Raising an Advanced Reader

My oldest has been reading since she was 4 years old.

It was one of those things that happened like a switch.

Which was very odd to me, since most of my experiences raising my oldest were a struggle up until that point — *nothing* happened like a switch. Potty training, weaning off a pacifier, travelling, eating veggies, blah blah blah, need I go on? I’d hear about potty training or weaning just happening one day, like a switch. And I’d just stare at those moms with envy, convinced they were full of bullshit… What’s this switch you speak of? 

When we first realized Natalie was reading, it was sporadic street signs in the car. We figured she was simply reading sight-words. Like her passion for art & space I wrote about recently, my daughter has found reading to be something that comes very easy to her. It developed very quickly, and once we witnessed her reading full Dr Seuss books & beyond without struggle, we knew we had a reader on her hands. Natalie’s Kindergarten teachers were thrilled Natalie could read to her peers, but Natalie wasn’t always willing to do so. She seemed to enjoy the solidarity reading provides and quickly learned how to read to herself, which, honestly, probably pissed some of her friends off. 

Now in 1st Grade, Natalie is reading at around a 7th grade level. She read Charlotte’s Web & The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe in a week, respectively. I’m thinking a Harry Potter book might be a fun challenge for her to read on our upcoming plane-ride to Florida. It’s pretty incredible. If there was a gifted program at the school we’re sending her to, she would be in it. Since that isn’t an option right now, Natalie’s teacher has been challenging her with special books & assignments to enrich her comprehension skills.

So how did we do it? How did we turn into these awesome parents that raised such a kick-ass reader? I wish I could say we are avid readers and she just absorbed our incredible reading skills. But, no. I’m a speed-reader and if I don’t enjoy a book within the first chapter or two, I bail. The hubs is a very slow reader — he loves books, but just doesn’t have the time to read them. My dad on the other hand? He’s a reader. Always seems to have a book or 5 going. My daughters don’t see their Grandpa reading though. It could be in their genes of course. However, I do believe a few subtle things we did since Natalie was born could help you raise a future reader.

  • Read to your baby. Read to your child. 
    Yes, this seems to be common knowledge these days. Reading to your child daily is what every pediatrician, teacher, librarian, mother, etc will tell you is the most important thing you can do. Every night before bed, we would read a book to Natalie for the first few years of her life… basically until she could read on her own. 
  • Have a variety of books available, and in reach for your child.
    Nothing against libraries, but hit up sales and invest in books of various levels & topics, encourage friends & families to purchase a book whenever they give your children gifts. Then, have a bookshelf available in the room you hang out in the most. In our house — it’s our family room. We don’t have a ton of toys in our family room, but we have had an art table and a bookshelf full of books since Natalie was a baby. As soon as she could walk, the bookshelf was her go-to play spot. Whether she would just pull off all the books (and believe me, she did) or open each book one by one, or annoyingly throw random books at us to read to her… the availability of books helped nurture her love of reading. 
  • Use closed-captioning on your TVs.
    Let’s face it, kids love TV — and will usually choose TV over reading if given a choice. I fought getting a DVD player in the car, but when travelling became a ginormous bitch, the DVD became our savior. You know what else was our savior? Turning on the closed-captioning. My kds are watching their annoying shows, but guess what? They are reading! Voila! Guilt-be-dammed! 
  • Reward your children with books instead of toys & candy.
    When I go shopping, and we aren’t scraping bottom in our bank account, I usually treat myself with something unnecessary. A treat — like a fun scarf or a cute pair of sunglasses, sometimes a good cheese or a yummy beer or wine I don’t normally splurge on. My kids have gotten into this as well. I know it’s not the healthiest thing for the budget, but I do try to keep the “special thing” under $10. Ya know what works really well? Books instead of candy or a stupid toy they’ll forget about in 24 hours. I wish I was more consistant with this, especially with my 2nd child.
  • If your child enjoys movies, encourage them to read the book first.
    Natalie recently read about the Titanic in a Magic Tree House book. She was way into it. (see what I mean about variety?!) How old was I when the movie Titanic came out? 19. Yup. I was one of those girls who saw the movie in the theater multiple times… which amazed my daughter. I’m looking forward to sharing that movie with her. She’s more excited about seeing the footage of the sunken ship. Yup. My kid’s a nerd. I love it.
  • Take your children to the library.
    Sometimes my kids just like to go to the library to play, but that’s ok. They are surrounded by books, they are being active, and they are out of the house. Chances are, at some point, they will see a book that makes them smile, and they will want to read it. 
  • Talk to your children about the books they are reading.
    If your child is reading on their own, try to familiarize yourself with the book and ask questions about the book to be sure they are actually comprehending it. I worried about some of the big words that she may not understand, and then gloss over… but Natalie has surprised me at how well she is absorbing the somewhat challenging books she is reading. 
  • Allow your advanced reader to read in bed.
    Once Natalie started to read on her own, we started tucking her into bed with a book-light, allowing her to read, on her own, as much as she’d like, until she’s ready to sleep. This gives her quiet time alone in her room, and the freedom to read at her own pace. This also teaches her a little about trust. I can see if her light is still on in her room, even with her door closed, but 99% of the time, her lights are out about 20-30 min after we say goodnight. 

Unlike art & space-themed projects, reading is a gift that needs to be constantly nurtured & challenged, without being pushed too hard or causing boredom. It’s a fine line. There are so many books available for kids, so having a variety of levels & topics available will make a difference. Go at your child’s pace, but providing plenty of subtle learning opportunities will help them excel!

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  1. Posted February 16, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Great suggestions, Kelli. One of my all-time favorite tips came from Judy Blume in an interview she did a few months ago. She said to leave books here and there, and when kids ask about one, say something like, “Oh, that’s a great book but I’m not sure you’re ready for it yet.” They’ll be like, “Wanna bet?”

    • Posted February 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I LOVE that advice, Rhonda!! Judy Blume = genius.

  2. Posted February 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    As your “teacher sister in law” I say KUDOS to YOU BOTH for nurturing Natalie’s love for reading! All of your points are spot on. It is not rocket science and kids (usually) pick up on the whole reading thing very nicely when exposed to books from a very young age. Reminds me of Alix… 🙂

    • Posted February 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, sister! You did play a role in getting our home-library started with Alix’s old bookshelf!! We *still* have it filled to the brim with books that both girls still attack daily. It’s been a great addition to our home… and definitely helped spark Natalie’s love of reading. The small table & chairs you also gave us resides in our family room as well — the girls still use it daily for snacks & art. Been two of our favorite hand-me-down-treasures!

  3. Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    How awesome! I actually skipped first grade because I could already read everything we were learning. Well, that’s how I remember it anyway – one day I had to stay in from recess and read to the teacher from all the 2nd grade books, and that was it. I’m sure there was more involved, but that’s how my 1st grade mind recalls it. 🙂 We have a whole bookshelf in D’s room that she loves to empty, then she’ll waddle up to you carrying a book and want you to read it to her. I always oblige, so hopefully she’ll be breezing through books like Natalie someday too!

    • Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      That’s fantastic, Jocelyn! I actually inquired about Natalie skipping a grade, but her teacher advised us against that, because it would affect her socially. Something we really struggled with for a long time. Natalie’s class is a really great group of kids — very sweet, and all of them are very bright and get along amazingly. We feel lucky that Natalie’s teacher is giving her extra challenges. Love it when a decision is validated, especially when it comes to schooling. The toughest decision we’ve had to make is where our kids will be educated.

      Good for you for always reading when your daughter tosses a book your way. it’s not always easy to do, but in the long-run, it really does make a difference!

  4. Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    My son was the same as your daughter, one day I just realized he was reading. I was like, “When did that happen?” We read to him from the time he was a baby. Now that he’s a teen I wouldn’t say he reads for enjoyment so much anymore, but he can read required books much faster than his peers, and he comprehends and retains what he reads. I love to read, and I attribute that to my mother always having books around. Growing up I thought everyone had huge bookcases full of books. 🙂

    • Posted February 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      It’s amazing how just having books available can make a difference. My folks didn’t purchase a ton of books, but we went to the library at least once/week.

  5. Posted February 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the list! We will certainly keep these in mind as Jasper grows. What do you think about e-readers or tablets? Do you think the change in medium would have changed anything for your girls?

    • Posted February 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Valerie! Good question… I don’t know if the change in medium would’ve drastically impacted Natalie’s love of reading. We don’t own a tablet or e-reader yet. She loves playing on our iPhones though, so you never know. St Paul — the school we send our kids to — is investing in iPads for every classroom. If they get enough support, they could eventually replace books in the school — which I’m all for. Not only will it only enhance their learning with the latest ideas and information, but some of those books can be really heavy on little kids’ backs.

  6. Posted February 18, 2012 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    These are wonderful ideas! I like that they are things everyone can do. My son and my daughter are 2 years apart, and started reading 6 months apart. She was a really early reader too – and we first noticed when she read ‘Fox Kia’ on 28th Street. She was 3 and it just took off from there. Love this!!

    • Posted February 20, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Jen! That’s so cool that your kids started reading so close together. You’re obviously doing something right!!

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    Kelli Williams

    Kelli Williams

    Keeping up with 2 little girls, writing assignments, music gigs, the house, laundry, ETC, backwards, wearing ass kicking boots and a smile, without spilling my beer. Ok, ok, so I spill my beer, but my floors have never been more germ-free since I started putting a little alcohol on them. Who needs ammonia...

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