As an author who writes for children, I often get asked by parents what they should do to get their child to read. The general complaint across the country appears to be that children are not reading enough, and that this generation would rather spend its time in front of screens than pick up a book.
There's some truth to this accusation, but we must also remember that television was supposed to be guilty of boiling the brains of our generation and many of us did "survive" that to become readers. Also, after the viral photo of an Indian child reading a book on the Vikings during the Nadal Vs Federer match, we really should not be lamenting the lack of reading among the young.
If you are keen to raise a reader, here are some tips you can follow to get your child interested in books.
1. Never too early to start: I used to read to my daughter when I was pregnant. Of course, a foetus is unlikely to understand the language, let alone the content, but it does help to get your child acquainted with your reading voice. Around 18 weeks into pregnancy, a foetus begins to hear and by the time the baby is out, s/he is reasonably acquainted with the sounds of the immediate environment. Many to-be-parents talk, play music, and sing along. Reading is yet another way in which you can communicate.
Once the baby is out and you've settled in, lying down close with your newborn and flipping through a picture book and reading aloud can be a way to bond and make the baby develop a positive association with books. At that stage, a baby might only be interested in snuggling up with you, but gradually, s/he will become curious about the book – the colours, the pictures, and the fact that what you're saying is related to what you're holding in your hands.
2. Allow the child to explore books: A child gets different things out of the same book at different stages. In the beginning, it may just be the act of turning the pages or being attracted to colours. Later, s/he is able to comprehend the visuals. For example, s/he understands that the illustration of a cow represents the real life animal s/he has seen. Then the child is able to form a story with the visuals. Understanding words and connecting them to the visuals and later being able to read the text independently are subsequent stages.
Allow the child to explore the book freely and don't insist on what they must focus. It's fine to "read" the book from the end or skip multiple pages to arrive at a favourite illustration or read the SAME book 50 times while being uninterested in other books.
While I would read children's comics and those ubiquitous Russian picture books that were common in my childhood, I was never really hooked to reading till class 4. I was down with the flu and casually picked up the first book in Enid Blyton's The Adventurous Four because I had nothing else to do. I remember being mindblown that something SO exciting could exist on the planet. That was the day I fell in love with reading books. You never know when it will happen with your child, but just keep the enthusiasm going till they find that one book.
3. Don't be overambitious: I often see parents in reading groups proudly advertising that their six-year-old is reading Harry Potter. While it's fine if your child is doing this out of their own interest, don't be in a hurry to make your child read longer and fatter books because it gives you personal satisfaction.
Don't be dismissive of books with 10 lines of text and tell your child that s/he is "too old" for picture books or comics if they express an interest in them. Your child should decide when s/he is ready to move to the next reading level. Also, please be aware that reading levels are like a building with a very efficient elevator. You can go up and down anytime and it doesn't mean that you have to be stuck in one place once you've reached it. You can always introduce different kinds of books to your child but do not be pushy.
4. Go easy on the "education": Many Indian parents are of the firm belief that their child should read only to "educate" themselves and become masters in mental Maths or world geography. In book fairs, you will typically see scores of parents asking their children not to "waste" time and money on fiction and buy something "useful". This is a sure-shot way of killing any love for reading that your child might have.
Reading "useless" fiction develops empathy, imagination, and the child's ability to articulate his/her own lived experiences. Allow them to read for joy – it is not a crime to have a good time with a book.
5. Buy the books they want: This seems like stating the obvious but I've seen enough to make me put this down as a tip. Parents are fine with buying a pair of expensive Crocs for their child who will outgrow them in a matter of months, or blow up a few thousands at an expensive restaurant, but they will think a hundred times before buying a book. Because they can't be sure if it's "worth" it.
They have to be convinced that the book is long enough, has enough text, and enough information they consider necessary before taking it to the billing counter. If you want your child to read, please let them see you valuing books. I grew up in a middle class home and while there were many things to which my parents said no - clothes, toys, shoes etc - they never said no to any book my brother and I wished to buy.
6. Don't be too insistent on "appropriate" books: Publishers do put out age and reading levels on book covers but these are guidelines and not rules written in stone. If your child is interested in a book and you're unsure if they can read it, flip through it or look it up online. Tell them that they can come to you if they have any questions about something in the book that they didn't understand. Books are, in fact, a great way to break the ice and have difficult conversations. I remember in my teen years, my mother would leave around women's magazines in my room and that's how I had my sex education. As a parent of the current generation, you can do better.
Don't dictate what the child's interests must be. It fluctuates wildly anyway. When my daughter was two years old, she was obsessed with the Obama family and would make us show her their pictures in magazines and newspapers all the time. She would spend time flipping through the pages until she found them and grin in delight. She is currently reading the fictional diaries of an Australian schoolgirl and a nonfiction book called Rebel Girls which has stories about real life women who fought all odds, including Michelle Obama.
7. Allow your child to share books: There's nothing like peer excitement to sustain a reading habit. Allow your child to share his/her books with friends and encourage them to have conversations about what they've read. Yes, sometimes the books may come back dog-eared but that really is okay.
I met my best friend in college – a person I went on to write books with and who has also illustrated several of my books. I remember this amazing conversation we had about the books we read as children and discovering that we'd cried and laughed for the same episodes in books we'd both grown up reading. And oh, drooled over the same food described in those books. The books you read become part of you; they make memories and draw you closer to others across the world who've read them too. While it is an intensely private experience, it is also simultaneously communal. Don't deny your child that.
8. Read more yourself: Children learn more by observation than instruction. If you're constantly telling your child to read but s/he never sees you with a book, they're unlikely to be inspired. Let your child see you buying and reading books for your own pleasure. Discuss what you read with your child if s/he is interested.
Sitting down next to each other and reading separately is also a great energy-saving bonding ritual.
9. Control the gadgets: Nearly every parent succumbs to the temptation of giving their child the iPad or smartphone to keep them "quiet". I will not be judgemental about this but do try and control their screen time. Books are silent and not instantly rewarding like a gadget which has moving visuals and sound effects. While it may not be bad for a short duration, gadget addiction can take over very quickly if you're not careful.
With a reduced attention span, it might be difficult for your child to sit down with a book and read. If you absolutely must give the child a gadget, please be aware of online safety issues and regulate the time they spend on it.
Sowmya Rajendran has written several books for children across age-groups. She writes on gender, culture and cinema for The News Minute.