I grew up in a small rural town. Luckily, my parents were able to take me into the city from time to time. The city was a wonder to me – tall buildings and so, so much action. Still, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to grow up in the city. Until I met Harriet. Harriet, the spy.
Despite aspects of urban life in Harriet the Spy that were foreign to me (what’s a dumbwaiter?), I identified with Harriet’s relentless curiosity, the profoundness of making mistakes with friends, and the awkward but liberating necessity of apologizing for them.
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I longed to experience New York City as it was described in the book. But I also wanted to roam the frontier because of Davy Crockett, voyage to the South Pacific because of The Coral Island, and live as a gypsy poaching pheasants with my dad like Danny, the Champion of the World.
You see, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph I was growing into a reader. I wasn’t simply identifying with the interesting characters depicted in great books – I was coming to identify myself as a reader of books.
Ultimately, my transformation into a reader was one of the most important experiences of my life. Because I thought of myself as a reader, I found myself turning to books time and time again for the knowledge, pleasure, and inspiration I needed, no matter what I was going through. I still find few things as personally rewarding as reading a great book.
If, like me, your child identifies as a reader, he or she will eagerly reach for books and gain all the academic and personal benefits that come from having a lifelong love of reading. On a deeper level, being a reader will help define your child’s sense of self and life’s possibilities, and it will shape his or her relationship with the world and the other people in it.
What Does it Mean to be a Reader?
Because reading was so fun and illuminating for me, I wanted to read all the time. Of course, learning more about other people, time periods, and places was exciting, but what was even more thrilling was this feeling that I was actually having experiences that I couldn’t otherwise have in day-to-day life.
Whenever people read or listen to a great story—one that really captures their imagination—the rest of the world fades away and they no longer even think about the fact that they’re reading. They feel like they’re inside the story, living the adventures and feeling what the main character feels. They are the character. I wasn’t reading about Harriet; I was Harriet. This is what it means to be absorbed in a book. To be immersed, or “lost” in the world of the story.
Kids who grow up to be lifelong readers can get hooked on this feeling from a very early age. Once they have the experience of being absorbed in great books, they will want to have it again and again throughout their lives.
Even children who can’t read yet can get absorbed in a story and feel transported to another world whenever their parent or teacher reads a book aloud. You’ll see little kids listen to their teacher reading with rapt attention. They giggle at funny moments, cover their mouths in shock at surprising twists, and get excited when the main characters triumph. Even before they can read themselves, they are beginning to understand the impact of books.
When kids begin formal reading instruction you’ll see them working hard – maybe even struggling – to sound out words for the first time. The fun of listening to books read aloud and getting absorbed in great stories serves as an important motivator for kids in this stage. Children who understand the rewards of reading want to work hard and learn how to do it for themselves. They’re inspired to keep practicing in lots and lots of books.
By second or third grade, most children can read fluently, and you’ll notice that they make the switch to silent, independent reading. This is a big step for young readers. They’re ready to get ‘lost’ in good books without any outside assistance. This opens up so many new possibilities and new worlds. Independent readers can satisfy their curiosity and nurture a sense of discovery by getting absorbed in the tons of outstanding, imaginative children’s literature that’s out there.
As students enter middle and high school they’re ready to take things a step further and engage even more deeply with books. This is an age when kids are grappling with who they are and what their place in the world will be. Kids who read for pleasure can get help answering these questions as they read great works of literature with complex plots, themes, and characters. They explore problems and moral dilemmas firsthand through the lens of each character’s feelings and actions. This process helps students better understand themselves and others. They get plenty of opportunities to step into other people’s shoes, understand their circumstances, and develop empathy.
When you try to talk to a young person lost in a book, you may not get a response. This isn’t the typical ‘selective listening’ of teenagers, it just means that he or she is deeply absorbed in the story. He or she is growing into a reader, and into a better person.
Word by Word, Sentence by Sentence, Paragraph by Paragraph
The thrill of being lost in a book motivates students of all ages to read as much and as often as they can. It encourages them to develop a regular reading habit.
Why is making a habit of reading important?
The fact is that avid readers get through more words, more pages, and more books than occasional readers. They give themselves more opportunities to learn and grow. They have richer experiences in a wider variety of books. They come out ahead: they’re much stronger readers than their peers who don’t read as often.
The impact of reading for pleasure for an average of just 20 minutes a day is staggering. By middle and high school, if the average student were to read 20 minutes per day, their yearly total would top one million words read.
Just a few extra minutes of reading for pleasure each day really starts to add up. Reading thousands and thousands of words will really improve your child’s reading skills and confidence, and that will motivate him or her to read even more. Your child will finish lots of wonderful books and have many rich, positive experiences with reading, year after year. Becoming a reader will change your child’s life for the better, no matter his or her age.
Reading for Pleasure will Lead to Greater Success in School
Doing a lot of reading outside of school will boost your child’s academic achievement in more ways than you might imagine.
Time spent reading is time spent getting better at reading. Pleasure readers score higher on reading achievement tests and are much more likely to read above grade-level. They read with stronger comprehension than children who seldom read outside of school. Their reading is more fluent, and they read faster than their peers. Reading helps them develop greater stamina and a longer attention span, too.
Lots of reading is also the single-most effective way to build an extensive vocabulary. Readers are exposed to a variety of words that they might not otherwise encounter in everyday life. By the end of high school, the difference in the number of vocabulary words learned by students who read for pleasure and those who don’t is monumental.
Strong readers become strong writers. Along with having a large vocabulary at their disposal, children who read a lot have a better understanding of language, grammar, and story composition. They are even better spellers.
Strong readers become strong students. Children who read for pleasure earn higher grades and test scores in practically every subject, not just reading. Frequent readers build more knowledge; through stories, they often become acquainted with places, events, and concepts before they are introduced at school. They score better on achievement tests in all subject areas, including social studies and science. It’s even been shown that pleasure readers score higher in math.
Being a reader can make a big difference in how a child views school. Children who read for pleasure are more confident and have a more positive attitude about school than children who rarely read. If you don’t read outside of school, school assignments are always your most challenging reading, and they only get more difficult. As pleasure readers continue to read, they seek out increasingly challenging books, so they naturally continue to improve their reading skills. This means that they’re able to confidently keep pace with the increasing difficulty at school.
It’s clear that there are many academic benefits of reading, but the impact of being a reader goes far beyond school performance. Reading for pleasure is also an unmatched source of inspiration and important life lessons.
Reading a Great Book will Spark Your Child’s Imagination
Getting lost in a truly great book is not only fun, it also expands your horizons. Being absorbed in the story you’re reading allows you to visit new places and go on exhilarating adventures right along with the main characters. Never been dog sledding in Alaska? Never scoured the seas for treasure with a pirate crew? Or jousted in a royal tournament? No matter. Just read a book and you can imaginatively do all these things and more – anything, really.
When you identify with the characters in a great work of literature, you’re on a journey with them. You’re doing what they do. You feel pain at the obstacles they face, and joy at their victories. It is possible to develop empathy and understanding for a wide array of people and cultures through reading.
Even the most fantastical story will teach your child valuable lessons that can be applied to real life situations. By going through ups and downs with the characters in a book, and observing where their actions and choices lead them, your child will be equipped to make tough decisions about everyday issues – everything from making friends, to facing fears with courage, to becoming independent, to showing love and kindness, and much, much more.
As much as I enjoyed imagining life in the city, what stuck with me most from Harriet the Spy were lessons about how to temper honesty with respect and empathy, and how to apologize to dear friends for mistakes.
I learned such wonderful, timeless lessons from that one book. And I was learning other important lessons from every book I read. Slowly but surely, being a reader helped me build a set of personal values and internal instructions for my life.
Reading Lots of Great Books will Shape Your Child’s Character and Outlook on Life
When reading is a regular part of your life, you read a lot of books. You meet a lot of characters, go on a lot of exciting adventures, and learn a lot of truths. You enlarge your perspective.
The cumulative effect of reading a lot is that you can see the innumerable, amazing possibilities in life. As your child reads great books, his or her capacity to imagine new possibilities will grow. Your child’s dreams will take flight, and he or she will be moved to try to make them come true.
Reading many books will also demonstrate for your child that there are always obstacles to getting where we want to go, but courage, perseverance, and faith exist to help us find a way forward, even when it seems impossible.
I know from personal experience that if your child can say with pride and confidence, “I am a reader,” it will make a big difference over the course of his or her lifetime. As a child, reading showed me that I had more paths open to me than I first thought. Even now, books continue to inspire me. They expand my imagination and motivate me to live the best life possible. They can do the same for your child.
Doug Evans started out as a reading teacher for the Institute in 1995 and spent more than a decade training teachers to provide inspiring instruction. He is currently the Executive Director of the Institute of Reading Development, where he was surprised and delighted to find a real dumbwaiter in the office!