by Felix Cheong
“YOU can punish me anyway you want, but don’t take away my books!” cried my son, then nine-turning-14 and testing the limits of my patience.
This incident happened more than a decade ago. For the life of me, I can’t recall why he was being punished. All I can remember, with some amusement, was his teary response. And I knew, there and then, I had brought up a reader. (Cunningly, he got around the embargo by visiting the library.)
We know reading matters, of course. But how do you nurture a reader? How do you encourage a child to love reading as a pastime, an end in itself and not merely a means to pass exams? There are no hard and fast rules – and certainly no shortcuts – but here are eight takeaways from my own experience as a parent:
1. Be a reader yourself
Lead, or in this case, read by example. Your child has to see that you and your spouse are book lovers. Read the papers at the dining table. Read a novel in bed before lights out. Read cereal boxes aloud. Read.
Why? Because what children see, children do. Literacy is not just the ability to read but also the capacity, the appetite, for reading.
Surround your child with books. Move the furniture around so there’s always reading material within sneezing distance.
2. Start early, start simple
Like preparing for the next General Elections, it’s never too late to start early. Get your child used to the written word, the sound of words, the pleasure in reading to each other and to yourself.
I started reading to my son when he was still in his mommy’s tummy! Talk about kiasu. By the time he was out and about, a small bundle of tears, I had already amassed a small library of saliva-resistant books – from touchy-feely books (they come with textured surfaces like feather and rubber), to simple ABC and counting books.
Begin with such simple fare – when he’s probably around nine months old – then step up to easy-peasy narratives with big, colourful illustrations.
3. Set a routine
Children, like the civil service, love routines. So set aside a time every evening, say an hour before bedtime, for reading. It helps calm your child down, let the sugar in his blood run its course. Read the same book every night till he can repeat the lines like the National Pledge. Then move on to the next book. Repeat.
4. Act it out
It will not do to simply read the lines mechanically, like Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee at the 2011 General Elections.
Act out the story, with gestures and voice. Make it come alive, the way old-fashioned storytellers used to do it. For a story is not just words but a piece of imagination with characters and moving parts.
5. Follow his lead
As he grows and gets a handle on the world, your child will develop his own quirks and interests. So the books you buy/beg/borrow/steal have to move in tandem.
For example, my son (he’s 21 now) went through a phase when he was into dumper trucks and all manner of construction vehicles. So I bought books like Bob the Builder, sticker books and even jigsaw puzzles with this theme.
Learn from him as much he learns from you.
6. Offer a mixed palate
Conversely, you should also offer your child books of various genres. As his vocabulary picks up and he’s able to grapple with longer and more complex stories (usually about three to four years old), start reading him books with more text and fewer pictures.
For instance, I introduced my son to Roald Dahl’s classic, James and the Giant Peach, when he was about four. First, through an abridged version, which was based on the animated film; then the film itself and finally, once he was familiar with the plot, the original novel.
In fact, I remember we even had several conversations about how the various versions were different from the original book. It was a good way to teach him compare-contrast skills (which he put to good use in scoring an A for his ‘A’ Levels Literature).
7. Guide him in reading it himself
The toughest part of the journey, the hump which will probably take longest to get over, is teaching your child to read. Being able to recognise the alphabet is one thing. Most children should be able to do this by the time they’re one to two. But the higher-level skill is to be able to connect the letters, in a gazillion number of ways, to form words.
I taught my son to read, when he was about four, by making up sentences with similar phonemes and writing them on cards. For instance, “The fat cat sat on a mat”. This, I repeated night after night, after our usual bedtime reading.
And, just to check he wasn’t merely reciting from memory, I varied the sentence on a separate card, “The cat on the mat sat fat”.
He struggled for a while but eventually, got the hang of it. This was my cue to raise the stakes and I tried other phonemes. Within a year, he was reading on his own (but still wanted me to read to him as part of his bedtime routine).
8. Reward him
To encourage him to keep reading, I applied the G’s method of piling on incentives. Each time my son successfully “mastered” a card (and the sentences became longer, with more variations, like a Dr Seuss story), he would be rewarded with a stamp on a homemade loyalty card. Ten stamps, and he would be rewarded with a Star Wars Lego set of his choice (but only within $20). Or he could accumulate more stars in exchange for a more expensive Lego set (30 stamps for $50).
In this way, he eventually picked up reading on his own. He’s not looked back since.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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