October 09


Driving Our Children to Life Long Reading by Meg Leventhal

As part of our district’s reading workshop program, my fifth grade students are required to read a self-chosen book for thirty minutes each night for homework. As a teacher, I know how vital this reading is to each student’s journey to the place where reading becomes like breathing. As a parent, however, with two children of my own who have this same homework requirement, I know how easy it is to let nightly independent reading fall through the cracks.

Allowing our children to skip independent reading homework is easy, mostly because nobody will know that we skipped it. It’s not like we’re skipping it because we don’t value reading or because we don’t care about our kids. We skip it because we’re busy feeding them, keeping them clean, taking them to soccer practice, watching The Voice with them, and making them empty the dishwasher. It’s because life goes a mile a minute with no breaks, and often something has to give. Why is independent reading the last thing that should give?

Teaching our children to read is a lot like teaching them to drive. Right now I am in the process of teaching my sixteen year old daughter to drive. Recently she and I were on the road, and I noticed my hands were not clutching the dashboard in a death grip. I was actually listening to the radio, and we were having a conversation that did not include interjections. I realized that my daughter had learned the skills of driving. The lessons have worked. Now it’s all about getting her as many hours on the road as we possibly can before she gets that license.

Reading works the same way as driving. By fourth and fifth grade our children are reading – they’ve learned most of the mechanics of the skill. Now, along with modeling, they need as many hours on the road as we can possibly give them so their future education is free of collisions. Expecting our children to learn everything they need to be life-long readers just by instructing them in the skills and strategies of reading, yet giving them no time to practice, is setting them up to struggle. It would be like handing our teens a driver’s license when they finish a classroom driver’s education course, having never put them behind a wheel.

Once I committed to holding my children responsible for their independent reading homework, I found some simple ways to incorporate it into our everyday routines more easily:

  • First and foremost, I stopped thinking about and calling independent reading homework. Children should think about reading as entertainment, a way to relax, something to which they look forward. Daily choice reading should be viewed like a Habit of Mind – something successful people do.
  • Finding the time for reading is a challenge. For it to happen it needs to become a routine. I extended my children’s bed time for 30 minutes with the provision that they spend it in their beds reading. Suddenly, reading no longer felt like homework, but became a way to get out of going to bed so early. Any loss of sleep that has occurred has been well worth the reward.
  • Now, when my kids are reading, I am reading too. My husband and I take turns climbing into bed with one of our children with our own books and joining them in the fun. Sometimes we read aloud to our younger son. This has become a special time with our children for both of us and has created lasting memories for all.
  • Every morning, as we pack lunches, find math homework, sign permission slips, and search for shoes, we talk a little bit about what we read last night. The mornings I just don’t have it in me to do this, either Rowan or Finn will start the ball rolling, because they love sharing their reading experiences now that it’s become habit.

Since I have been holding my children accountable for their nightly thirty minutes of reading every night, I have seen a drastic improvement in their reading lives, but also in their attitudes about reading. I know that of all the homework my kids have, the assignment that can most easily be skipped is also the one that will make the biggest impact in both their learning and their lives. Just like nothing will make a young driver safer on the road than practice behind the wheel, nothing will make our readers more scholarly learners than practice behind the pages of a book. By holding them accountable for nightly independent reading, we are steering them to success!

Meg Leventhal is a fifth grade teacher in Lawrence, New Jersey who is passionate about Language Arts instruction. She spends her free time reading, keeping her four children clean and fed, taking them to soccer practice, watching The Voice with them, and making them empty the dishwasher. You can follow her on Twitter @megleventhal.