The love of reading is one of the greatest gifts an adult can give to a child. Pragmatically, reading proficiently helps with school work. But it also widens children’s horizons. It can help readers to understand their own world better, and to explore other worlds.
Parents often see reading as “school business” – something that teachers are responsible for. But there’s a lot of research that shows the value of reading at home and in the community. Children who read at home with parents or caregivers have an educational advantage that lasts their whole lives. In fact, reading to children helps them develop the language and literacy skills they need to begin formal literacy instruction.
Parents, as their children’s first and most important teachers, can make reading fun and inspire a lifelong love of reading. If parents themselves cannot read, others such as older siblings, friends and relatives can play this role.
Here, based on our own research studies about reading and drawing from the work being done by organisations dedicated to literacy, are some ideas to get kids reading for fun.
Reading as play
Children can have fun with reading even before they can read themselves. Reading feeds their fertile imaginations and they do the rest. In one of our research studies, pre-schooler Shafeek* spontaneously dressed up and acted out a story that his mother had read to him. Ashwariya* played “school” by “reading” a story to her toys. Again, she could not yet read but used the pictures and her memory for her game.
These examples show that reading can be made fun by linking it to play – through acting out, drawing pictures, dressing up, creating objects, or many other creative activities. Sometimes children do this on their own. But parents and teachers can also provide guided play activities.
Reading routines are important at home. This could take the form of “bedtime story”, reading prayers or verses from a sacred book, or regular weekend reading. Young children often love to hear the same story again and again. This is important for their emergent literacy as they learn how stories work, and how to “read” backwards and forwards.
Children enjoy singing songs and rhymes and this is a fun activity for reading development too. These allow children to play with words and sounds which is the first step in developing their phonological awareness, an integral skill to develop for reading.
Children can have fun by joining in family reading activities. This could mean looking at advertisements and, even if they cannot yet read, identifying pictures of items. It could mean turning the pages of newspapers or magazines for a parent and learning how to hold a book the right way up. Family photo albums are also great for learning to “read” pictures and hear family stories. Children learn to respect and handle books by seeing their caregivers do so.
Above all, caregivers should read to their children as an activity that’s designed to make meaning with a focus on understanding.
One of the weaknesses of teaching reading at South African schools, for instance, is that it often does not focus on comprehension. Parents can make reading meaningful getting children to preview a text (look at the title, cover and pictures before they read) and guess what it will be about.
They can also ask questions as they read (“Why did she/he do that? Do you think it was the right thing? What do you think will happen next?”), link the story to children’s lives and experiences, and get them to make up their own endings.
Some older children enjoy keeping a “reading diary” of books they have read with their impressions. Reading can also be a prompt for writing their own stories. Creating and writing for a school newspaper or magazine can be great fun and can be adapted to suit the technology available in the school.
Reading their own texts
Reading is difficult but it can be made more accessible if children are presented with opportunities to develop their own texts to read. An example of this could be to write a story with the child and have them read it themselves. Such a text would consist of vocabulary familiar to the child and it would scaffold comprehension of reading. If children are involved in developing their own texts for reading, it becomes a personal and authentic experience based on their own interests and needs. Producing their own texts also gives children a sense of ownership that helps them to take responsibility for the process.
Finding the right stuff
While there is no shortage of children’s books in English, finding suitable reading material in African languages and about African contexts can be a problem.
Many public libraries stock such books. Nalibali has a great range of stories in South African languages. The Family Literacy Project has developed many wonderful ideas for developing reading, including box libraries, reading clubs and Umzali Nengane (Parent and Child) journals.
Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, talked about “reading the word in order to read the world”. He showed how reading critically and creatively can help people change their lives and create a better world. Something so important should not be left to teachers alone.
*Not their real names.