Getting Your Kids to Read (and introducing the Read like a Ninja program)

With summer in full swing, my wife and I have started the battle. It’s a full-on war for our kids’ brains. As teachers, we know that summertime is notorious for more than sunburn and bug bites. Summer’s greatest threat is “summer learning loss,” or the regression in academic skills kids suffer from when they don’t use their brains. On average, kids lose at least a month’s worth of skills, but they can lose much more depending on their grade and skill level. I’ve had high school students lose nearly a half year of reading development in just three months because they were not academically challenged (I wonder what they did all summer?). But the flip side is that kids who are challenged to read during the summer can actually make gains. So getting your kids to read is a big deal, but reading is competing with video games, TV, pools, summer sports, and the wonderful outdoors. Here are a few ideas to keep reading on the summer agenda, including the unveiling of the Read like a Ninja program!

1. Use the library, of course. Check if they have a summer reading program. Our city always has a reading game where kids get to earn free books for reading every day. Plus, the library is a great place to get those ancient artifacts we call books.

2. Develop a routine. Habits save energy because they turn hard things, or boring things, into routines. Have a set time of day for reading, a quiet time when everybody logs off, hits a chair, and reads.

3. Take some time to match interest and ability. Very often a child’s reading ability does not match their interest level.  This is common in younger grades and for kids with special needs. My second grade son wants to read complicated Harry Potter like stories, but his skill level limits him to very simple stories (he’s sick of The Magic Treehouse!). We have to work extra hard to find him the right book, but they’re out there. There are plenty of what reading teachers call low-high books, complicated plots and interesting stories that use simple language. Don’t force your kids to read stuff they hate, or stuff that’s way too hard, because they’ll end up hating reading. Ask teachers, librarians, and other parents for advice. Use comic books or books on CD to supplement. The goal with young kids is to keep them interacting with a text at all cost.

4. Technology Boost. Sometimes you’ve got to meet the kids where they are at. My older son reads well, but he’s discovered video games and that’s all he wants to do. He doesn’t think it’s cool unless it’s on a screen. So we got him a bottom-end Kindle for his birthday (they now only cost 60 bucks), and it worked. The little boost of technology suddenly made reading cool again for him, and he’s gotten excited about books. Plus, the big surprise for me was that our library has an awesome e-book system, so he can check out books from our home computer for free.

5. Read with your kids. Model, model, model. You have to read, too. As an added challenge, get a difficult book, something above your level, and then you can see what it feels like to be a new or struggling reader. I picked up a book on the theoretical physics behind the Big Bang Theory, and it has made me more than sympathetic to some of the struggles of my kids and students. I barely understand every third word.

6. The Read like a Ninja program! Finally, you can make up a family game or competition to get everyone back into reading. I was inspired by my son’s music teacher who had his class do “Recorder Karate” this year. For every song they mastered on the recorder, they got a colored belt like in martial arts. My competitive son loved the system, and I watched in amazement as he used his free time to practice “Old McDonald” on the recorder, just so he could get his next belt. So I decided we would do Read like a Ninja, a summer program where we all keep track of the number of pages we read each day, and we get colored belts and prizes for reading certain amounts (every 100 pages or so). It’s easy and the kids love it. Make a simple chart where the kids can write down how many pages they read each day. Keep a running total. Have a paper or ribbon belt ready to give out when they reach their next level (we attach our belts to a bookmark we keep with our books). Set a realistic goal for a black belt (ours is 1,000 pages to earn black belt), and let the games begin. Tweak the system as you go. We’re giving out belts every 100 pages, though we’ve lowered the total for my middle son who reads much slower. Prizes can be simple things, like dessert for breakfast or a chance to pick the meal for the night. It’s been amazing how much a little competition can get us going. My three-year old is not exactly sure what’s going on, but it’s fun to sit down and read a fifty page book like Go, Dog. Go! with her and mark her chart; then watch my older sons race off to try and beat her.

Whatever you do, get them reading. Recently, economists have experimented with different ways of paying kids to learn. They tried paying for good grades, paying for attendance, paying for better test scores. As you can imagine, kids loved it. But the only system that actually caused true skill gains was when they paid kids to read. I don’t recommend this, but it is worth reflecting on. Reading is a major life skill that needs to be constantly practiced. And it’s not like riding a bike. You can’t take a summer off and just hop back on in the fall at the same level. You’ve got to work out the reading muscle.

So help a teacher and get the kids reading.

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