Getting the Reading Habit Early in Life Pays Dividends in Adulthood

Sharon Whitley taught elementary, junior high and high school students for the past 12 years. She is now on a leave to write full-time

The other day as I walked into the San Carlos branch of the public library to do some research for an article, I held the door for a girl of about 4. She carefully grasped a half-dozen children's books. Her mother, right behind her, had another stack of at least 25 in her arms.

"There goes a future good reader," I thought to myself.

It's never too early to introduce children to a lifelong familiarity with books and a habit of reading. Countless tests by reading specialists and educators throughout the years have shown that children who are read to as youngsters generally become good readers; those children tend to score higher on reading tests than children who weren't read to.

The best thing parents can do is read a story to their child for 20 minutes at least three times a week. (Every night is better.) I think before bedtime is best, when the child is relaxed and the bonding special. But at Saturday afternoon nap time, after dinner, or even in lieu of a TV show is good.

Children love to be read to, and hearing the formation of English phrases and sentences helps them in their school work later on. And of course, they learn vocabulary.

When I read "Curious George"--a favorite with many children--to my elementary special-education class, the children immediately asked, "What does 'curious' mean?" We were on our way to a vocabulary lesson, disguised as story-telling time.

I cringe when I see books of "one-minute bedtime stories" around. A leisurely story-telling bedtime is one of the best things for a child; children especially love to hear stories that are made up, with their own name in it. (I fondly recall the hundreds of hours my mother spent doing just that.)

One of the best investments a parent can make for a child 4 and up is a library card--and trips to the library at least twice a month. According to a librarian at the San Carlos library, there is no minimum age requirement to get a card: "All a child has to be able to do is print his or her first and last name in the space on the card." The earlier that children learn an appreciation of and love for books, the better.

Also, the correlation of reading habits at home has a direct bearing on a child's later performance in reading. It's great for children to see their parents reading a newspaper, magazine or book.

When I taught fifth grade several years ago, I surveyed my students: How many of their parents took a daily newspaper? How many subscribed to major magazines (such as Time, Newsweek, Life, People, Reader's Digest)? How many had a set of encyclopedias? How many owned a dictionary? How many had a bookshelf, loaded with books?

Out of 36 students, only five raised their hands to answer any of the questions. And those were the only students in the class who were reading grade-level or above.

This past year when I gave vocabulary assignments to my special-education students at San Diego High, more than half of the students told me, "I don't have a dictionary at home." I would pick up extras at garage sales to distribute or I would check them out one from the class set. (But I think it's a sad commentary on our times that few of the homes were equipped with the basic tools for learning.)

When I gave an assignment to "read a newspaper article and write a half-page summary in your own words," the majority of students would tell me, "We don't take a newspaper."

I would tell them, "A newspaper is a good investment for only a quarter; pick one up on the way home or borrow a neighbor's."

The annual reading scores and writing ability of many students in our nation's classrooms is alarmingly poor. I am dismayed when I see many of these students still obtaining diplomas: The standards definitely have to be raised. I'm amazed at the number of students who do not like to read at all; they barely skip by on class assignments and seldom pick up a book for reading enjoyment.

I've always loved to read and am rarely doing anything without a newspaper (I read two or three a day), magazine (I subscribe to a dozen), or book (I read a couple each week) in my hands. Even at traffic lights I'm looking over something.

I remember as a child reading biographies and growing to love the person in the story. At the end of each book, it never failed--I would be in tears, realizing that the main character I had grown so fond of was no longer living. But the love of biographies (and later autobiographies) that I developed as a child transcended to my work as an adult: I now write profiles of people and human interest articles for local and national newspapers and magazines.

One year--in an attempt to introduce my students to recreational reading--I subscribed (at my own expense) to such magazines as Sports Illustrated, Bon Appetit (for the class cooks), People, Reader's Digest, Newsweek, Time, Ebony, Seventeen, Hot Rod. (My mailman no doubt thought I was the most diversified person on the block.) Every week, I hauled the stack of magazines--and the daily Los Angeles Times--into class. Gradually I could tell that the students were beginning to read them when the Sports section of The Times had disappeared by the second period class.

"How'd the Chargers do last night?" one student would ask.

"It's in the newspaper--read it," I'd casually remark.

And the paper would be gone! But at least they were reading.

I'd copy articles from Newsweek, Time, Reader's Digest or People that I thought would be of interest to the students.

Often during lunch, girls from the math class would pop into the classroom: "Ms. Whitley, do you have that Newsweek article on Michael Jackson that we could read?" (And they were willing to learn 20 vocabulary words from each article, since it helped them understand it better.)

This past year, I asked my students (many of whom read on a first- to fourth-grade level) how many had been read to as children.

Out of my three English classes, with 50 students, I recall only two raising their hands.

Now that a new school year is beginning, perhaps notices can be sent to parents--or a reprint of this article--to tell them that the investment in reading time at home that they make with their child now--the investment that they make in buying books and magazines and newspapers--will pay off later.

As one teaching colleague told me years ago, "An investment in a book is never wasted."

The habits that children develop at home carry into their school work--and later into their life work.

When I saw that small 4-year-old at the San Carlos library happily checking out several more children's books, I knew she was off to a good start: There goes a future good reader, a book lover, a well-informed citizen, our country's posterity.

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