14 Ways to Model Literacy

As we all know so well, children don’t just learn the lessons we plan to teach them. They learn by what we model for them. So if we want kids to be capable readers and writers, we have to do more than help them learn to read and write. We have to model literacy as a great part of daily life.

1.Read in front of children — If you want your kids to be readers, show them what it’s all about. Let them see you carrying a book or a kindle around. Tell them “hold on, I’ll help you when I’m at a good stopping place.” Bring a book to the playground and read on a bench while they play. Let them come downstairs late at night to find you on the couch with a good book, eating ice-cream out of the carton. Make them jealous. If you don’t like reading fiction, read non-fiction, how-to books, graphic novels, the news.

2. Read aloud — it’s widely known that it is important to read aloud to pre-literate children, but I don’t think it has to stop there. Reading aloud is a great way to spend time with people you love and to pass the time in boring places or while doing other boring things. My parents used to read to us when my sister and I were teenagers. We would be washing dishes, and my dad would read things like The Lord of the Rings and Gone With the Wind. Our younger sister would listen too. It was a way of spending time together even when we were busy. Soon our whole family had a deep wealth of common literary references that came into conversation. Even as an adult, I love reading aloud to friends on camping trips, everyone lying in the dark listening to The Little Prince, or The House at Pooh Corner (which is great with voices).

3. Encourage audiobooks — While audiobooks don’t snuggle like a parent reading a book aloud on the couch, they are a great way to bring more stories into children’s lives, especially children who are late or reluctant readers. They’re great for the car. They can also fill the entertainment niche that screen time fills and are great in the background while kids do art or build things. Reading is an important skill, but listening to stories helps children develop reading comprehension skills, listening skills, a sense of narrative, exposure to the larger world through stories, exposure to vocabulary, and all that good stuff.

4. Pass notes — Make writing and reading a practical skill. Leave notes for each other, or have a central whiteboard message station. Be goofy. Have fun.

5. Use the library — Give a child a library card and regular access to the library, show them how to use the catalog, refrain from judging the books they bring home (though no one says you have to help them read them), and you’ve given them a whole world. Don’t worry if it seems like they pick out the worst books — as a beginning reader I used to bring home the same terrible books all the time (The Berenstein Bears were a favorite). I grew up to use the library constantly — for good novels, for writing research, and for books I’m just curious about that might turn out to be as bad as The Berenstein Bears.

6. Look things up — Look up words you don’t know how to spell. Use Google. Use reference books. Question your sources. Get a second opinion. Show kids that written words, whether in books or on the internet, hold the answers to most every day mysteries and that not knowing something isn’t something to be ashamed of. It leads to the awesome chance to discover something new.

7. Play with words — Make bad puns, play with sounds, make cheesy rhymes, switch words around or substitute close-sounding but different-meaning words (what if you had a moose-trap in your attic?) and in every way that delights you, delight in language.

8. Use your full vocabulary — Speak to children in complex sentences. Then, if necessary, explain more simply. This doesn’t mean explaining ideas that are too logical or to complex emotionally for your child at that point. It just means not talking down to them. When you run into a word you don’t know, model looking up what it means.

9. Speak another language with your children— Whether you are fluent in another language or are just dredging up your high school Spanish, speaking another language with your children opens their world up, linguistically and culturally, and gives them more perspective on English as well. At my house, my dog plays fetch in French. He loves it, and my brain loves it.

10. Go hear authors you like read — In Seattle, Town Hall, Richard Hugo House, The Seattle Public Library, Elliott Bay Books, The University Bookstore, and other bookstores all host author readings, which are often free. There are kids’ readings too. It’s a great way to engage in the literary conversation that is happening here and now, and to meet your literary heroes.

11. Patronize local bookstores — Ebooks are cool, but local bookstores are literature’s nurse logs. Let’s support them for a literate world.

12. Make poetry a part of life — There are lots of ways to bring poetry into your children’s world, and when they are angsty teenagers writing teenage angst poems, they will thank you (well, metaphorically) for giving them a background in poetry. Catch Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR, give children a personal birthday poem, recite a poem as a goodnight ritual, quote whatever scraps of poems stuck in your mind from your English classes, find a new poet you like and leave their book lying around, or memorize a poem as a family.

13. Read myths and fairytales in their un-Disneyfied originals — Like dreams, myth speaks to our psyches in deep and essential ways. The cleaned-up Disney versions are like dreams that make sense. They just aren’t the same. Sharing mythology with children gives them a deep cultural reference point and a metaphorical language for their inner experiences. Religious texts can do the same thing.

14. Talk about what you read and see — Engage your children in discussions about the stories you read and watch. Asking them reading comprehension quiz questions like “What was the animal that jumped out of the woods called?” will probably just close down the conversation, but asking things like, “Was it scary when the animal jumped out? Did you think the girl did the right thing? I wonder what would have happened if the animal could have talked?” and other open-ended questions tend to open things up. Share your own reactions: “I loved the part with the swan. It was like a dream.”  “I don’t think it was fair that only the girl had to wash the dishes. I wonder if the author knew that was sexist?” Bring it back up later: “Oh, those clouds remind me of that story with the swan!” “These woods are like the woods the animal jumped out of, but I know you’re as brave as that girl.” These kinds of conversations engage children imaginatively, critically, and ethically with the media they absorb, making them better readers and better citizens.