.
Have you ever wanted to curl up with a good book and a yummy desert? Take a look at this cake.
I love the creativity in this 1st birthday cake. The top tier was made for the birthday kid to smash. The baker made a model of her son who looks like he's actually crawling up the cake (and wreaking the inevitable damage).
Check out this cake of the Three Little Pigs.
These houses are made out of gingerbread!
These Dr. Seuss cookies look delectable.
Dr. Seuss cakes were easy to find, but I thought this one was particularly exceptional. I was so impressed with the vertical hat covered with iced sketch marks and the clothesline strung between Truffula trees.
The top of the hat is the kicker.
I lost my heart to this caterpillar cupcake mosaic.
Take a closer look, and then check out the step by step photos on the baker's blog.
And, of course, I had to find a Harry Potter cake. After quite a bit of searching, I found this fantastic cake of Hogwarts. Truly breathtaking. And it's made from Rice Krispie treats!
The moral of this post is: you can have your cake and read it too.