Adults pin a lot of hopes on the languid months. We aim to cultivate good reading habits in our children — “for life,” we profess grandly — only to feel the sour disappointment, come September, of a child’s fallow book list.
I can’t have been the only mother frantically hunting down a copy of “The Giver” on Labor Day weekend or wondering why summer’s longer stretch of daylight and (arguably) gentler rhythm had failed to produce the jolly family story hours I’d conjured from my youthful fixation with the Ingalls and Alcott families.
A child’s summer reading program looms over family life — as both reward and threat — often assuming outsize significance while failing to capture what it really takes to make a strong reader. We view summer reading as a time for self-directed learning and as an entree to hidden corners of the imagination. But we’ve made it a source of stress and recrimination, too, exhorting children, with increasing decibels of hectoring, to make up for an academic year’s missed targets or, at the very least, to show proof they haven’t “fallen behind.”
Implicit in these hopes and dreams is a misunderstanding of what it really is like to be a child. If we want to produce lifelong readers, we need to look beyond summer book lists and worries about failure and instead cultivate fertile childhood reading habitats. To do this, we first need to step inside the minds of young children.
One of our most important misunderstandings involves our neglect of oral language as an essential fuel — the essential fuel, according to most experts — for early literacy development. It’s easy to get worked up about when and what exactly our kids can decipher, but if we want our children to be able to crack the letter-sound code with ease; to make causal inferences; to synthesize new knowledge; and to make creative leaps across cognitive domains, we need to cultivate the art of conversation, and we need to give children meaningful things to talk about. The foundation of literacy is playful, exploratory and social experience.
Looking through an adult lens, it’s also easy to miss the sheer labor involved in reading, one of humanity’s most-recent and least-natural parlor tricks. Parents are often surprised to hear that “independent” reading requires at least a 97 percent accuracy level (i.e., being able to correctly read 97 words out of 100). “Instructional” reading occurs in the 94-to-97 percent zone, while frustration sets in as early as the 93 percent level. If these percentages seem high, try opening an unfamiliar book to a random passage in which someone has replaced 10 percent of the words with gibberish; I guarantee you will be hard-pressed to feel the joy of reading.
For the great majority of children, the mechanics of reading — fluency, comprehension, phonics, syntax and the like — require a dancer’s coordination. Many early readers excel at one component but have not figured out how to put all of literacy’s loose parts together. (You’ll recognize this problem if you are the parent of one of those robotic decoders with superb accuracy and no clue what’s going on in the story.) Because English is only roughly phonetic compared with languages such as Italian, English-speaking children will make many more spelling errors in foundational vocabulary words than will their Romance-language counterparts (67 percent of British first-graders vs. 6 percent of Spanish ones, according to one study). If we parents really want to foster natural reading, we can start by keeping our anxious and competitive urges in check and offering stories pitched at genuinely comfortable levels.
Adults also sometimes overlook content that really captivates a young child, opting instead for “message” stories or dazzling illustrations with thin characters and plot. As a preschool teacher, I saw how easily children were drawn to miniaturized humans and their worlds, even outdated ones. Think of “The Borrowers,” “The Littles,” “Stuart Little,” “The Tale of Two Bad Mice,” “Horton Hears a Who!,” “The Minpins,” “Thumbelina,” “The Indian in the Cupboard.” The list goes on and on. “Only in Children’s Literature,” writes Jerry Griswold in “Feeling Like a Kid,” “is littleness so frequent a topic. ”
Part of the appeal of small things comes, of course, from their being out of reach of adult interference. This may explain the near-universal impulse to create private worlds with their own rules that we see expressed in children’s forts and dens and other small construction projects essential to a language-rich childhood.
In addition to smallness and its thematic cousin “snugness” (“Little House in the Big Woods,” “The Wind in the Willows,” “Heidi”), Griswold notes additional recurring literary themes such as scariness (virtually any fairy tale); personification of animals and objects (“Charlotte’s Web,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Little Engine That Could,” “The Gingerbread Boy”); and one of the most enigmatic of childhood feelings: a sense of lightness. This trait, Griswold explains, can include the literal flights of Harry Potter, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Brian Pinkney’s wondrous Sparrowboy or the more figurative levity of, say, a subversive Tom Sawyer or a naughty Peter Rabbit, carefree souls who seem to float out of reach of societal norms. (Many girls fit this bill, too — Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Eloise, Matilda — but we need to see more girls of color in these airier roles and not only serving as moral or historical exemplars.)
Of course, none of these attributes of childhood need be restricted to the imaginary world. Children are equally fascinated by real things that are small, cozy, alive and flying, which may explain the perennial popularity of insect encyclopediae and bug-collecting gear. But we should be more attentive observers of children’s unique ways of thinking and doing and let those dispositions be our guide. Happily, children’s literature does much of the heavy lifting for us. Is there a better illustration of the quotidian magic of childhood than the little hero of “The Snowy Day,” dragging his stick through the snow?
Unfortunately, among the usual culprits that inhibit a pro-reading disposition (too much screen time, not enough outdoor play, yada yada), one of the most pernicious is our adult distrust of this little boy’s stick-dragging, branch-smacking downtime. We need to cultivate more respect for those quiet unplanned moments when children stare at their cosmic ceiling. Think of unstructured time as negative space in a painting, illuminating what is otherwise hard to see. It may be more valuable in the long term than checking off another title on the summer book list.
In short, cultivating a young reader requires two, only superficially contradictory, strategies: We need to engage with our children deeply on their own terms, with loving, respectful conversation about things that genuinely interest them. And we need to get out of children’s way so that they can discover on their own the enchantment that fuels not only a love of reading, but also a love of life.
Erika Christakis is the author of “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups.”