Encouraging Children to Read: Madame Esme's Motivating Secrets
A beloved teacher’s tips on encouraging children to engage with literature
In her best-selling memoir, Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, Esme Raji Codell took us inside her fifth-grade classroom in Chicago's inner city and showed us the hardships, the joys, and the power of literature to change lives. In this peek at her book, How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, Madame Esme (as her students called her) shares motivational ideas and her enthusiasm for read-alouds.
So many of the dreams and the goals we have for children, and that they have for themselves, can be advanced through the use of children's literature. And we have wonderful opportunities, all of us teachers and parents to be proactive in delivering the best books for children. But why is it sometimes so difficult to get children "into" reading? Think about it in terms of motivations. Kids have reasons for reading and these reasons, or motivations, can be milked. When I pick up a children's book, I start scheming: "What could get a child to turn these pages?" I have found that the answer to this question falls under one of three categories: Interest, Integration, and Invention.
The Three "I" s of Reading
Interest-motivated reading is when a child seeks out reading materials for information and/or enjoyment. Anything we do for pleasure can have visceral or emotional effects: smiles, laughter, tears; the feeling of being less alone; the sense that time is flying; the thrill of new ideas and dreams. Anything we do for pleasure is also likely something we will want to repeat in the future. Ideally it is joyful reading, indicative of will and individual taste. It is a lucky child who is allowed to choose his own books without judgment and whose parents and teachers suggest books solely to make the day more pleasant. It is through the freedom of choice that the child becomes self-actualized as a reader and is more likely to read for a lifetime.
Sample role-playing for supporting a child in interest-motivated reading:
"I know you like baseball. Here's a book of Hall-of-famers."
"Here's a flashlight. I've set a special place under the table so you can have a private spot to read."
"Would you keep me company while I sort these papers by reading me a little from this book?"
Integrated reading happens when a child is convinced to use reading as a springboard into other disciplines. Subject-integrated reading is extremely desirable because it affords two very special opportunities. First, it gives educators a chance to incorporate the arts into basic skills: Kids create dance interpretations, dramatizations, songs, and visual art projects based on what they read. The second cool thing integrated reading does is lay out a red carpet for the reading of nonfiction. A child may read a nonfiction book because of interest in the subject, but the outcome (knowing how to play a sport, measuring ingredients for a recipe, wowing friends with a yo-yo skill) may result in experiences that reach far beyond the pleasures and boundaries of the printed page.
Sample role-playing for guiding a child toward integrated reading:
"I'm so glad you enjoyed R.L. Stine's Curse of the Mummy's Tomb; can we learn more about mummies?" (Reading = history, social studies)
"Why do you think the illustrator used these colors on this page? Why is the character so small/big on the page?" (Reading = art).
Invention-motivated reading occurs when the child produces something that integrates disciplines, but is unlikely or impossible to be duplicated by another child. The child departs from a formula, allowing the writing to influence his ideas.
For instance, two children can hear "The Three Bears," be given a recipe, and go home and make very similar porridge. That would be integrated learning. But asked to create a porridge that Papa Bear would enjoy, the children may come up with surprisingly different end products. That's invention. Reading that initiates or inspires invention may also elicit responses that have a very indirect relationship with the book, such as imitating small personal qualities of admired characters.
Reading that motivates initiative may be the most powerful of all. Such reading helps children experiment with and ultimately decide what kind of people they want to be. Invention is by nature something that the child initiates, not you. But if you are doing all you can to support interest and integration, you are encouraging invention.
Sample role-playing for encouraging invention-motivated reading:
"If you were going to write a sequel, what would happen in it?"
"Wouldn't it be fun to put together a puppet show based on one of our books for the younger kids?"
Helping children to read more is the first step to success, so one motivation is not more valid than another. But each in succession represents a heightening level of involvement with books that mirrors steps in child development: the egocentric self-involved interest, to the world-aware integration, to the synthesizing inventive reader who ultimately creates a work of his own. In combination, they create a fourth "I" identity. I am a good reader. I am a lover of books. I have the awesome power of literacy.
Esme Raji Codell is the author of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading (from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill www.workman.com), from which this article was adapted for the May/June 2003 issue of Instructor.