required + reading

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“Reading time! Grab your book!”

This is what I call out to Mr. T, who is in the backyard, walking circles around the trampoline, lost in thought. He gives me his usual just-a-minute and eventually comes in, pulls Hunter from the book basket and sprawls himself in every direction across the leather chair like an egg spreading in a skillet. He opens his book and begins to read. Across from him on the couch I smile, smug as can be, open mine and do the same.

Reading time is a new thing that I’ve instituted around here. And here’s the weird part: Reading time is required.

I know, I know! I am a person who believes that the words required and reading should not be allowed in the same sentence. I have never been in a book club—much as I love talking about books—because I can’t stomach the notion of being forced to read what someone else tells me to. I grumble at summer library reading games that coerce kids into reading lists of books in exchange for mini pepperoni pizzas. I don’t even like books as gifts—unless the gift is a book I’ve asked for, or a cookbook. Gift books feel like reading obligations.

Reading should be—when you aren’t in school anyway, and I wish it were more so in schools—all about freedom. Reading freedom is a First Amendment basic here in the U.S. and it runs through my blood instead of Coca Cola. I believe in freedom to read what you want, and when you want to! While sprawled in your pose of choice, in the place of your choosing!

That philosophy has worked well in our homeschooling lives. My older two kids were always hungry readers. I rarely had to encourage them to read; more likely, I had to nag them to put a book down to empty the dishwasher already! They read pretty much whatever they wanted to, although I did occasionally nudge forward a few classics that I thought they’d enjoy.

T is different. It’s not that he doesn’t read; he’s just not as avid about it. Actually, that’s not true. He doesn’t read traditional fiction the way his siblings did. He learned to read by way of comics, and will still read any new comic that appears from library or bookstore, from cover to cover in a sitting. (And I’m talking about the sort of comic collections that go on for over a hundred pages.) He picks up the nonfiction books I check out if they captivate him—he’s a sucker for sundry information. He enjoys fiction read by me, and via audiobook. We almost always have both a read-aloud and an audiobook going.

He will also tell you that he reads constantly on the computer. Information about everything from secret societies to black holes to gaming news.

True. But it’s not the same, I tell him, as reading a well-written book. I know that there’s good writing here on the Internet (I hope you, dear reader, ahem, think so too) but I want him to read books as well, old-school thinker that I am. Long books. I want him to get lost in a novel, or a lengthy book of nonfiction once in a while.

I’d even made a point of ordering that book, Hunter, because it was the next volume in a series T had actually relished, yet he hadn’t been able to get into it. The book sat around for weeks–even when I left it prominently strewn on the kitchen table–closed tight.

I began to suspect that it wasn’t that T didn’t enjoy reading; he’d simply lost the habit of it.

You know how when you read a book every night as you’re falling asleep, and you never make it past a paragraph or two, and before long you come to the conclusion that the book is dull? But is the dull book putting you to sleep, or does the book merely seem dull because you are so tired at night that you never let the text’s momentum build? (The literary equivalent of the tree and its sound or lack thereof in the forest, depending on audience.) I think it’s the second case, more often than not. Why else do books seem so darned wonderful when you’re on vacation? Because you give them the chunks of time they’re due, and you let the story draw you in. You get over the hump of boredom and go skidding down the other side.

Considering this, I though back to when I was an elementary teacher, back in the olden days when there was a popular activity in classrooms called SSR. Sustained Silent Reading. Can you imagine a more awful name for something that a teacher is trying to promote as enjoyable? It sounds more like a communist party than a way of appreciating books. We just called it Silent Reading Time in my classroom, and it was actually a beloved part of the day for my students. They got to read whatever they wanted (and I worked at curating a tempting classroom library.) There was no expectation of subsequent work tied to that reading. It was reading for the simple pleasure of it.

Which is how I arrived at the notion of Reading Time for T and me.

I was nervous the first time we tried it. The last thing I wanted to do was taint reading with the stink of requiredness. So I just said Hey, you haven’t been reading much lately, so let’s have some quiet reading time. I’ll read too. And he went with it. He sprawled himself on that leather chair. It was better than being told that he had to clean his bathroom, after all. Or work on ratios and percentages.

So we sat in our family room, the afternoon sun doing the good work of slanting in and elevating the endeavor. I curled my legs on the couch, opened my book and felt like I was on vacation. And when I got up twenty minutes later to go to the store for dinner fixings, T kept reading.

When we did it again a few nights later, he kept reading until it got late.

“You need to go to bed, bud,” I said. “It’s eleven.”

“But I’m at the epilogue!” he said, still on that leather chair.

Like any wise mother, I know that an epilogue should not be interrupted. He slept late the next morning.

I’ve now loaded up the book basket with Hunter’s prequels, and other tempting books about futuristic worlds and epic adventures. Writing this though, I realize that I haven’t made a call for Reading Time this week.

I remind myself: If I want my kid to make reading a priority, I need to make it one too.

22 comments… add one
  • Kirsten Oct 8, 2014 @ 14:15

    This sounds like a great plan! Reminds me of your homeschool habit in general (which I read about recently and have thought about a lot since). I don’t think I’ll make reading a requirement for my children – my 6yo in particular responds rather badly to explicit requirements! But I don’t think I read nearly enough in front of them. I keep it for after they’ve gone to bed, when I can get a bit of peace! So I think I need to start making reading during the day a requirement for me, because I know that, chances are, they’ll want to come and read alongside me, or at least have me read to them. Wish me luck!

    • patricia Oct 8, 2014 @ 20:47

      Yes, Kirsten, I’ve always been guilty of reading after my kids go to bed. There’s so much else that’s pressing during the day–but what could be more important than encouraging kids to read by setting an example? And what could be more enjoyable than getting to read in the middle of the day? Win-win! Good luck! (And I’m going to be careful of my pants tweets in the future. *snicker*)

  • amy Oct 8, 2014 @ 14:30

    Sustained Silent Reading! Like Ramona!!

    • patricia Oct 8, 2014 @ 20:50

      Yes! I looked up SSR to see if it was still a commonly used phrase, and Wikipedia mentioned Ramona! “Sustained” is such a ridiculous word in this context. Makes me laugh.

  • Lori Oct 8, 2014 @ 17:35

    Love it! Silent Reading Time and Teacher Read-Aloud Time were always my and my students’ favorite time of the day!

    • patricia Oct 8, 2014 @ 20:51

      Kids almost universally love to read if there’s time set aside for it, don’t they, Lori?

      • Lori Oct 8, 2014 @ 21:12

        Absolutely! Especially when they’re allowed to read what interests them and when they’re not pressured to read before they’re ready.

        • patricia Oct 8, 2014 @ 21:13


        • Lori Oct 8, 2014 @ 21:42

          You’ll appreciate this, Patricia: we’re almost through our fifth rereading of the entire Harry Potter series with me reading it aloud. My daughters, 9 and 12, still love it and now my husband complains if we read it without him! 🙂

          P.S. Let me know if you’re ever in Sacramento and would have time for a cup of tea and a chat!

          • patricia Oct 9, 2014 @ 6:53

            Your fifth time through?! You deserve a trophy! Or at least a wand of your own! That’s fantastic.

            What a lovely invite. Thank you! (Too bad the HSC Conference is no longer in Sacramento. I used to go every year.)

  • Your T sounds like my DS9. He reads all the time but in pieces. It’s hard for him to sit and read a whole book in one sitting (or two). It takes him weeks to finish a book if I don’t nag him to read a bit every day. Then again, if it’s comic books or a really funny book he will inhale it. He will carry it around. Read it on trips. In the bathroom.

    I do read alouds too. As well as audiobooks. Just to keep my kids reading and to get my fix of all the good stuff out there. I tried a western for the first time. Reading a Louis L’amour to my kids. WE should finish it tomorrow. I couldn’t wait and read on to the end the night before last. 🙂

    I myself read 4-5 books at once. Got all these stories and situations going on at the same time. I think a good example is very important. They can’t NOT read in a household that reads all the time.

    I do feel, at my house at least, Minecraft is too blame for not enough reading. The Nazi police is getting ready to do away with Minecraft in my house. Ugh! 🙁 Maybe then, DS9 will have more time for long books instead of hours on end of gaming.

    Maybe I need to call a computer fast at my house!

    • patricia Oct 8, 2014 @ 20:57

      I know that computer/reading battle, Tereza. That was a big reason for starting Reading Time with T. I knew he’d enjoy it, if we made a time when computers weren’t an option. There’s something about me reading alongside that makes it different than me saying, “Go read!”

  • Heather Oct 9, 2014 @ 7:58

    I like this idea a lot, Patricia. I too balk at anything required when it comes to reading and writing for that matter. We used to do trickle down reading-I would read to everyone from our read-aloud, my oldest would read to his sister a book of her choosing and then she would read to the youngest. It worked well for us. I think we may need to set aside time again for reading with this new twist. All of my kiddos read a lot, but they are missing some of the juicier novels in favor of the comic.

    • patricia Oct 9, 2014 @ 8:12

      Check out mama scout’s response to this post yesterday on Instagram too, Heather. I love how she and her family do it. Long chunks of time! Daily!

      • Heather Oct 9, 2014 @ 8:20

        I saw Amy’s photo. I think this could be great for us. I may just want an excuse to have my own reading time!

    • patricia Oct 9, 2014 @ 8:23

      Exactly. Works for everyone!

  • Melissa S. Oct 10, 2014 @ 18:37

    Love this. When our schedule allows, we still do midday down-time (a descendant of naptime) which involves a half hour of quiet. I don’t dictate how the time should be used, but reading and drawing are usually what my kids gravitate toward and it often extends beyond a half hour if they are immersed in their activity. I think having that time to slow down and step out of the business of the day helps to put them into the mindset that “sustained silent reading” requires (totally cracking up at that term — I remember it well).

    So… can I peek a bit more into Mr T’s book basket? I see some of my 10yo son’s favorites in there (Super Human series, Cartoon History, ANY GRAPHIC NOVEL ON THE FACE OF THIS EARTH, etc) and wonder if Mr T may have any other book recommendations…?

    • patricia Oct 14, 2014 @ 22:39

      Melissa! I am always happy to have you show up here again! Ah, yes, we had a down-time too, dubbed “quiet time” around here. Many, many years ago. I agree that time to slow down and go within is such an important part of a day.

      I think you’ve already scoped out all the good stuff in our book basket! I don’t have much in the way of fiction to recommend, as T hasn’t been reading it much lately. He’s been watching Sherlock, so I picked up some audiobooks of the original series at the library, and I also got the first of this series of Holmes as a teenager. I have no idea yet if it’s any good.

      Totally unrelated to the other books above, we recently listened to the audio version of The One and Only Ivan together. It’s a book geared to younger kids, but we liked it a lot.

      If I think of anything else, I will come back and report.

      I can’t believe that H is ten! Holy cow, how did that happen?

  • dawn Oct 18, 2014 @ 17:43

    ds7’s second-grade classroom calls is SQR (sustained quiet reading, i think). the kids often bring a stuffed animal to read quietly to. that, and the teacher reading aloud every day from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are probably my son’s favorite parts of his school day. they are the things he consistently talks to me about.

    since joining this teacher’s classroom, my son is eager to check books out of the library (he hadn’t before). he gets excited when i tell him that i picked up some new books for him. he requests particular titles and authors. and he asks to read to me every. single. night.

    hooray for reading time!

    • patricia Oct 18, 2014 @ 22:12

      Hi Dawn!

      Isn’t that interesting that he’s excited to check out books from the library now? Sounds like the simple habit of daily classroom reading time made a difference.

      Sometimes habits are good! I love that he wants to read to you every night.

  • Carrie Pomeroy Oct 28, 2014 @ 6:49

    I love this idea and think I might want to steal it, as I’ve stolen so many other of your ideas. Like a few other folks here, I wish there were some sort of app that would allow me to dig around in that book basket! Looks like a great collection.

    I was struck again by how much T. reminds me of my own son, just turned 12. My B. does read fiction, but generally only if it’s a series involving magical powers, time travel, or kid spies, with plenty of humor (nothing too earnest, ever!). Like T., he’s a fact collector, and he spends most of his reading time these days poring over nonfiction collections that collect odd bits of trivia, like the Bathroom Reader series or a book his dad brought home from the library about the world’s most off-limits, restricted places. Like T., my son also spends many hours walking in circles on the backyard trampoline. Does your guy make up stories and plot out his next adventure on his favorite video game on the trampoline, too? Sure is a great thinking spot for my young man.

    Like you, I really value reading being a chosen activity and letting the kids choose their own reading material (though I do plenty of strewing good stuff around the house). Usually for our read-alouds, I let the kids run the show on what we choose, but occasionally, I ask if we can read something that really looks good to me and that shakes up our usual habit a bit. Last summer, I read a great book to the kids about the 1963 children’s march in Birmingham, We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson, and the kids were riveted. I was so glad we’d read it when Ferguson hit the news this summer; it really gave us a good context in which to understand what was happening in Missouri.

    Thanks for another honest, reassuring, and thought-provoking post!

    • patricia Oct 31, 2014 @ 9:37

      Our guys sure do seem similar, Carrie! T is most definitely inventing when he’s on the trampoline. He’s been designing a game for a few years now. It’s a role-playing game, though it’s heavily based on video games. He’s been testing it, compiling stats for it, writing backstory, etc. This compulsion and love of inventing games and worlds is fascinating to me. I’m working on a column about it.

      I love to add my own book selections to our rotation too. I often do it via audiobook. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor was a recent chosen-by-me hit.

      How is your writing going? You still working on your project? Send me an email if you have a chance. I’d love to hear.

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