Attention Middle-School Parents: We Still Have to Push Reading

by Denise Granniss

There are many things we parents know we should be doing for our children’s well-being and success in life – some more easily said than done (six servings of fruit and vegetables?). One of those is reading. We know how important it is to develop reading skills, and it’s likely that when our children were tiny we read to them dutifully each night (even in utero!). But as the parent of a middle school boy, I can state with certainty that it was much easier reading Good Night Moon to him when he was two or Where the Wild Things Are at five than it is to promote reading now that he is twelve. As a high school English teacher, I know how critically important it is for him to develop strong independent reading habits now at this age. As an Advanced Placement teacher, I see an incredible correlation between strong reading skills and academic success. And it is clear that the kids who read independently, outside of school assignments, have the most success.

Stephen Krashen, one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field of language acquisition, has shown that the more students read outside of their assigned texts, the better readers they are. They are also better writers and spellers. They have larger vocabularies, and are able to use more complex grammar (Krashen, 2009). I would add that they also have more background knowledge, which is essential for success in every subject in school.

As students reach middle school, they experience a new world of competing interests, from friends to extra curricular activities to video games. As a result, they become less interested in reading. Adding to the problem is that parents who once emphasized reading at home tend not to continue that effort past the middle elementary grades.

As parents, we must continue to push reading with our older children. Luckily, many of the old chestnuts that you relied upon when your child was younger still apply. Here are some tips, specifically updated for the middle school set:

1. A print–rich environment encourages “snack reading.” Flood your home with reading materials! Make books and magazines richly available in the home; engage in book swaps with friends; take trips to the library and to the bookstore (used and new). Give gift cards to Kindle, Amazon and Audible.

Don’t limit to reading at bedtime! Now that your children are older, consider how to bathe them in reading throughout the day. I know that you read the material on the back of cereal boxes. Your kids will, too! Leave magazines and joke books in the back of the car. Leave materials on the breakfast or dinner table. Stuff a book into their backpack and a funny article into their lunchbox. Practice going beyond all the bounds of good taste! Leave a copy of 100 Most Disgusting Things on the Planet in the bathroom. The Guinness Book of World Records is also a huge hit.

2. Don’t worry about the quality. The goal is to read – period. And if you are trying to create an independent reader, it is helpful to let your child choose what to read. Let the English teacher assign the classical literature. This is not to say you shouldn’t try to interest your daughter in Little Women or your son to The Hobbit! But if that stops the reading in the home, then it may be a mistake.

In The Literacy Crisis (1998), Jeff McQuillan found that, “there is now considerable evidence that the amount and quality of student’s access to reading materials is substantively related to the amount of reading they engage in, which in turn is the most important determinant of reading achievement.” So the quantity of reading matters and the more reading you can encourage at home, the better.

3. Appeal to your child’s interests. Komodo dragons? Horse stories? Make-up application? Greek myths? Go to the library and show her the section where she can find those books. Introduce him to that amazing resource called the librarian. Our librarian ordered extra books from inter-library loan on a topic that my son liked!

4.Try non-fiction. As boys approach middle school, many begin to prefer non-fiction and technical writing. However, they’re still being offered a diet almost exclusively consisting of fiction. This may be one reason why reading begins to drop off in the middle school years – at least for many boys. If you’ve seen the way my son can go through a series of LEGO manuals, you understand. If your boy falls into this category, you might consider the architecture books of David Maculay, Myth Busters science project books and How Things Work. Of course, nonfiction is good for girls too. If your girl is interested in “girly” things, try biographies of her favorite people. There are some clever “How to” books out there, like Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, by Danica McKellar, which combines relationship advice with math. If you worry that these titles might confirm gender stereotypes, there are plenty of options that will match your interests and values.

5. Model, read along and talk about reading. It’s the rare middleschooler who wants Mom or Dad to read aloud. But you can still talk together about the books and magazines your child is reading, particularly if you are reading them too. A mother of one of my students asks for second copies of the texts we read in class so that she can read the book, too. Helicoptering? I don’t think so. Her daughter is on track to be the valedictorian. If you aren’t reading the same texts (and I am not reading the 100 Disgusting Things…), then model your own reading in front of your child. Talking about what you read not only shows that you value reading, it shows kids that “this is what we do”. It creates a culture of literacy in the home that is as important as the flood of books.

6. Set time parameters. In many modern households, time is as precious as money. Our children know that something is important when we set aside time for it. For middle schoolers, reading for 30 minutes a day is a common axiom. Extend this if it’s right for you and your family. For my son, those 30 minutes happen from 6:30-7:00 a.m. as his way to start the day. For my younger daughter, it’s right after school before we start homework. While some people charge that forcing kids to read a set amount of time reduces enjoyment, I am afraid the reading might not happen otherwise. But more important, as children get into the habit of reading, they become more proficient readers and can even learn to enjoy reading! We tend to enjoy what we do well. But it’s sometimes hard to get into the routines that will help us develop the skills that will make reading (and other activities) enjoyable.

7. Our rocky relationship with rewards. Rewards are a tricky business.We love to think reading should be its own reward. We don’t want to equate reading with chores on a sticker chart. If your child is already engaged in some reading, I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting a rewards system. If your child is not a reader, simply putting into effect the ideas I’ve discussed can go a long way. Simply setting aside time where the entire family reads can go a long way towards establishing a culture of reading in your home. However, if you are struggling with a truly reluctant reader, you might have to push engagement. Is praise enough? Could the reward be a trip to the bookstore to buy a new book?

There are some parents who have middle school children who devour books and read for hours on their own every day. I am delighted for those parents. For the rest of us, we must find other ways to make the effort. We must find the ways to make reading a priority in our homes and encourage our kids to be strong, independent readers. It is the way to make them successful in school and one of many ways to make them successful in life.