Care and Feeding

How Can I Get My Child to Be a Better Reader?

Girl wearing a backpack, sitting cross-legged, reading a book
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My middle schooler’s school has said that given the pandemic and the fact that school is virtual, English classes won’t be able to read novels for the foreseeable future, because they won’t be able to disperse them. I’m really upset about the idea of my child only reading online excerpts, articles, and the like for the first quarter or longer, so I’d like to encourage (or, rather, enforce) some reading of meaningful literature at home. Do you have any suggestions for how to do so without it seeming like one more school assignment? My child is dutiful, a good reader, generally enjoys it, and reads, but is definitely not drawn to difficult works, so suggestions to read, say, I Am Malala are often met with disdain.

—Searching for Meaningful

Dear Searching for Meaningful,

I sure do have suggestions.

Let me start with a story. I used to be one of those middle school English teachers who required my students to complete a reading log. I tried daily, weekly, and monthly reading logs. I used logs with title/author/number of minutes, and logs that required students to write a summary. I even sent home logs that parents had to sign. (Forgive me, for I knew not what I did.)

Invariably, the kids who really needed to do the reading log didn’t do it, and the kids who didn’t need to do the reading log did it but resented it. In short, I learned that enforcing reading practices is at best ineffective and at worst detrimental.

Now I use a different approach.

First, I talk to the kids at the beginning of and throughout the year about how important reading is. I tell them how I’m like a basketball coach: It doesn’t matter how well they listen on the bench, if they never get on the court and play against worthy opponents. If they never read outside of school, especially challenging books, they won’t get any better. It sounds like your child already understands the importance of reading, but I wanted to throw that out there for other parents who may have reluctant readers who don’t see the point in reading things that aren’t assigned.

Second, I (gasp!) try to make it fun. I read the books they like—even if I can’t stand them—so that we can talk about them. I do social media challenges, asking students to share what they’re reading in Instagram posts or TikTok videos. I give them book bingo cards and let them earn homework passes for getting five in a row.

Is your child on social media? If so, see if she’ll engage that way. If not, make a book bingo card.

See mine pictured below, but they include things like “a book by an author of color,” “a book with a protagonist who has a disability,” “a book with a name in the title,” and “a book your parent read as a kid.” Students can only put a book they finish in one box, so they have to be strategic if it fits into more than one category. Maybe you could compete with her to see who gets bingo first.

Book bingo cards

Another option for books she doesn’t want to read, but you think would be good for her, is to download the audiobook and play it in the car. Maybe she’d dig I Am Malala if she doesn’t have to read it herself.

A related strategy would be to read to her. Middle schoolers rarely get read to—there are so many other things English teachers must accomplish during their limited class time—but I still remember (fondly!) the two novels my eighth grade teacher read to us, and honestly, I remember little else from middle school. Would you daughter let you read to her? It can’t hurt to ask!

If none of these tactics works, I wouldn’t worry too much. We’ll eventually be back in school, and her English teachers will assign meaningful literature. A semester (or a year?) without literary vegetables won’t kill her.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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My husband recently told me that my sister-in-law will be home-schooling her kindergartner due to COVID-19. This is all fine, but it turns out she’s gotten her curriculum from a religious provider, and she will be teaching her daughter that evolution is false and that the world was created in seven days a few thousand years ago. What are the rules around home schooling? I understand religious freedom, but surely if a home-schooling parent wanted to teach his child an obvious falsehood like 2+2=5, that wouldn’t count as an adequate education. Why should it be different in this case, when she’s ignoring science?

We are both Christians and scientists, and we’ve made it clear to my sister-in-law that if she wants to have conversations with us about our faith, then we’re available. And we’ll make sure to talk about both our faith and science to our nieces as they grow up and be available to them if they have questions. So I’m not asking whether we need to do anything—but I’m super curious: Is this type of “home schooling” legit?

—Seeking Science

Dear Seeking Science,

It depends on what you mean by “legit.”

Is this curriculum legal? Probably. Laws regulating home schooling vary by state, but most are minimal. In my own state of Texas, science is not even a required subject for home school. In fact, ProPublica reports that while 33 states require certain subjects, 22 of those states do not assess home-schooled children’s academic progress, so there’s no way to determine if parents actually teach the required content. To know whether or not your sister-in-law is in legal compliance, check your state’s laws.

Is this curriculum good? Probably not. I’m with you—a curriculum that ignores scientific facts is not providing children with an adequate science education. Of course, it’s possible that this curriculum is strong in other areas, like math or reading, but I would be concerned.

I am a public school teacher, not a home-schooler, so I have never undertaken the daunting task of choosing a home-school curriculum. I realize that many parents are making difficult educational choices in the face of school closures and an ongoing pandemic; I hope those who have decided to home-school carefully evaluate the curricular resources they use to educate their children. If I were choosing a curriculum for my own children, I would start by reading the state standards for their grade levels and then seek out programs that align with those goals. Of course, home-schoolers may have different goals in mind, like a religious education or time spent in nature. I’m glad that you and your husband are willing to be a source of scientific knowledge to your niece and sister-in-law. I hope they take advantage of your wisdom!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My son recently started third grade virtually and has his first Black teacher. We live in a very diverse community, so he has met many Black people and has Black friends, but never has had a Black authority figure other than maybe a friend’s parent when he was at their house.

It has become very evident that our son’s teacher is very conservative. She actually has used the phrase “All Lives Matter,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She stressed the importance of police and saying the pledge of allegiance. She has even frequently mentioned that Donald Trump is president in a way that is hard to describe, but makes me very upset. Best I can say, she isn’t disgusted by his presidency. Since his school is virtual, we can hear what she is saying during the Zoom meetings.

In light of recent protests and events, we really preached hard over the summer about how listening to the voices of BIPOC is very important for him as a white person, but now we are telling him his Black teacher is wrong. It is confusing him, and we aren’t sure how to proceed. Despite the school having a large number of Black students, she is one of the few Black teachers. We do not want to get her in trouble or possibly even fired. What can we do as white parents in this situation?

—Mixed Messages

Dear Mixed Messages,

I think your lesson still applies: Listening to the voices of people of color is very important for all people, but especially for white people. But listening does not guarantee agreement. This is an important lesson too. We listen with an open heart and mind. We evaluate what we see and hear. We make a decision for ourselves.

Unfortunately, this will not be the first teacher who disappoints you or your son in some way. As he moves through middle school, high school, and college, and the number of teachers increases dramatically, you will encounter teachers who do not impress him or you for a variety of reasons. Your son will need to learn to navigate these situations, finding a balance between respecting authority and opposing injustice. Allow this to be the first of those circumstances.

It’s admittedly not an ideal lesson to need to learn at such a young age, but it’s also an opportunity to teach your son that human beings are multifaceted, complex beings, capable of being incredibly kind and effective in one realm of their lives while harboring unfortunate, inexplicable views in another.

It’s very unfortunate that your child’s first Black role model is not measuring up to your expectations, but try to view this as an opportunity to help your son develop an understanding for the complex world we live in, and to help him navigate this world deftly and effectively.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My husband and I both work full time (thankfully), and we have a daughter who just turned 1 and is walking. Our day care is not fully in session yet and has been doing Zoom parties, and we read books and try to play with her as much as possible. We also take walks outside as the weather and time allow. We try to make sure she gets outside at least once a day. I know we shouldn’t do screen time before she is 2 years old, but random educational videos we find on YouTube have been incredibly helpful in finding balance. It’s about 30 or so minutes of videos a day. Add that to the various video calls with day care and friends and family, and she probably interacts with a screen for about an hour and a half a day.

So I have a few questions: Do video calls with family and friends count as screen time? How terrible is it that we let her watch 30 or so minutes of videos a day? How can I play with her to ensure she’s learning what she should be learning? Most online ideas for parents are for preschool-age kids, and that seems too advanced for her.

—Pandemic Parent

Dear Pandemic Parent,

Short answer: You’re fine. Don’t sweat it.

Guidelines on when it’s “OK” to allow your child screen time vary, but the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend you discourage screen use before 18 months. Notably, though, the organization specifically says video calls are OK. Now, I’m not a pediatrician or a developmental psychologist, but my best guess as to why video calls don’t really count as screen time has to do with what you’re doing. A video call with friends/family or with the day care is a learning opportunity for your child, especially right now, when it’s likely the only people your child interacts with are you and your husband. Video calling will allow her to start building other relationships and will allow her to flex her early language skills.

While the AAP discourages video watching and app use before 18 months, these are unique times, and we all need to do what we can to get by. You’re not talking about hours a day. If she needs to watch a few educational videos, especially if you can watch and engage with her with the video, it’s fine.

As for play, I’m glad you asked! Parents often put pressure on themselves to play with their kids in an “educational” way. But here’s the secret: All play is educational at her age. Because the world is entirely new to her, anything she does will teach her new things. Kids at your daughter’s age are still learning concepts like color, shapes, tall vs. short, not to mention how to build, what structures are sturdy, what happens if you build one that isn’t, etc. As long as you have age-appropriate toys, I’d say to just take something out and, if she doesn’t immediately lead the way, start doing what you’d do with that toy and then include her. Once she’s taken over, follow her lead. Ask lots of question and use lots of different words to describe what you’re doing.

She might also enjoy “sensory play” as well—play that will help her explore her senses. If you Google “sensory bin,” there are lots of different ideas for targeted sensory play, most of which are age-appropriate for your 1-year-old—scented/dyed rice, dried beans, sand, doughs, etc. Then there’s art, and this is where being stuck at home all the time can really be a plus. If you’re not bothered by mess, let her loose with some markers to decorate all the online-shopping boxes you have. All of these activities count as “play” in her eyes and will be “educational” in that they let her build new skills or strengthen existing ones. It’s what she’d be doing in day care, and it will enrich her day.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

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