How to Nurture Young Readers

Reading books opens a world of knowledge, inspiration, and moral guideposts. But learning to read is hard, and reading seldom offers the immediate and continual dopamine rewards that various sorts of screen time promise. What can parents do to help their children develop the cognitive skills to read as well as a love of reading?

Lindsay Journo and Cornelia Lockitch offer an excellent introduction to the topic in their newly released talk (actually recorded last year), “Nurturing the Reader in Every Child.”

Journo and Lockitch note that reading complex works of both fiction and nonfiction proves enormously rewarding to individuals, and widespread reading contributes to a flourishing culture. Yet many people read less and less as they spend ever more time hooked to their electronic devices. Although screen time can be valuable, Journo and Lockitch note, it can also displace reading.

What can parents do to help nurture the cognitive skills and interests their children need to become strong readers? “Set the right conditions from the very beginning,” Journo and Lockitch suggest.

They offer three main pieces of advice: Make books available to children, make reading a focus of time spent together, and create a language-rich environment. Not only should parents make sure that children see them reading books on their own, parents should actively read with their children from an early age.

On a personal note, my wife has been reading to our child in the evenings since we brought him home from the hospital. That has been a really nice time for them to connect, learn, and share some exciting and thought-provoking stories. We read throughout the day too, of course.

I really like Journo and Lockitch’s advice to tell young children simple stories about everyday events, such as going on an elevator ride and walking into a crowded and chilly room.

Journo and Lockitch see three main impediments to children becoming strong and motivated readers (aside from possible physiological issues): the allure of screens and especially the high but superficial rewards of social media and video games, “ill-considered rewards” for readers that distract from an authentic love of reading, and a failure to recognize a child’s skill level and interests. On this last point, parents should not try to push a child to read a book that is too hard for the child, too thematically advanced, or simply uninteresting to the child.

Journo and Lockitch also offer some specific advice for helping young children learn the skills of reading. Unlike speaking, reading does not come naturally and effortlessly to children, they note. One bit of advice I like is to first introduce children to the sounds, rather than the names, of letters. (My wife and I did both, and in retrospect I see how the focus on the sounds was more valuable.)

Here are three activities that Journo and Lockitch recommend. Do “I spy” games for objects starting with certain letter sounds (“I spy something that starts with ‘mmm'”). Ask (for example), “How many sounds to do you hear in ‘sand’?” Ask, “What word is formed by the sounds p-e-t?”

Journo and Lockitch close with a strong defense of the phonics approach to reading and a spirited critique of the so-called “whole language” approach. Although I have long been convinced of the soundness of the approach that they here review, they convinced me that I need to step up phonics work with my own five-year-old.

To illustrate the issue at hand, consider how many ways there are to spell out the long “ay” sound. As one list of English phonemes shows, each of these twelve words contains the same long “ay” sound: “bay, maid, weigh, straight, pay, foyer, filet, eight, gauge, mate, break, they.” (See also a pdf sheet with phenomes.) Helping a child become consciously aware of the many different ways to spell out the same basic sound is enormously helpful, crucial even.

On a personal note, I remember learning to read with basic phonics instruction from my mom. Once I got some of the basics, I pushed on without complex formal phonics work (but with implicit phonics awareness) and became a voracious reader. But obviously many kids do need some extra help with this, and all kids can benefit from a developed approach.

For older children struggling with reading, Journo and Lockitch say that more intensive intervention may be necessary. They like the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Journo and Lockitch offer a great reading list (via DropBox) for adults (about teaching kids to read) and for children.

Here I have offered but a brief and incomplete overview of this wonderful and enlightening talk by Journo and Lockitch. I heartily recommend the complete talk, including the question period, for parents of emerging readers.

Image: Eugene Kim