How I raised my child to be a reader

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How to encourage kids to read, to love reading as a pastime and not merely as a means to pass exams? This Singapore dad reveals his secrets!

By Felix Cheong

“YOU can punish me anyway you want, but don’t take away my books!” cried my son, then nine-turning-14 and testing the limits of my patience.

This incident happened more than a decade ago. For the life of me, I can’t recall why he was being punished. All I can remember, with some amusement, was his teary response and how books were his lifeline.

And I knew, there and then, I had brought up a lifelong reader. (Cunningly, even though his books had been ‘confiscated’ for a week, my son managed to get around the embargo by visiting the library.)

We know reading matters, of course. It helps us create worlds in our heads that transcend time and space and learn empathy. It enriches our inner life, enables our imagination to live lives which we would otherwise not have.

Here, we’re not just talking about literacy – the ability to read – but the love of reading.

Indeed, Mark Twain, the American wit whose pen was often more poisonous than a dose of arsenic, once wrote: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

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How to encourage kids to read

It’s a tall order, in this age when anyone of any age is umbilically hooked to a digital device, to nurture a reader.

How do you encourage kids to love reading as a pastime, an end in itself and not merely a means to pass exams?  

There are no hard and fast rules – and certainly no shortcuts – but here are eight takeaways from my own experience as a parent:

Be a reader yourself

Lead, or in this case, read by example. Your child has to see that you and your spouse are book lovers. Read the papers at the dining table. Read a novel in bed before lights out. Read cereal boxes aloud.

Read, read, read.

Why? Because what children see, children do. And when they don’t see you absorbed in a book but instead, are sucked into your phone or iPad, they follow suit.  

Surround your child with books. Move the furniture around so the library becomes the centerpiece of your home. Spread books, willy-nilly, all over the house so there’s always reading material within sneezing distance – even in the toilet!  

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Start early, start simple

Like preparing for the next General Elections, it’s never too late to start early. Get your child used to the written word, the sound of words, the pleasure in reading to each other and to yourself.

I started reading to my son when he was still in his mummy’s tummy! Talk about kiasu.

By the time he was out and about, a small bundle of tears and wriggling appendages, I had already amassed a small library of salvia-resistant books – from touchy-feely books (they came with textured surfaces like feather and rubber), to simple ABC and counting books.

Begin with such simple fare – when your child’s probably around six months old – then step up to easy-peasy narratives with big, colourful illustrations.

Set a routine

Children, like the civil service, love routines. So set aside a time every evening, say an hour before bedtime, for reading.

It helps calm your child down, let the sugar in his blood run its course. Read the same book every night till he can repeat the lines like the National Pledge. Then move on to the next book. Repeat.

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Image source: File photo

Act it out

It will not do to simply read the story to your child mechanically, like Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee at the 2011 General Elections. That’s the surest way to turn him off books.

Unleash the inner actor in you. Dramatise the story, with big gestures and a variety of character voices. Spring the pages into life, the way storytellers do it. For a story is not just words but a piece of imagination with characters and moving parts.    

Follow his lead

As he grows and gets a handle on the world, your child will develop his own quirks and interests. So the books you buy/beg/borrow/steal have to move in tandem.

For example, my son (he’s 23 now) went through a phase when he was into dumper trucks and all manner of construction vehicles.

So I bought books like Bob the Builder, sticker books and even jigsaw puzzles with this theme. And then he progressed, as surely as the MRT stalls, to Thomas the Tank Engine and other books about trains.

Learn from him as much he learns from you.

Offer a mixed palate

Conversely, you should also offer your child books of various genres. As his vocabulary picks up and he’s able to grapple with longer and more complex stories (usually about three to four years old), start reading him books with more text and fewer pictures.

For instance, I introduced my son to Roald Dahl’s classic, James and the Giant Peach, when he was about four. First, through an abridged version, which was based on the animated film; then the film itself and finally, once he was familiar with the plot, the original novel.

In fact, I remember we even had several conversations about how the various versions were different from the original book. It was a good way to teach him compare-contrast skills.

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Guide him in reading it himself

The toughest part of the journey, the hump which will probably take longest to get over, is teaching your child to read. Being able to recognise the alphabet is one thing. Most children should be able to do this by the time they’re one to two.

But the higher-level skill is to be able to connect the letters, in a gadzillion number of ways, to form words. And be able to recognise them and pronounce them.  

I taught my son to read, when he was about four, by making up sentences with similar phonemes and writing them on cards. For instance, “The fat cat sat on a mat”. This, I repeated night after night, after our usual bedtime reading.

And, just to check he wasn’t merely reciting from memory, I varied the sentence on a separate card, “The cat on the mat sat fat”.

He struggled for a while but eventually, got the hang of it. This was my cue to raise the stakes and I tried other phonemes. Within a year, he was reading on his own (but still wanted me to read to him as part of his bedtime routine).

Reward him

To encourage him to keep reading, I applied the Government’s time-tested method of piling on incentives. Each time my son successfully “mastered” a card (and the sentences became longer, with more variations, like a Dr Seuss story), he would be rewarded with a stamp on a homemade loyalty card.

Ten stamps completed, and he would be rewarded with a Star Wars Lego set of his choice (but only within $20). Or he could accumulate more stars in exchange for a more expensive Lego set (30 stamps for $50).

In this way, he eventually picked up reading on his own. He has not looked back since.  

Felix Cheong has published 13 books, including a children’s storybook, Use Your Head, and two young adult novels, The Case of the Moaning Mansion and The Case of the Phantom Woman.