Read aloud to your child every day. If there's one thing you should do to support your child's education, that's the one. Over ten thousand pieces of research compiled by the U.S. Department of Education all come to the same conclusion: the best thing you can do to support your child's academic achievement is to 1) read-aloud consistently, and 2) to do so across the grade levels (that means big kids, too!). For a great how-to guide and life-changing testimonial, please check out The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.
Visit the public library regularly. The school library is terrific (believe me!), but there are limits due to logistics: how many books children may check out, and how much time in the library is instructional, for example. That is why the school library works in cahoots and in happy collaboration with the public library. There is something so wonderful about checking out a big pile of books from the public library, and having as long as you want to pick them out. It is also a chance to discover the wonderful programming the public library offers, make reader friends from other schools, and practice skills that transfer to the school library, such as timely book return, book care and story time etiquette.
Build a home library. A recent research study referenced in The New York Times suggested that "the presence of book-lined shelves in the home — and the intellectual environment those volumes reflect — gives children an enormous advantage in school." Big surprise! It is suggested that 500 volumes is a tipping-point, but Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a library, so don't be discouraged! Start small, and grow based on your child's interests. Garage sales, used book stores and classroom book club orders and a wish-list for birthdays and holidays are options for growing your collection economically. It is very meaningful for children to own books of their own and to see you willing to create a collection, it's a way to cultivate a sense of value towards books.
Turn on the closed-captioning feature of your television set. Naturally, in the 21st Century, most kids watch a lot of TV. But why not do what they do in Scandinavia, where literacy rates are some of the highest in the world? Turn on the closed-captioning, and even time spent viewing will be time spent with exposure to print.
Help children learn to give credit where credit is due. Speaking of the 21st Century, children are exposed to more media than any other time in history. It is a cut-and-paste generation, sharing the things they find on-line at a fast a furious rate. But intellectual property is property, too. Ask children, "where did you find this?" They should always be prepared to answer that question. Encourage your children to always cite sources, either formally or informally.
Get your child a dictionary or thesaurus. Though computers have spell-check and there are many reference books available on-line, there is nothing quite like having a real, analog dictionary and thesaurus on hand when questions arise. Knowing how to look things up alphabetically is a good skill to have across the board, and when we ask children to put what they find into their own words, a thesaurus is worth its weight in gold.
Support good cyber-citizenship. On-line safety and good manners are a top priority as we prepare our children to merge on to the information highway. Put a computer in a high-traffic area in the home, where you can see what is going on. Check "history" regularly on your browser. Become well-versed in basic etiquette, the FBI's signs that your child may be at risk on-line, and acronyms that may signify danger or inappropriate behavior. More common than "stranger danger," though, is trying out behaviors on peers, which may seem safer online. Cue your child regularly not to say anything online that he or she would not say face-to-face, and remind them that whatever they put online stays online forever, even when they are looking for schools or jobs. These are concepts that are underscored regularly in our library and media literacy program and through Carnegie CyberCadets, our favorite intermediate and upper-grade training program. Cyber-bullying can have serious disciplinary consequences at school, even if it is done outside of school hours. Children have been told to report any incidences of cyber-bullying to us in the library or to administration, and you are invited to do the same.
Dig Deeper. Discourage one-step research by using the first result on Google. First isn't always best. Ask children to be critical of what they see, exploring more than one source and asking questions as they search: does this give the most information I need? Who created this information, and are they trustworthy? Why do I think so? Did I understand what I read, or am I just copying the information? If I didn't understand, is there a word I could look up or someone I could ask, to clarify?
Take your child to author and illustrator signings. Show children that there are real people behind the books they enjoy! Autographed copies are treasured additions to home libraries. Meet new favorites by going to events at your local and semi-local booksellers, such as The Book Cellar, Anderson's, The Book Stall, and Women and Children First. There are also often lots of nice appearances at The Harold Washington Library, downtown.
Allow for "down-time." In our over-scheduled world, nothing creates a reader like a little boredom. It takes time for reading to cast its spell. Plan time to read like you would plan any other priority activity. If you can't cut down on all that for which your child has been signed up, send children to bed a little earlier with a book and a flashlight...they'll get both the rest and the reading they need. Also, make sure you have a bookshelf or magazine rack in your (ahem) bathroom. If you'll pardon my saying so, it's a great place for everyone in the family to find a moment to read.
Show that reading is not just for girls, or for kids. You'd be surprised how often I hear that! Children need to see grown-ups of both genders modeling the use of books, newspapers, and magazines.
Relax and respect choice. There are more tests and scores and rubrics and assessments than ever, and as grown-ups, we worry that children are "performing" "on level." These are very useful tools, especially for teachers trying to pinpoint needs of individuals in a large group. But as a parent, don't fret and don't forget, many great Americans read and wrote and communicated well, even before any of our modern testing came along, and that's because they had exposure to print, and experienced books in the context of a wider reading life story. It's okay if your child picks the "wrong" book once in a while, or only looks at the pictures. It's okay for your child to listen to a book on tape, or have someone read aloud, even if that child can read on his or her own. If your child only likes one genre (like mysteries), or is on a steady diet of comic books, or insists on the same series over and over, take a deep breath and know these are all common behaviors of ultimately voracious and lifelong readers (according to research by Trelease, Miller, and Wilhelm, to name a few), readers who will ultimately score well not only on standardized tests, but the tests life has to give us. Celebrate their choices, and all that those choices say about who they are right now. As long as they keep on choosing, reading will become a part of their identities.
Recommended reading for parents:
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight by Jennie Nash
The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma
The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller
How to Get Your Child to Love Reading: For Ravenous and Reluctant Readers Alike by Esme Codell (yours truly)
Links available for informational purposes; books available at your library! Happy reading and thank you for all you do!