Raising a Reader in the Digital Age

Fun Fact: Reading for just six minutes a day reduces stress by 68 percent.

I am particularly fond of this piece of information simply because I have loved reading for as long as I can remember – in fact, my earliest memory is turning the page of a supersized book at nursery when I’m sure I was supposed to be doing something else. Fast-forward a couple of decades and you will still find me quietly flipping through some writing or another…when I know I should be doing something else.

For me, reading remains the quintessential hobby that creates a comforting haven away from the daily grind. As a parent, I have always been quite keen to transfer my own interest and love of books to my children so you can imagine my surprise (and heartbreak!) when my eldest one day exclaimed, “I HATE reading!”

It was completely unexpected. I had followed the classic advice of introducing a variety of literature well before my son could read alone and regularly made time for a bedtime story. Despite this, I knew he’d now rather cozy up with the ipad and shoot at aliens than escape with a book, which brings me nicely to another not-so-fun fact: with all the technological advances recent years have brought, reading for pleasure is on the decline amongst kids and teens.

Let’s face it; entertainment for children is far snazzier these days thanks to the gaming industry.  Competing with apps on the ipad, playing or viewing on the laptop, Xbox, Nintendo – we all have one (or two!) of these gadgets and so the humble paperback is often overlooked.

Why reading still matters

Neil Gaiman, an English author, stated that there is a difference between a reader and someone who can read. I believe that distinction can be made with one who loves literature and derives pleasure from it as opposed to reading out of necessity. So, first and foremost, it is important to think of reading as an enjoyable activity, but that does not mean it is void of practical benefit. Both fiction and non-fiction contribute significantly to a child’s academic and social development.

Increased vocabulary – Books aid our children in exposing them to new language and vocabulary that is generally more sophisticated than what they will hear in a typical day. An increased word bank allows children to express themselves clearly and communicate with confidence.

Greater writing and speaking ability Reading is a sure fire way to become familiar with grammar, spelling and writing styles without actual study, which in turn ensures a good grasp of the English language. Again, this enables children to speak articulately and with eloquence.

Enhanced emotional intelligence – Fiction allows a child to see the world from a different perspective. Following a new character or situation strengthens the capacity to identify what someone else is feeling or thinking. Readers are also proven to exhibit higher levels of empathy and compassion!

Boosts creativity –Reading provides a good workout for mental fitness and stimulates the brain. It develops creativity and sparks the imagination as children begin to visualize what they read, for example the characters and settings being described. Creative thought leads to mental agility and both are essential for cognitive development in children.

You might have found that digital devices have actually made it easier to draw children back into reading, as stories are brought to life with attractive animation, but a recent scientific study has shown that the advantages of reading from an actual book are far greater. These benefits include better focus, concentration and comprehension of what is being read. And that’s why I’m making the case to put the kindles and e-books away and get those books back out!

How to encourage reading for pleasure

DO Limit screen time – Pulling children away from electronics is hard and a constant battle, I know firsthand. And I know this may not necessarily mean kids will head straight for the books, but the longer they spend on these gadgets, the less time they have for anything else – including reading. Try setting aside a time or whole day that is device-free so they have time to enjoy something else. They will learn TV and computers are not the only source of entertainment, nor are they the only place they can enter a new world. Kids might opt to play outside or lounge, but on occasion they might decide to set up a tent with their blankets and pillows and read!  

DON’T nag – Constantly pushing your child to read when they don’t want to might just put them off reading altogether so tread carefully! Remember, it’s supposed to be a joyful experience and not something forced. If you don’t have a set time for reading, suggest it as an activity when you think they’ll be more receptive to the idea. Praise them when they do pick up a book and read even if it’s only for 10 minutes.

DO let your child choose what they want to read – It’s easy to want to fill the shelves with our own childhood favorites, but allowing a child to pick their own book will probably result in them actually finishing it. The more they enjoy it, the more they will do it. They might just surprise you with their choice and reveal a new interest! Provide a varied selection of literature at home and, if you’re blessed to have one near you, take regular trips to the library to find age-appropriate books. Suggest titles but let them decide if they want to give it a go or not.

TIP: Older children might like to set themselves a “Reading challenge.” There are a number of challenges available to print online where kids choose their own titles to fit a genre or you could design one yourself. The point is to make reading fun!

DON’T discourage reading the same book again and again. – This is probably more common with younger readers. It can be tiresome for you if you’re reading aloud, but kids love familiarity and pointing out words they know.

DO model reading, read aloud and escape together – A common mistake is to stop reading aloud to children once they can read independently, but all kids enjoy being read to so continue even when they reach that stage. Not only is this a great bonding opportunity, but it makes the reading experience a lot more exciting! Bear in mind that if a reluctant reader is not exposed to anyone reading at home, it is far more difficult to convey the concept of reading for pleasure. Enthusiasm is contagious – when children see how passionate you are about reading, it slowly begins to instill a love of books in them and will motivate a child to read alone. Take a special ‘time out’ from routine and introduce reading as an opportunity to escape together.

DON’T turn every book into an assessment – OK. I’m guilty of this one and I’m sure a lot of homeschooling parents in particular are too: Your child’s just finished putting down a book and you’re ready to pounce on them with a list of questions to test their literacy skills. By all means, show interest in what they’re reading but don’t turn their recreation into a learning point. Critical reading and scanning texts for information purposes is a skill and reading for pleasure is a great way to practice and develop it. Leave them be.

DO subscribe to a magazine – Yes, magazines are books too and a great additional resource to have. And who doesn’t like receiving something in the post? With a diverse range of topics to choose from, such as sports, arts and crafts, science and even Islam for kids, this is a really fun way for children to read and engage with their own unique interests. Magazines are colorful and jam-packed with information, easy to dip into and give the children something to look forward to.

DON’T use reading as an incentive to get back on a device – This is a sticky one. I’ve had to stop myself doing this as I realized it made reading come across as a chore and secondary to digital entertainment, rather than a way to unwind and relax. I much prefer when it’s done with no strings attached and because children want to read from their own desire. I recently read some sage advice that the best reward for reading was more books and more time to read them.

DO buy books as presents – Even the most averse reader can’t resist the allure of the displays at a bookshop. Go ahead and buy books of their choosing as a treat and encourage your child to buy books as gifts for others to highlight their value and worth. We often buy gadgets and treat them like prized items, do the same with books!

DON’T give up! I sincerely believe all children can acquire a love of reading whether they are simply reluctant or genuinely struggle to read. When my son told me he hated it, I promptly quoted J.K Rowling, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” And that’s all there is to it. Keep trying.

Reading is crucial and an invaluable part of your child’s life. It can be used as a source of comfort, a way to relax, and a means to introduce a world of new experiences and imagination. Establishing a love of books and reading for pleasure corresponds with a love of learning and a passion for knowledge. Despite the introduction of high-tech entertainment, there can and should always be room for a good old book.

(originally featured in Fitra Journal)

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