Developing a Readerly Identity with Young Children // Part 1 of 2

There's a small poster that hangs in my office depicting a quotation from bestselling author James Patterson. It reads: "There's no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books." I picked up this poster at a conference last year because it resonated so much with my own experience as a developing reader.


Like many others, my schooled experiences with learning-to-read involved reading versions of Basal or Accelerated Readers, small books with a collection of short stories followed by a series of multiple-choice questions. For the most part, these stories were not interesting to me–I never did very well on them–and I felt that I was always behind the rest of class because I was such a slow reader. As a result, I thought I was not a "good reader,"and I was turned me off from reading at an early age. These feelings, combined with being placed in the "B" reading group, made it feel like reading was something I didn't want to do or couldn't do well.


This didn't change as I aged. In middle school, I vividly remember stressing out while reading Number The Stars, wondering what "reading comprehension"questions my teacher might ask me the next day. The same was true in high school: I recall memorizing the name of the ferryboat in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–"The Walter Scott"–knowing that my teacher would ask for it on the quiz. He did! In short, schooling taught me to strongly dislike reading–it was a chore and a means by which I was going to be evaluated.


What was odd, however, was that while I remained disengaged with reading practices in school, I enjoyed reading outside of school. More than anything, I was an avid reader of comic books. My love of these books started at a young age and by accident when, one evening, I noticed a magazine rack of comic books at the grocery store while shopping with my mom. Now, this was a time before superheroes became so prevalent (and cool, I might add), but there was something about an issue of The Uncanny X-Men that made me grab it and ask my mom if we could get it. She obliged without a second thought, something that I recognize now was her acknowledgment that it didn't matter what I was reading as long as I was reading. Everything changed after that. I still have that first comic book; after all, it saved my reading life.  



Not only did these comic books engage me in a thrilling adventure, but they also introduced me to new words. For example, I remember taking a standardized test in 3rd grade and knowing words like "saga" and "previously" because I had come across them in my reading. I even remember being fascinated by the seemingly paradoxical tagline: "The End Begins Here!" on my original Infinity War comic. Seeing this burgeoning interest in me, my mom one day brought home a copy of Jurassic Park for me to read, as I had loved the movie and I had just finished reading Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, a recommendation from my dad. Similarly, even though reading quizzes smeared my enjoyment of The Indian in the Cupboard, I remember relishing in the sequels soon after I had received them on Christmas day, a gift that was, no doubt, the result of Santa's observations of my many adventures with my X-Men action figures.  And that certainly was the difference–there was a feeling of joy and excitement when I read these books outside of school as opposed to those assigned for in-school purposes and read with a highlighter and pen in hand.  


Ideally, we would like the act of reading in school to spark joy as well, but often, the stories we pick and the methods we choose treat reading like a chore for developing readers, rather than something that can be exciting and fulfilling. What can we do to change this—at home or in the early grades? Well, here are three, simple, research-based tips to develop every day (and hopeful lifelong!) readers in your home or classroom. These ideas aren't revolutionary, but they do work!



Tip 1: Choice matters!  

Research has shown over and over again that kids should have a choice in what they read. When they do have a choice, they tend to pick topics and genres that interest them, which makes them more likely to actually read the text.

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At the same time, however, readers–and especially young, developing readers–can not simply be turned loose in finding and selecting a book. If a child has been a reluctant reader or simply has not read very much, then their readerly choices need to be curated and cultivated. Parents and teachers may do well to visit libraries with their children to help find books that seem interesting to them or that have characters that look and act like them. They might even spend some time online looking through a website like Goodreads–which has a search function and can be organized by topic or genre–to help find engaging books. At the end of the day, even if the book they choose is slightly above their reading level, research has also continually shown that readers who have knowledge or deep interest in a topic are more likely to comprehend texts and make inferences from them. This is why reading passages on standardized tests are sometimes controversial–readers who play, watch, and are interested in soccer, for example, are likely to test better on a reading comprehension passage about... you guessed it – soccer!


Tip 1a: Start with what's familiar or good!  


Before moving on, it's worth noting that some kids may be more than reluctant when it comes to picking out and reading books. In fact, they may be completely resistant. If this is the case, start reading aloud with them books with familiar characters or topics. Even if the book is simple, they may be more inclined to read a short story about Paw Patrol, PJ Masks, Doc McStuffins, Peppa Pig, etc. because they know the characters. If that doesn't work, try highly engaging texts with fun storylines. The Magic Tree House series was a favorite in the Macaluso house! The familiar patterns to the books (they don't even need to be read in order) allowed our kids to "read" along with us because they knew what was coming. Eventually, they even knew about Jack and Annie's personalities and could guess what they would do next (if you're wondering: Jack is always apprehensive; Annie is always ready for adventure). Older kids will likely fall to Harry Potter and, even older, to The Hunger Games. Usually reading aloud and talking about these highly engaging books will spur your kids to find more books like them or, better yet, to pick up the next one in the series.



Continue reading Dr. Mac's tips on Part 2  of this blog!


Happy Reading,