Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.

Reading Minds

In This New Year, Give Them Reading!

How (and why) to give the gift of reading to children

Posted Jan 04, 2016

In our first blog entry, we outlined some of the many cognitive and social benefits of reading. In this New Year, we want to look at four simple ways you can give this gift of reading to the children (and perhaps the adults) around you, whether in your classroom, your community, or your own family.

Give them books! It’s not too late to make a New Year’s resolution to give books as presents this year.

Libraries are great--we spend a lot of time in them ourselves--and a good school library can make a huge difference in children's literate lives (more on this in a later post). But something special seems to happen when children get to actually own books.

Teachers and researchers have long known that children who have lots of books at home usually learn to read more easily and better. In fact, a study based on recent international PISA results found that this effect held true across all 42 participating advanced and developing countries, even after controlling for parents' education and SES. In several recent interview studies, elementary school children have talked about how getting books as presents made them want to read, and this effect is not confined to younger children. In their classic study of the Hooked on Books program, which gave books to incarcerated adolescent boys, Fader and McNeil found out just how much owning books can mean to even these children. Each boy got to choose three regular paperbacks from a bookstore-donated selection; they not only read their books, but carried them everywhere, sneaked them into classes, traded them, stole them from each other, and even took them along when they ran away! 

Giving children books does not have to cost a fortune. 

You can find lots of inexpensive used books in good condition on sites like Amazon, Ebay, and half.com. Many public libraries hold regular sales of books that have been donated or culled from their shelves, again at pretty low prices. Used children's books in good condition can often be found for a dollar or less at garage sales and flea markets. If you are a teacher, you can use some of these same sources, as well as sites like Craigslist and Donors Choose, to get inexpensive books you can give to students as presents or rewards. As a parent, you can encourage your child’s teacher to put up "swap" shelves, where students can initially pick out a book or two for themselves and, when finished, swap them for new ones. This strategy has been shown to increase reading among even disadvantaged, failing students. 

PTA/PTO organizations and business partners can also sponsor "book scholarships," which allow poorer children to buy books at school Book Fairs. This benefits not only the children but also the schools, which typically receive a portion of Book Fair sales as purchase credits for the school library. If you want to get books into the hands of disadvantaged kids in your community, consider contributing to or even working with organizations like First Book, which has distributed over 120 million books to children in poverty since its founding in 1992, or Reach Out and Read, which trains physicians to discuss the importance of reading and provides 6.5 million books a year to hand out to families at well-child visits from birth to age five. 

Give them choices!

It is no use, however, to give kids books they don't want to read, or even worse, books we think they should read. If you are wondering what books to give your children, think about what kind of TV shows and movies they like, and what they like to do. Books about favorite games or sports, or tied into popular TV shows or movies, can be a good choice. Ask your school librarian what are the "hot" books in your children's age groups right now, or check out these lists of kid-recommended books:

- Children's Choices from the Children's Book Council

- Teen Book Awards at Teenreads

- Teen's Top Ten from the American Library Association

- Goodread's Choice Awards for children, middle schoolers and young adults

But one of the best ways to give children the gift of reading is to let them pick out books for themselves. Then you can be sure they will get something they want and will feel comfortable reading. Choosing also empowers people, especially children, who often have so little choice or control over many aspects of their lives. So take them with you to the flea market or the garage sales. Let them browse on Ebay or make a wish list of books on Amazon that you and other relatives can draw from for birthday and Christmas books. If you can afford it, take them to a bookstore and let them pick out a brand new book (perhaps within a certain price limit...) to celebrate the beginning of school or special achievements or events. Even "non-readers" may surprise you at how carefully they winnow through the books, considering this one or that, until they find that "just right" book to take home. 

Next post:  Two more ways to give children the gift of reading....

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