Building Lifelong Readers

“Excuse me, will you help me find a book?”

When I worked as a children’s librarian, there was no greater joy than having a child come up and ask for help selecting a book. That was when I got to exercise my readers advisory skills and dive deeper into understanding what makes a book click for a reader.

More often than not, what I would hear was, “My teacher wants me to choose a book at this level.” Then I would pull out the binder that listed the school’s reading lists with point values and the child would brush my questions away only wanting to know which book in her level she could read for the most points and the fewest pages.

Not a scenario library dreams are made of.

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In the article Thinking Outside the Bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers by Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal, August 1, 2017, Parrott discusses what the purpose of leveling books was for in schools and how that was not the intention for libraries.

The key is more choice, not less, Carter believes. “Let them take out a lot of books so that somewhere in that pile they find something that satisfies them,” she says. “But we have to keep that process going….When they come into the library the next time, talk about their choices: what worked; what didn’t. They have to learn their own processes for selecting books, and if we keep narrowing the choices by artificial constraints, we aren’t giving them that chance.

Betty Carter, professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, noted in a July 2000 SLJ article

A libraries goal is to build lifelong readers and help each developing reader discover their reading identity. (Parrott, 44) The leveled reading often discourages readers or makes them feel inadequate and reading becomes another school chore instead of a gateway to a larger world.

The acronym Bookmatch, guides young readers to choose their own appropriate reading material. And this is a great place for librarians to help out.

  • Book length
  • Ordinary language
  • Knowledge prior to book
  • Manageable text
  • Appeal to genre
  • Topic appropriateness
  • Connection
  • High interest

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There are debates about leveling books in the education field, but at home and in the library our focus should be on building a love of reading and in order to meet that goal we have to follow the lead of our children.

What can parents do?

  • Go browse library shelves with your child. Have them pick up books that appeal to them, either through the cover or description.
  • Ask them why they picked up that particular book. Did it remind them of another book they read? Did it look funny? Questions help us better understand what connected our child to the book in the first place.
  • Do not judge. Okay, we are all probably guilty of this. We want them to experience our favorite books from our childhood. Who wouldn’t love The BFG or Bridge to Terabithia or The Phantom Tollbooth? They might be classics, but they also were written for a time very different from the world our children are growing up in. Bite your tongue when they look at the Boxcar Children, and say it looks old-timey. They aren’t reading for us, they are reading for themselves.
  • Librarians are in the library for a reason. If your child really isn’t able to find a book to his liking, do not be afraid to ask for help. The librarian will offer some suggestions based on the books the child has enjoyed in the past.

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Too often these days, reading and literacy have been reduced to achievement statistics. That may be fine for improving test scores, but it has a negative impact on a child’s enjoyment of reading. Yes, we need to provide opportunities to challenge our kids, and at the same time, if we focus on their needs, the achievement often happens on its own.

If you have a reluctant reader

  • Try audiobooks. One of the funniest books my family has listened to is Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians. This book demands to be listened to. The narrator is fantastic and the whole family will sit and listen together.
  • Graphic Novels are a must. Graphic novels are not hurting your child’s reading life. In fact, many kids begin with graphic novels and advance to chapter books. And if they don’t, no worries because graphic novels are still reading!
  • Magazines, Guiness Book of World Records, and more. Reading is reading is reading. Is anyone judging you for reading the latest Stephanie Plum? Well, if they are, you don’t need to hang around them 🙂 Like graphic novels, magazines and list books are easier for kids to digest because the text is broken up, there is more white space and instead of looking at all those tiny letters scrunched together on the page, there is breathing room in the text.

We all want the best for our kids

Deep reading will come if we build a trusting relationship between kids and books. That relationship starts young, when they are still babies and continues on, hopefully through the rest of their lives. If we take the focus off of results and academic achievement, I believe we would have way more readers. Our job as parents, caregivers, and child reading advocates is to guide our children into the wonderful world of reading and then set them free.

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