Reading and Writing: An Open Letter to Parents

by Dean Schneider and Robin Smith

Preschool through high school

At parent conferences, parent nights at school, and in casual conversations, parents are always asking how to get their kids to read, what books are good, and what they can do. All parents want their children to be smart and self-motivated, and most parents recognize the importance of reading and writing to a good education. Yet parents don’t always act upon what they know is best for raising children, and sometimes parents unwittingly make choices that confound the hopes they have for their kids.

As families get busier and electronic diversions—television, computers, electronic games, audio players, and cell phones—dominate households, family life suffers. It is crucial to consider the consequences of these sorts of purchases. What, for example, is the consequence of buying an Xbox for Christmas? A TV for the bedroom? A car with a DVD player in it? Electronic media affect us, encouraging shorter attention spans and isolating us from each other. When children get to fourth or fifth grade and have watched thousands of hours of television but have never read much of anything beyond school requirements and have never been read aloud to, it is tougher to involve them in the world of books, let alone do much for their limited vocabularies. Their peers who are readers and who have been read to all of their lives have an advantage—it’s that simple.

A previous Book Links article in the April/May 2003 issue, “Reading and Writing—What Is Fundamental?,” was written with teachers in mind. The following is for both parents and teachers, written with the knowledge that schools work best when parents raise children consciously and create a family life that nurtures reading, writing, thinking, and imagination.

A Meaningful Family Life

There’s a difference between having children and raising children. Raising children implies that parents have in mind how they want their children to turn out, and they do the necessary things to ensure that it happens. Parents who want a real family life and not the frenzy of lives on the run to every imaginable after-school and weekend activity recognize the need to slow down. They cook and eat meals together, chatting about the events of the day, politics, or whatever comes up. They give their children the gift of boredom, telling them to go find something to do, without feeling the need to fill up every moment with television or planned activities. They are likely to have a house full of books, magazines, and newspapers, and are adamant about mealtimes, curfews, and time spent together. They help their young children learn such everyday skills as counting change, telling time, making shopping lists, reading road signs and maps, writing thank-you notes, keeping journals, and making books about special trips.

Families need not give up TV, computers, and the many electronic games available, but if parents care about raising children with attention spans and minds capable of reading, writing, and learning, they will limit them. One TV, in the family room, a computer in the office—that’s sufficient—and family members will have to coordinate who uses what when. Old-fashioned family car trips were always a tradition for us, with plenty of audiobooks that we all listened to. We also listened to each other, never having separate audio players or a DVD player in the car.

Reading Aloud Every Day

Reading aloud good books every single night, from the time kids are babies for as long as children will allow it, is a wonderful gift parents can give to their children, the gift of time spent together, of good books, and of language absorbed in pleasurable daily moments. It is always obvious to me in my seventh- and eighth-grade English classes which students have grown up being read to and have read a lot on their own. They are better at using words, having absorbed a sense of the language from literature over the years. We read aloud to our son and daughter almost from birth to sixth grade, when they each seemed to get too busy. But by then they were excellent readers and writers, and they still talk about their favorite books from those read-aloud and free reading days. We read at various times during the day, but reading before bedtime was a constant. Then the kids went to bed and read on their own, and if they wanted to stay up beyond their bedtime to read, that was OK; it was seen as a treat. And since we have never allowed television, laptops, or telephones in their bedrooms, it was either read or go to bed.

Two excellent guides that can help parents choose good books are Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 1982; reissued 2001) and Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children (Houghton, 2004).

Encouraging Interests

We suspected from the time she was three that our daughter would be an artist. She would stand at her art table for hours, painting, drawing, and making books. We always made visits to art museums a priority in our family travels. And sure enough, she is graduating from art school this spring. Our son’s interests have included dinosaurs, the Civil War, baseball, World War II, and the Vietnam War, and we supported his interests with books, supplies for making his own books about favorite subjects, trips to battlefields, trips to the ballpark, and so forth. If parents let time slow down and encourage their children’s interests, their children will grow into interesting people whom parents will enjoy being around.

Academic Involvement

Parents have already gone to school; it’s not their job to attend school again. It’s OK to offer modest help on homework or have kids working on homework in the kitchen while a parent is cooking supper, but remember, the person holding the pencil is the one doing the learning; helping too much takes responsibility away from children, as well as the pride they’ll have in accomplishing things by themselves. And if Johnny forgets his homework, he should deal with the consequences. Giving kids responsibilities around the house—cleaning bedrooms or taking out the trash—will support the overall sense of responsibility you want them to have in their schoolwork so that they can become smart, self-motivated students who excel in school.

A Final Thought

Parents need to be dissidents in a culture where electronic diversions occupy a prominent place in family life and in children’s minds. Attending a good school is not the same as getting a good education. The best students in any school are the ones whose parents are conscious about how they raise them. They are easy to teach because teachers are simply adding to the gifts they’ve already been given.

Dean Schneider and Robin Smith are a husband-wife team at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. Dean teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English. Robin teaches second grade.