This is the last of five posts I am publishing this week by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, all dedicated to reading and based on his new book, “Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.”  The first post asked and answered the question of whether the Common Core State Standards could be boost reading comprehension. The second post asked and answered if reading comprehension can be taught. The third explained why kids lose interest in reading for pleasure as they get older. The fourth asked and answered whether students should read for pleasure in school.

Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School? and “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog. Willingham started teaching at U-Va., in 1992, when his research focused on the brain basis of learning and memory. But after 2000, his research centered on applying cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He has in recent years written a number of popular posts for this  blog, including, “Left/right brain theory is bunk” and “The 21st Century skill students most lack.

By Daniel Willingham

Earlier this week I noted that attitudes toward reading drop as students get older; reading attitudes are actually at their highest when children first learn to read. Worse, positive attitudes aren’t enough. I have a very positive attitude towards exercise. I believe it brings important health benefits, and I know I feel better when I exercise. Yet I don’t exercise.

That’s true, in part, because I don’t see myself as someone who exercises. Self-image matters. Children must not only have a positive attitude towards reading, they must see themselves as the kind of kid who reads.

Where does our self-image come from? A large measure of it comes from comparison. You see yourself as a reader not just because you do it with some frequency, but because you notice that you do it more than your friends do. After all, you eat lunch every day, but “lunch eater” isn’t part of your self-image. But if you notice (and your friends notice) that you order salad whenever you all go to lunch, that could become part of your self-image. You’re the salad eater in your group.

It sounds like we have a Catch-22. If we want a child to read, she needs to think of herself as a reader. But in order to think of herself as a reader, she needs to notice that she reads more than other kids do.

Fortunately, a child’s self-image is also influenced by his family. Kids understand that their family has values, that these values differ from those of other families, and that membership in the family automatically confers some feeling of ownership of those values.

Naturally, teachers don’t influence family values directly, but it is good to have the mechanism in mind, so that they can help it along should the opportunity arise. So what does it mean to be a reading family?

Reading aloud to children and having a lot of books in the house are obvious influences. What else contributes? We can broaden our appeal by focusing not just on being a reading family, but on being a learning family, one that seeks and exploits opportunities to learn new things. Reading an important part of that, though it’s not the only way that the value is expressed.

How do you show a child that learning is a family value? Social psychologist Geert Hofstede described features that foster institutional cultures; I think these features offer a useful way to think about the cultivation of family values.

What are your family traditions? Traditions reveal to children what we value enough to make sure we repeat again and again. A tradition like “Birthday gifts for family members always include a book” sends a message about the value of reading.

Who do parents view as a hero? Who do we speak of with respect? An athlete? An actor? A public intellectual? A teacher?

What family stories are repeated? Every family has myths, and their status as a myth tells children that something about the story bears repeating. Is it worth retelling because someone got lucky? Got rich? Sought to learn something?

What symbols are in view? There is only so much room on our walls and tabletops to display artwork, family mementos, and the like. These displays can be taken as symbols of what the family considers important. Will a growing child see books in the home? Is the television the focal point of the living room? What’s depicted in the artwork and photographs on the walls?

Although each of the factors I’ve listed may be important, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet for parents to communicate that reading and learning matter. Rather, I suspect it’s a million small things that are woven into daily life that make the difference. It’s trying a restaurant with an unfamiliar cuisine exactly because it’s novel. It’s not only noticing a strange bug on a walk, but snapping its picture and remembering to look it up later. It’s keeping a dictionary handy at home so it’s easy to look up words when a new one is encountered.

In other words, learning is not compartmentalized, it’s not an activity to be indulged, as in an occasional visit to a science museum. It’s something we do in all of our daily activities, because it’s who we are.

Post #1: Do the Common Core Standards boost reading comprehension?

Post #2: Can reading comprehension be taught?

Post #3: Why kids lose interest in reading for pleasure as they get older

Post #4: Should kids get time in school to read for pleasure?