How Do We Go Beyond Instilling a Love of Reading toward Sustaining It as a Habit for the Lifelong Learner?
by Marc Frucht
“Kids will learn reading skills in school, but often they come to associate reading with work, not pleasure. As a result, they lose their desire to read. And it is that desire—the curiosity and interest—that is the cornerstone to using reading and related skills successfully.”
RIF. Reading Is Fundamental [Getting Your Child…]
Just how can we keep young people so excited about reading that they never want to stop? When I grew up reading was such a central part of my family’s culture that my sister and I were asking to read right from the beginning; but it’s been my observation that many kids feel like reading is such a chore that they come to dislike it from an early age. In fact, I guest teach in many different schools and students everywhere are quite outspoken saying they “dread” and “hate” moments they are told to read something for content. I never felt that way but some of my own friends have. My parents subscribed to both the Hartford Courant and New London Day newspapers as well as half a dozen magazines. It was commonplace to see any of these in their hands around the house; but summers always saw my mom and dad sitting right next to each other in beach chairs reading sections of the papers or People magazine and conversing about it! At five or six years old, I wished to emulate them. As I look back on those times, I recognize that not only did my parents love to read, they had developed their own habits for reading during just about every spare moment they had. They went beyond that too in modeling the same thing for my sister and me.
Let’s explore some “tricks of the trade” for distilling a love of reading into a completely sustainable habit.
In Donalyn Miller’s “Education Week” magazine article entitled, “Five Teaching Tips for Helping Students Become ‘Wild Readers'” Miller lists five characteristics that students need modeled for them. They are dedicated reading time, self-selected reading material, shared books, reading plans and an acquired strong preference for certain genres, authors and topics as the
“It is necessary to model, explicitly teach, and reflect on students’ development of lifelong, avid (or, as I call them, “wild”) reading behaviors to ensure that students remain motivated, engaged readers.” [Donalyn]
She suggests encouraging students to keep a book with them at all times, essentially having it handy everywhere they go, creating customized “preview stacks” of books for each student in the classroom, and also promoting that the children read a book series now and then which establishes its own “schedule” since students will look forward to each next book.
Having words surrounding a young person’s environment can be helpful in sustaining the desire to read no matter what age the reader is. You might discuss everything from street signs to promotional signage for a store. This is a compelling way to keep young people curious. “A child cares a lot more about seeing the word ‘open’ when she knows she can play in the park,” says Sally Moomaw in her book “Get Ready To Read!” [Moomaw,132] With a baby or toddler, you can point to signs such as that park’s ‘Open’ sign, and just tell them what it says. Perhaps ask them what it says the next time he or she sees it. Then as they get older, you could ask some rather engaging questions about signage around them. Maybe ask them why the sign says ‘Open’ rather than ‘welcome’ or ‘come on in.’ While pumping gas, ask questions about the percentage of ethanol mixed with unleaded gasoline. This leads quickly to an inquiry as to just what ethanol is, and why a car needs both ethanol and gasoline instead of 100% ethanol. Let the child guess on their own that maybe 10% is the most flammability that will still work with today’s engines. As soon as you are near the Internet, you could ask him or her to look it up and make even more educated guesses. Without sounding too preachy, try to remind them that they are discovering all these things by reading. They love to read, right? One would hope so.
Moomaw’s book embraces Kindergarten and Pre-K; but some of her tips and suggestions apply to older children too. I have seen the “word wall” concept work just as well for fourth and fifth graders too so it’s not only for the lower elementary grades. The reader will never forget new vocabulary if they see the words right on the walls around them for a few days at a time. For the same reason it might even be helpful in middle school or high school years. I’ve certainly seen the UConn English and International Baccalaureate teachers at Fitch High School keep a column of newly acquired words on the white board for weeks at a time. “Environmental print serves as a wonderful example of using all parts of the environment as potential curriculum content to teach reading and writing.” [Moomaw,63]
Dan Rearick at Preston Veterans elementary school utilizes word walls and book nooks and the other usual fare to keep his 4th graders engaged; but he also does something I haven’t seen in any other schools yet. Years ago, he brought three large trophies in from home that he keeps on a mantle throughout the year. They are three different sizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. His students compete on how many books they have devoured but also on how compelling their short essays are as they review each book. He judges all of that periodically and once a month places three new names on the trophies. When I have subbed in his classes, the kids always ask to read when they completed each task while waiting for their classmates to catch up. None of them need to be assigned SSR (sustained silent reading) time and they need no reminders to look for new books. Their desks are busy with everything from “Captain Underpants” to “Harry Potter” and books of all page counts in between.
On a website called MinimalStudent.com a writer named Jessica Dang published a tip that I simply must include from this paper even though the current wisdom says never cite someone from his or her own personal web page.
“5. Balance and diversify. Almost everyone has a subject/genre that they are really interested in. It doesn’t have to be an ‘academic’ subject either. Whatever it is, choose it and read as many books as you can find about it.” [Dang] She also recommends balancing “depth and breadth” by picking up a random book once in a while from a different genre and reading the first couple pages just to see if that genre interests you as well. She then sums up all her tips saying, “…try not to think of reading as a chore. It’s not homework. It’s not work at all. It expands your horizons, pushes your imagination and can change your life.” [Dang]
Feeding an obsession over a topic or genre sounds like a wonderful way to keep a student reading more and more books. I recall fondly when I was in elementary school that no one ever needed to talk me into reading about soccer, baseball or guitar. These were my personal enthusiastic fascinations and I can tell you the Biography section of every library was my home away from home. I wanted to know so much more about Pele, Carlton Fisk and Jimi Hendrix than any one library or bookstore could tell me, that’s for sure. Occasionally, my mom would have make suggestions such as reading about Arthur Ashe’s tennis career or Albert Schweitzer’s piano playing in an attempt to nudge me just a little bit wider from my obsessions. In addition, my dad was always surprising us by insisting I read “Little Women,” or that my sister had to leave the “Nancy Drew” books for a little while to try just one from my “Hardy Boys” collection no matter how “icky” she assumed they were going to be. I might digress a tiny bit to mention anecdotally that my parents were among the last generation of American homeowners to answer their door for an Encyclopedia salesman and actually follow through by purchasing one alphabet letter each month. On rainy weekends if I told my dad I was bored with all the other possibilities around the house he often picked a random page number and letter name and told me to read a full page and get ready for an informal quiz. I’ll never know how he got me to believe that would be fun. I think I just looked forward to him showing me where I was right and wrong.
Now, a song lyric caught my eye at SongsForTeaching.com while I was researching this paper.
“Make Reading a Habit” by Ben and Elizabeth Stiefel
The very best thing that you can do
If you wanna do great in school, it’s true
Take some time each day
every single, silly, seriously, super n’ spectacular day
To read n’ read n’
Read n’ read n’
Read n’ read some more
The lyrics feel similar to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific,” even before you listen the song’s audio track which they provide right there on their webpage in an embedded music player. An MP3 of the song itself might even serve as a tool teachers could use by playing a snippet before a “book talk” or a read aloud. I might even consider it for the beginning of a daily SSR timeslot since it would serve as its own mini pep-rally of sorts.
When discussing a long-sustained love of reading who can leave out LeVar Burton? Public Television’s “Reading Rainbow” series kept me engaged throughout my entire youth. Burton begins each show with inquiry questions about topics such as the Underground Railroad, or “How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World.” Then he pairs it with an entire book reads to the television audience. It had a 20 year run and trailed off a bit but now there’s a brand new revived series with a modern digital-age app that began less than a year ago. His group is currently working on moving all of the archives from PBS over to their very own webpage at http://www.readingrainbow.com. Reading Rainbow’s success shows that children who dislike reading still love when someone reads to them. Burton’s slogan “you don’t have to take *my* word for it,” will always gently nudge them toward reading things in a book for themselves. Often times the show ends with three or four similar books, the viewer can ask about if they want to teach themselves even more.
In her book, “Elementary Children’s Literature: Infancy through Age 13,” Nancy Anderson lists several specific “benefits children derive from reading and listening to books” as bullet points. I will include a few of them here:
- Developing a favorable attitude toward books as an enrichment to their lives
- Gaining new vocabulary and syntax
- Becoming familiar with story and text structures
- Stimulating and expanding their imaginations
- Stretching attention spans
- Developing an interest in new subjects and hobbies
- Understanding the heritage of their own and other cultures
- Learning new knowledge about nature
- Bringing history to life [Anderson,19]
With these in mind, I would say it is plausible that reading obsessively boosts cognitive abilities and increases self-efficacy. The cliché “…more you know, the more you want to know,” seems apt here.
None of these tips alone will have someone identify as a habitual reader. Nevertheless, with many of these factors in play early in a young person’s life there is a greater chance they too will keep the reading habit forever.
Anderson, N. (2009). Elementary Children’s Literature: Infancy through Age 13 (Third ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Dang, J. (2010, August 1). 5 ways to kick start and feed your reading habit. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.minimalstudent.com/5-ways-to-kick-start-and-feed-your-reading-habit
Donalyn, M. (2014, March 26). Five Teaching Tips for Helping Students Become ‘Wild Readers’ Retrieved May 8, 2015, from
Getting Your Child to Love Reading. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2015, from http://www.rif.org/us/literacy-resources/articles/getting-your-child-to-love-reading.htm
Moomaw, S., & Hieronymus, B. (2006). Get ready to read!: Making child care work for you. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Stiefel, B., & Stiefel, E. (2012). Make Reading a Habit: Song For Teaching About the Importance of Reading. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from