One of the earliest routines most parents establish with their children is reading together at bedtime. I started reading to my own daughter before bed while I was still pregnant with her. My husband and I would take turns reading Goodnight Moon out loud, hoping the baby was getting used to the sounds of our voices and already becoming a tiny genius. It’s a tradition we continued throughout her infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool days. Now, at 7 years old, my daughter can basically read without me, and this transition has left me scrambling to figure out what our new reading routine should look like.
The transition from being the “lead” reader to a spectator is a tough one for most parents to navigate. We know that we should be allowing them to read more often and challenging them to keep expanding their vocabularies and comprehension, but what’s the correct ratio of parent-to-kid reading time? What kinds of books should we be bringing home? And, perhaps most importantly to parents, do our kids still need us to be their main storytellers?
The good news, says Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University, is that helping children become independent readers is actually a very gradual change. She shared some important tips and reminders for parents as we make the triumphant transition from being full-time narrators to having young children who know how to read.
1. Don’t stop reading to your children.
Even though children can read independently, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to transition fully to solo reading time. “Children love to have the audience of being able to read aloud. They want to show off to their parents as they become more facile in reading,” says Neuman, “...but for those kids who are transitioning to reading, [usually around] age 7 through age 9, parents need to remember that reading is still not that easy.”
My 7-year-old loves Ada Twist, Rosie Revere and other books by Andrea Beaty, but she still asks what various words mean and needs me to explain certain plot points. Neuman says that allowing children to read short, reading level-appropriate books to you can have huge impacts on their fluency and their ability to read with expression, but it’s still important for them to hear adults reading and to have conversations about books. There’s also the simple fact that listening to a parent read can be more engaging and entertaining. “Many times, new independent readers still want to be read to because their parents can read with much greater speed,” says Neuman.
2. Find new ways to challenge your children.
Children who are beginning to read independently shouldn’t be restricted to only reading books that are easy. “Reading to children and reading more sophisticated books with greater language and more abstract language is still really important,” says Neuman.
One major way that Neuman recommends doing this is by reading chapter books together, which is a strategy that I’ve employed with my daughter. Some nights she will read me a short book, like The Day the Crayons Quit or the Elephant & Piggie books, but on other nights, we’ll read one to two chapters from The Princess in Black series or the Eerie Elementary books. These books are still “easy” as far as chapter books go, but they have more complex words that still challenge her and more detailed plots that provide me with opportunities to ask her questions and start discussions.
3. Make reading time fun.
The goal of parents’ reading efforts should be to help children view reading as an enjoyable activity, not a boring obligation. There can be temptation, especially as children gain more reading independence, to start enforcing specific reading times or pushing them towards certain types of books, but Neuman cautions that parents should avoid putting strict parameters around reading. Instead, let children have a say in what books they’d like to read — research shows kids are more likely to read a book they pick themselves. And, while it’s okay to have a routine, like reading at bedtime, don’t force it. “A five minute great read is better than a 20 minute boring read,” explains Neuman.