Please do NOT read to your child for 20 minutes a day

I always thought the “20 minutes a day” guideline was lame. How many books take precisely 20 minutes to read? If a children’s author is pitching their new book, would they have better luck if they wrote it so that it could be read in 20 minutes? Maybe with a built-in timer or something… What’s a parent to do at the end of that 20 minutes, if the book isn’t over? If they decide to finish the book and end up reading for 23 minutes tonight, then do they only need to read for 17 minutes tomorrow?  If reading is such a wonderful thing, why are so many adults “forced” into doing it? What does it teach children to have their teacher at school sending home a tracking form to monitor their parents?

Unschooling reading
Kids can learn to read from books, not from reading lessons

Where did they come up with the 20-minute figure? Maybe it’s because they once did a study of families whose kids were great readers and averaged out the length of time each family spent reading to their kids and decided that a standard of 20 minutes was the bare minimum.  Now, everyone is striving for that minimum.  I’m just guessing, I really don’t know the origin of the 20-minutes-a-day reading guideline.  All I know is that it’s difficult to lose yourself in literature when you’re watching the clock.

I think the root of the issue was originally that families were “too busy” to read to their kids.  How on earth they’d ever get them to bed, I will never know.  Reading to my girls is often just the elixir they need to hold still and relax long enough to drift off to sleep.  I don’t read to them every single day and I’m not sure how long we read because we don’t look at the clock. Ever. I read until I find myself skipping words or spacing out between sentences.  Sometimes, if I’m falling asleep while I read, I’ll accidentally add random words to the story (the kids love this and it’s usually their laughter that wakes me up).  We read until everyone’s story has been read. The younger girls usually get their stories first. If a chapter book is chosen, it’s usually last and we read one chapter before deciding if we want to go further. Sometimes it takes us months to finish one chapter book, sometimes it only takes days. Sometimes we never finish and that’s OK.

If the goal is to have children who read for pleasure, then measuring and tracking a specific and arbitrary amount of time each day is not the way to get there.  Passion is rarely born of obligation. The way to get there is to RELAX already, and make sure the child has access to reading material he or she is interested in. For some kids, this may mean classic childhood novels like Little Women or the Secret Garden. For others, this may mean auto repair manuals, video game cheat magazines, fashion magazines, college texts, or the TV Guide.

Reading is a pleasure when its being USED to meet another need. Whether it’s a need to escape into a romance novel, a need to understand the schematics of an engine, a desire to learn about the life of a person you admire, to understand a time in history you’ve always been interested in or just the satisfaction of reading a story you can finish.  Reading ITSELF isn’t really a goal in our house. Neither was walking, talking or toilet use.  But it happens. They all happen. Life happens, and reading happens.

Literacy is a necessary TOOL, not a goal. The need to read in our house is clear; Words are everywhere. My 5 yr old recently discovered that all the other kids had gone outside to play and she had the entire Wii system to herself. She was able to figure out many of the screens on her own but when her reading skills weren’t strong enough, she’d copy the letters from the screen onto a piece of paper and bring it to me to translate.  I guess I could have stopped her and sat down for a “reading lesson” from some workbook or other text, but why would I, whenlife presents so many exciting opportunities to share the thrill of reaching goals via written language?

Learning to Write Without a Curriculum

My 7 year old has several journals that she uses to write very long stories. She likes to re-read her
stories, especially when our 3 yr old wants to hear one.  As she looks at what she’s written, she realizes that some of the words are missing sounds.  She adds them in, and her story is built pixel by pixel, fading into her pages like magic.  No one needs to tell her that “grl” is missing something, she adds the “i” when she notices and next time she spells “girl,” she remembers to sound it out a little more thoroughly. When she sees that she’s spelled something wrong, she fixes it or crosses it out.  No page is ever “finished” and she returns to them whenever she wants, to add details, draw pictures, color the pictures or whatever else she wants to do with the page.  There are no due dates or assignments. I’m not judging her or evaluating her. She is in charge of her own progress and her skills improve every month because children have an instinctive desire to communicate.

Writing love notes is a great way to learn to write

She isn’t the first of my kids to learn to read by first writing.  Reading is a way of taking in information, but kids actually take in information constantly.  Do they really WANT another way when they’re small? I’ve noticed my kids are more interested in getting their thoughts and ideas down on paper, rather than finding ANOTHER way to receive. In fact, the earliest writing projects my kids decide to take on are usually love letters.

Young writers have something to say.  When my kids hand me a piece of paper with chicken scratches on it, I do my best to understand. I think it’s important that they see that I WANT to understand them.  They know their writing isn’t perfect and often sit down next to me while I try to decode it.  The irony is never lost on me as I’m looking at unfamiliar characters, unsure of what sound to make, trying to see the whole word or predict what the word is, based on previous words.  I try my best to read their words and from my “mistakes” they learn to write better.  They know I can read, but they’re also aware that their writing skills aren’t fully matured yet. They sit patiently next to me as I try to read their print. I can almost read their mind as they’re wondering if they should step in and tell me what it says, or let me keep trying. If they want to know how to do it better next time, I can point out that their backwards “g” reminds me of a lower case “e” and together we notice the differences between the two figures. Next time, she is likely to remember the conversation and write the letter correctly.  If not, we have the conversation again. Eventually, we build literacy through our desire to communicate, rather than inflicting literacy by my desire to have her conform.

We have a system of mailboxes in the house where the kids leave each other love notes, hate notes, reminders, random questions and presents.  Having someone else read your writing is one of the best ways to know if you’re communicating effectively.  There are no grades,no one would dare mark up another girl’s writing and when something isn’t clear, we just ask whoever wrote it what they’re trying to say.  There’s no evaluation, no judgment.  It’s easy to see that if someone isn’t understanding you then you need to do things differently. We don’t force them to write on specially lined paper (though we have some and sometimes they choose to use it, sometimes even writing within the lines).

Reading and Writing are not specialized skills that require years of schooling. They are simply tools of communication. There’s no reason that any child should be copying one letter over and over again on a line in order to master making the shape before they use it in a word.

Kids speak in thousands of words and can learn to write that way, too.  There’s no reason to isolate each and every skill involved in writing just so that kids can communicate in writing. I remember seeing workbooks for handwriting that had students copying individual strokes, like a vertical line, several times, in order to help kids “get ready” for making letters.  What drudgery that must be for the child (who may or may not even be interested in writing).

In May of 2009, Gabriella wrote this testimonial of her love for everything except the end.

In May of 2009, Gabriella wrote this testimonial of her love for everything except the end.

Forcing parents to stop their activities and read to children for 20 minutes a day is ridiculous.  If the parents aren’t interested in reading, that lack of enthusiasm will be passed on. Tracking forms will be faked, a conspiratory relationship will be born because the child still wants the prizes for reading and the parents don’t want to look like they suck.  But it’s not the parents that suck, it’s the nature of institutionalized education that decides every student and every parent should be meeting this minimum.

Why can’t parents just “be real” and share the skills they’re best at? My mother-in-law doesn’t enjoy reading but she makes beautiful jewelry. I have a homeschool-mom-friend who doesn’t enjoy reading, but her and her daughter spend a lot of time volunteering in the community. Mom’s distaste for reading hasn’t scared her daughter away from it, in fact she reads her mom bedtime stories. Instead of being forced to read to a child for 20 minutes a day, parents should be encouraged to joyfully share their passions whether it’s jewelry-making, gardening, vacuuming or baking.

Literacy is NOT the underlying skill that makes learning possible, it’s a desire to learn that makes learning possible. Focusing on literacy often becomes counter-productive, because kids end up so stressed out about these mysterious letters and words that they end up believing that they’re not smart, not capable of learning or not good at school.

I wonder what they’ll come up with next. Maybe the future scientists of the world should get 20 minutes of time repairing things with their parents, or 20 minutes mixing ingredients in the kitchen, or 20 minutes working brain-teaser puzzles.   Why is reading the skill that gets all the attention? Future leaders and philosophers should maybe spend 20 minutes a day questioning authority and thinking of out-of-the-box solutions (instead, they’re all taught to follow rules).  Future spiritual leaders should maybe get 20 minutes a day to stare deeply into the eyes of a ladybug, watch the clouds change shape or thinking deep thoughts. Future musicians should spend 20 minutes a day listening to classical music, or jazz. Future tattoo artists should spend 20 minutes a day making sharpie art on their tummies and coloring within the lines.

But who knows what’s in a child’s future? If we’re all born with unique talents and aptitudes, why on earth would anyone direct a child AWAY from what interests them? Adults spend a great deal of time and energy learning how to follow their bliss, how to find their purpose, how to be their best and kids are born already knowing what they want. Why do we institutionalize them before they’ve had a chance to explore the world on THEIR terms? If you haven’t read the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, now would be a good time. All people are NOT created equally and it’s a damn good thing.

Learning to LOVE Written Communication

Very few things could make a human “hate” reading and writing. Here’s a quick list of ways to counteract the natural human desire to communicate:

Ways to make a kid hate reading and writing

  • Forcing them to read specific things that are not interesting
  • Forcing them to read to a timer
  • Reluctantly forcing yourself to read to them against your will every day
  • Limiting the “approved reading material” in any way
  • Making writing boring by insisting upon a letter-by-letter obsession with perfection (how many successful adults have perfect penmanship?)
  • Making your own marks on the paper they were writing (the nerve…)
  • Assigning arbitrary value to ANY form of written self-expression (accept it)
  • Reading ANYTHING in a journal, unless you’ve been invited to read it

Ways to help a kid love reading and writing

  • Read them the stories you loved as a child and let them share your passion
  • Talk about the characters, the setting and how you felt about the story
  • Allow them to choose whichever books they want you to read to them and read them
  • Visit the library regularly and let them choose books
  • Allow them to use the Internet for research and teach them how to find information online
  • Type (or write) as they narrate stories or love letters.
  • Print their words in a large font (so their eyes can focus on it) and let them illustrate their own story book or note to Grandma
  • Have a “reading nook” in a quiet corner of the house. A throw blanket, a place to sit your cocoa mug and good lighting are essential
  • Let them see you enjoying a book
  • Write them a bedtime story, maybe about the day you met your spouse or something that happened when you were a child, or the day they were born
  • Give books as gifts
  • Keep books in the car
  • Write them notes
  • Send them cards
  • Let them hold the grocery list and cross off items as you get them

This is just a few from the top of my head. I bet I could add a hundred more. What are some of your favorite ways to share a love of reading with your children?

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