Last week I had a little twitterrant about book logs and similar assignments that extend a teacher’s reach into reading a child does for pleasure on his or her own time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent, but one of the things I’ve got right is raising kids who love to read. I’ve been at it for over a decade now, and my methods have been proven successful, so I really bristle when school reaches in and messes with it. My oldest and only schooled child is in sixth grade. None of his teachers have bothered him with a book log since he began school in second grade; he entered reading voraciously and well beyond grade level. Earlier this spring his teacher went on maternity leave, and the sub decided he needed to fill out a book log. At parent/teacher conferences several weeks ago, I brought it up and got him excused, pointing out that he’s often read the assigned 20 minutes per day before he even gets to school, because he reads on the bus. He also frequently reads entire books in one school day because he finishes his work early and they have nothing else to offer him. Last week, he came home and told me she’d now assigned him to write a weekly summary of a book he read on his own time for fun in place of the book log. This is beyond the reading-related assignments he does for school. She told him she wanted to make sure he understood what he was reading.
He takes standardized tests that measure reading comprehension. He writes summaries and does assignments for books assigned as class reading. I know he understands what he’s reading because I talk to him about what he’s reading. A book log is a tedious exercise in time wasting, and writing a summary of a book you chose to read for pleasure just so school can check a box is odious. Both of these activities attach a chore to reading for fun, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we want to raise kids who like to read.
I’m not just against book logs for established readers. My younger son, who was schooled from K through second grade, was not reading fluently when he began second grade. It hadn’t clicked for him yet, by which I mean he hadn’t crossed that magical bridge when you cease to think about reading and find yourself simply doing it. When his teacher assigned a book log, I explained that we wouldn’t be participating. I knew my child; he has a contrary streak and requires ownership of his learning and doing. I worried that if he got a whiff of an idea that reading was something he should do because school said so, he’d decide it wasn’t for him. Also, writing down everything you read is, as I’ve said, tedious; I’ve tried it. I wanted him to come to reading in his own time, without pressure, and develop into someone with a lifelong love of books. I wanted that much more than I wanted to not be the Difficult Parent.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both teachers with whom I’ve had to discuss book log requirements have said they didn’t like to read as children. Book logs begin with the assumption that kids won’t read unless we force them to and then hold them accountable. I don’t like this assumption. To me, the fact that schools require them as a matter of course demonstrates that schools have given up on the idea that kids will read for fun and they view it as one more thing that needs to be forced down kids’ throats like medicine. That’s not the attitude my kids have towards reading. So, how did we do it?
My husband and I both read, and the kids see us reading. But setting an example isn’t enough. We hope the kids love to read, but having that hope isn’t enough. We have a family culture that values books and reading, and I feel that’s why we’ve successfully passed on our love of reading. Our words and actions are all in line with the idea that we value books and time spent reading. I’ve been taking my kids to the library since they were infants, as much for my sake as for theirs. We remain heavy library users, and librarians at all three branches of the town system we use the most know all my kids by name. I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours of my mother-life I’ve spent reading aloud: it surely must be in the thousands. And not just stories before bed; we have shelves packed with books, and I will read aloud at any time of day. Some days it was all I did, reading entire chapter books to ill little boys. (Those are good memories!) While we ask the kids to save their own money for certain purchases, they know I’m a soft touch when it comes to books. Unless we decide it’s a book they’ll finish quickly and never re-read (in which case, it’s borrowed from the library), I will hand over money for just about any book purchase.
As a result of allowing the kids to learn to read at their own pace without external pressures, valuing reading and books, taking time to read aloud every day and almost whenever asked, providing the kids with books they ask for, talking about what we’re all reading, demonstrating in word and deed that my own reading time is just as important to me—as a result of all of this, I have kids who love to read, who won’t leave the house without a book in hand (and an extra, if they think they might finish the first one en route), who don’t understand why anyone would not want to read. Sometimes my boys and I, or the boys and my husband, will read the same books and discuss them. The boys pass series back and forth. My oldest has subscriptions to two adult science magazines and chooses his library books from all sections of the library: kids, YA, adult, fiction, nonfiction. My almost-10yo will still choose picture books even as he ranges up to the YA section for chapter books. He also loves nonfiction as well as fiction. My daughter can’t wait until she can read, too; she’s already planning to re-read favorite series that we’ve read aloud together. I have never once told any of my kids they had to read at least twenty minutes per evening and then hand me a list to prove they did.
I realize teachers don’t know what happens in every household, but I was and always will be my children’s first teacher. I expect any classroom teachers they have to be my partner in this; information goes back and forth so we can both do our best. If our goal as teachers and parents is to nurture children who love to read and freely choose reading as an enjoyable leisure activity, then when my kid is doing just that, we’ve met our goal. Back off with the book logs and busywork summaries; they’ll just undermine the idea that reading can and should be fun. As for kids who aren’t there yet, introducing the idea that you read because school says so leaves no room for the idea that reading can be intrinsically fun. Rating books by level, telling kids what sorts of books they should be reading, valuing one kind of book over another, requiring a certain number of pages read in a certain time period…none of this creates a culture of reading. It creates a culture of control, and that’s no way to nurture kids who choose to read for fun.
(I never forced my kids to eat vegetables, either, and you know what? They all love them.)