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February 24, 2017

15 Minute Reading Challenge

I know reading with my kids is incredibly important. I’m an English teacher, for heaven’s sake.  I also know reading needs to happen every day. And I know that for quite a while now, I’ve been doing an awful job of it. Reading with emergent readers isn’t exactly fun, especially for someone with a secondary mindset. It takes lots and lots of precious time while the “to do” list sits on the counter and seemingly gets longer by the minute. So even though my six-year-old has been reading to me every day, I recently realized that my approach wasn’t doing him any favors.

It took a 31-day challenge (not the athletic kind) and a timer to show me what I was doing wrong.

Read Aloud Revival, a blog geared toward homeschooling families, started the month of January by challenging families to spend 15 minutes each day reading out loud. That’s 15 minutes per kid, per day. Children who weren’t quite reading were encouraged to spend the time interacting with books. Kids who were reading proficiently (and silently) were encouraged to read the words out loud again. There were checklists and charts, and even potential prizes. I cannot resist a good contest, and since we were already reading every day, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to sign us all up.

I didn’t anticipate how the timer would change things for us. In fact, I worried that it would function like the timer my mom set while I was practicing my piano as a kid. I was more focused on finishing that 45 minutes than I was on doing things that would make me a better pianist. Practicing the piano felt like drudgery, and deep down, I was afraid our 15 minutes of reading would do the same. What I realize now is that I was approaching our reading time – whether it was me reading or the kids – as something to be checked off our list for the day. I was the one creating drudgery…in the name of getting things done.

Before January, I spent reading time sitting next to six-year-old Eli and coaxing him through the words on the page, correcting pronunciation, asking him to go back and reread or sound out the words he didn’t know, always pushing forward to the end of the book. On each page, he would pause in his reading to interact with the illustrations. The reading teacher in me calls this “pre-reading activities” and knows how valuable these activities are for comprehension. However, the woman with things to do lets out an audible sigh because, really, how long can a level 2 reader possibly take? (Answer: a very long time.) Reading to my boys was no better. Heaven forbid someone have a question. Or a comment. Or a connection between the book and real life. Or a desire to see the illustration on page 36. We have things to do, people. No questions. Let’s finish chapter 2.

While this type of reading might have taught my kids to fluently articulate the words on the page, it certainly didn’t help them understand and remember what they read. And it most definitely didn’t teach them to enjoy reading enough to pick up a book on their own. I assure you that no one was clamoring to start reading time every day. I was just too close to the situation to realize what I was doing wrong.

On January 1, I set the timer and sat down…and relaxed. I didn’t expect it, but with fifteen minutes carved out that couldn’t be used in any other way, I was able to release the to-do list and sit in the moment. Eli stopped reading periodically and asked questions, and we looked for the answers. We talked about possible conclusions. We wondered aloud why the characters did what they did. We looked at the pictures and predicted what might happen next. We did all the things I used to do with the students in my classroom, and we loved it.

On the fourth day, Eli chose a book about a girl who gets an alligator in the mail. As you can imagine, the alligator wreaked havoc on her community, and Eli and my younger son Caleb howled with laughter at each page. One page had to be re-read twice because it was just so stinking funny. A switch had flipped in their brains. Books could be more than to-do lists. They could be entertainment.

On day 15, we were all so engrossed in a book about a dog that served in World War I that I failed to notice my two-year-old tattooing her entire body with an ink pen. She was sitting on my lap. (It was a really good book. I was fighting tears at the end.)

On day 22, Eli ignored the timer and kept right on reading. He needed to know how Mercy Watson rescued her parents when their bed fell through the ceiling.

On day 27, I noticed my five-year-old, Caleb, picking out his sight words in Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, a family-favorite that we’ve read upwards of ten trillion times. Usually he acts as though he’d rather cut off his nose than review his sight words. (He’s dramatic like that.)

The act of carving out reading time, instead of checking off books, freed me to read with my children instead of to them. And when I let go of my checklist, it freed my kids to encounter the magic on the page. We didn’t become geniuses overnight or anything, but reading time has become more than something we dread or save for bedtime stalling purposes.

You don’t need to join a contest or print a calendar page. Just set the clock for 15 minutes, grab a seat on the couch and try it. Give it at least a week. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Written by Laura Simon, Connections Blog Contributor

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