How does one motivate young readers? One way is to expand our concept of literacy. In our world today we need to define literacy as inclusive of all forms of visual, auditory, and print media. Videos, television, movies, CD's, websites, magazines, and books are all an important and functional part of a literate culture. Another critical component is to embrace the interests of the child. Young children are deeply interested in the popular culture they see in their everyday lives - in other words, we believe, Arthur, Barney, Cookie, Dora, and Elmo are the real cognitive anchors for learning and wanting to learn the A, B, C's.
We see these concepts clearly unfold as we observe three-year-old Annie (Dawn's daughter, Billie's granddaughter). We are amazed at how she connects and expands her own interests through a variety of media. For instance, Annie formed a deep fascination in ladybirds from watching a Baby Einstein video and reading a children's book called Lady Bug, Lady Bug Fly Away Home. One day as she was flipping though the pages of a teaching catalogue, Annie saw a kit for "growing" ladybirds. Approaching her mum, she requested, "Order lady bugs, please." The arrival of the longed for little red insects was exciting! Along with the rather ugly premature caterpillar-bugs, came a brilliantly coloured information brochure. Annie carefully studied the developmental stages that were described and demanded to know "the words" which labeled each stage (we didn't know ladybirds had a metamorphosis). A few weeks later in the video store, Annie saw a CD with several butterflies and ladybirds gracing the cover. The science documentary became another part of her ongoing quest to learn more about these tiny creatures. Each new type of media reinforced and expanded Annie's previous knowledge.
Although Annie is not yet a "real" reader, she is a literate consumer of information. Her own interests are driving a strong motivation to learn - and she is using all forms of media to inform herself - even before she can formally read. While, we agree that learning to read requires a specific skill set that most children must be explicitly taught, we have also found many children lose the desire to use their reading ability when we, parents and teacher, don't help them to connect the skill with the reason for reading in the first place - a passion to learn.
How can parents motivate young readers:
Realise young children are literate-beings. They begin to recognise environmental print as early as two (If you doubt us, trying grocery shopping with a two-year-old. They know exactly what they want to put in the cart). Celebrate their print awareness. Make books using labels of favourite foods.
Tune in to your child's interests. For example many young children, like Annie, are fascinated by the creatures in the world around them. There are dozens of wonderful television documentaries that highlight birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects, dinosaurs. Find fiction and non-fiction children's books (or even well-illustrated adult-level books) that parallel their favourite creature. Many educational TV shows also have websites that provide a wide range of good reading resources and experiences for children - for example, Discovery, PBS, Disney, and Nick Jr.
Watch movies and television shows with your child. Ask open-ended questions about the story like you would a book. Many excellent stories are now interpreted via film media and many films also generate books. If an older child likes a particular movie or show, encourage her to read the corresponding book.
Make trips to the library or bookstore a part of your weekly schedule. Even a three-year old can begin to browse through the shelves, looking for different kinds of books that may interest her. Many libraries and bookstores also have story hours in which librarians introduce children to new and classic books. The Reading Rainbow television show does this as well. You can check their Web site for broadcast times and good ideas.
Encourage a range of print media. Comics, magazines, TV guidebooks, cookbooks, direction guide books are all wonderful tools for motivating reading. Most of us actually improved our own reading talents by reading the adventures of Archie and the Gang and Superman!
In the end, showing your child that reading and learning is a passion in your own life is perhaps the most important lesson your child can learn from you. Talk about what interests you. Show your child how you are learning more about this interest through all the media. You'll be amazed at how much your example will instill in your child a love of reading and learning that will last a lifetime!