Raising Readers in the Digital Age

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The encyclopedias in our study are just antiques gathering dust,” laments Nashville mom Karen Huff. “My kids turn to Google or Wikipedia first when they have to do research,” she says.

And while that’s probably true of most of us today, the “click-thru” mentality and stop-and-start reading experience that the Internet promotes may actually detract from the “think and learn” reading experience educators say kids should have. Although a few early studies on reading and the Internet said the Web might improve reading abilities, the consensus appears to be shifting.

In a recent article in Atlantic magazine, bluntly titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, the author admits his own inability to stick with a lengthy piece of print. So while the National Endowment of the Arts says proficient readers are better students, more successful workers and more involved citizens, reading appears to be losing ground. Bridging this divide is paramount for parents concerned about their children’s education.

A healthy childhood should include quality experiences with books and Web sites.

Kids themselves seem to grasp this idea. Scholastic conducted a poll earlier this year found that 75 percent of kids agreed with the statement, “No matter what I can do online, I’ll always want to read books printed on paper.” That attitude gives parents the opening they need to help kids understand what skills they are building through these different reading experiences:

Concentration

Because Web sites always include hyperlinks, distraction is built into the reading experience. As one kid put it, “With books, there’s nothing to look at except the page.” Sticking with one text may lengthen a child’s attention span.

Comprehension

Every student should understand the difference between skimming for exposure and studying for mastery. The Internet is an ideal place for getting a quick overview of a topic, but books give students a chance to read, reread and, if necessary, take notes or jot ideas in the margins.

Analysis

Evaluating the reliability of information online is notoriously difficult. Although more and more books are being self-published, the ones that find their way into schools or public libraries have gone through editorial scrutiny so they are more likely to present facts that have been researched, ideas that have been developed and arguments that make sense. Kids need to learn to recognize all three.

Reflection

The best kind of reading stimulates a child’s own thinking. Fiction, in particular, often inspires young people to contemplate not only the characters in the book but also their own values and philosophies. Classic books stay in print because they have this power. Indeed, many adults can vividly recall books they read when they were young.

Interaction

This is where the Internet has huge, though often unrealized, potential. On a Web site like fanfiction.net, for example, kids can post their thoughts about books they’ve read and even write alternative endings which get instant feedback from other readers.

For parents, the challenge is directing young readers toward venues where the opinions being expressed are written grammatically and worth considering. In some cases, it may be easier to promote discussion skills by having everyone in the family read the same book (or visit the same Web site) and talk about its merits over dinner.

If the challenge online is finding Web sites worthy of a child’s attention, the challenge offline is getting children to give books a chance. Parents can get a head start by creating positive associations with books from an early age. Nothing kids do online can compete with curling up in a comfy chair to read a book with Mom or Dad. Even after children read for themselves, set aside time for reading aloud together.

Find a grade-by-grade list of promising books at www.teachersfirst.com/read-sel.cfm. Perhaps the best way to develop the reading habit is to establish times when other media aren’t available. The hour before bedtime is especially promising because experts say kids sleep better if they don’t use computers, play video games or watch TV before bed. More tips about getting kids involved with books are available at rif.org/parents/.

Finally, pay close attention to how your child learns best. Some children are most engaged when immersed in a well-written book. Others find their ideas enriched and amplified by the many options available online. The luckiest kids and, in all likelihood, the best readers are those who have had plenty of opportunities to do both.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for over a decade.

 


remember … reading starts at birth!

Tonight, a mother is building her baby’s brain, without lifting a finger. Well, except to turn the pages of The Going-to-Bed Book (Little Simon; $5.99) by Sandra Boynton. Parent-child reading helps prepare infants for future learning, observes Danielle Z. Kassow of the Talaris Research Institute, a non-profit research organization studying early brain development.

“Experiences with parents help the brain get organized,” Kassow says. “Any experiences that are loving, warm, nurturing -such as singing, playing or reading together affect the wiring of the brain.”

Positive memories of snuggling and reading build an enduring interest in books.

After all, as adults, many of us still relax before bed with a good novel. In order to create a budding bookworm, take the time to read with your child consistently. Here are tips to engage your baby:

  • Captivate your baby’s senses. Babies love titles with touchable fur, bright colors, scratch-and-sniff items; or books that squeak, rattle and crinkle.
  • Sing a story. Babies love poems, songs and nursery rhymes, particularly when they’re sung by a parent or other trusted caregiver. Once you’ve got a book memorized, try singing the text.
  • Select baby-friendly topics: Animals, routines (bedtime, getting dressed), food; or books with many simple, bright illustrations and few words. Talk about what you see on each page, and don’t worry about following a narrative.
  • See reading as a form of play. Don’t feel silly putting on a show while reading -making funny noises, speaking dramatically or using a sing-song voice. Your enthusiasm demonstrates that books can be exciting and entertaining.
  • Create a bedtime routine -with a book in one hand and your baby in the other. Your child will enjoy the sound of your voice, particularly if it’s part of a comforting nighttime routine.

Lori Shin is a mom and freelance writer.

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