How to Raise a Smart Kid, Part One: Read a Lot

encouraging kids to read

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As a brand ambassador for Better Beginnings, I am being compensated for this post, but all opinions are my own.

My daughter started at her new school during the summer, and one day I walked in to pick her up and the teachers were kind of laughing.

“She’s teaching me now,” one of the teachers said, going on to explain the girl’s insistence that a caterpillar doesn’t go into a cocoon but a chrysalis.

Oh. Yeah. She can be kind of insistent when she knows something.

“Do you work with her at home?” the other teacher asked. “What are you doing?”

A lot of things, as it turns out, which I decided to turn into this series. I make no guarantees these things will work in your family, but this is what we’ve done to raise a kid who I hope you’ll allow me to say is pretty darn smart.

The first thing I said has to do with reading.

The Theoretical Limits of a Library Card

“We read a lot,” I said. But “a lot” barely covers it.

We usually go to the library at least once a week, but it was often twice during the hot part of the summer. I let her check out whatever she wants and however much she wants.

reading kids
I think she’s actually reading library books while watching TV.

She just turned five, and she can read a little, but that doesn’t stop us from ranging widely through the children’s section.

Some days she wants simple toddler books that she can read to me. Sometimes she wants picture books with more of a story. We cruise through easy readers for Berenstain Bears books, and we often look at the easy chapter books, too.

And we bring home whatever she wants. We don’t always read them, or not always all the way through, but we always check them out.

A few weeks ago, we had 40 books.

One of them was mine.

encouraging kids to read
Reading while waiting for food at a restaurant after a library visit.

This girl loves to read. She loves to look at books by herself. She loves to read to me and to be read to. She’ll flip through books and tell other stories she knows while reading to a doll.

It’s all very cute and all great for language development and reading skills.

How to Raise a Reader

I have the experience of exactly one child, and I know luck and genetics play a role in how much our kid likes books. (I also know it could still change later in life, but for now I’m loving it.)

But here are some of the things we have done that I think would help anyone trying to encourage good reading from the beginning.

kid bookshelves
The bookshelves in the girl’s room. This is actually not that messy, as they go.
  1. Read a lot. I started reading to the girl almost from birth (what else was I going to do with her all day?). I started with grown up books, because I just wanted her to hear language that I love. But there were always books around and I don’t really remember a time when we weren’t reading, though we didn’t start bedtime reading until she was about 18 months.
  2. Read everything. Again, I try not to put limits on what she reads, or what she chooses from the library or the bookstore. Which means her bookshelves and book baskets are overflowing with everything from “baby” books to chapter books, nursery rhymes to wordless picture books. And we read a lot of it, all the time.
  3. Keep books everywhere. There are books in her room, the living room and the playroom. I let her keep books in the car. Some books are allowed outside, but we try to keep them on the covered porch because that often ends poorly. Give them lots of opportunities to pick up a book.

    reading with kids
    And these are the book baskets in the living room. Clearly ripe for reorganization, thanks to birthday books.
  4. Let your child guide you. She gets to say what we read, when we read and for how long. Yes, this means sometimes we read the whole Six by Seuss book or the full collection of Curious George stories (which takes an hour and a half). If she wanders away I’ll ask if she wants to keep reading. She usually says yes. I try not to say no, at least until my voice gives out.
  5. Get caught reading. All that reading to her doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading myself while she’s awake, but often I carry a book around, and I read while she’s playing at the library or the park, or even while she’s watching TV. It’s good for her to know that we like to read, too.
  6. Talk about books. When something comes up in life that’s relevant, mention a storyline from a book you’ve read. Or if your child talks about a book, respond with enthusiasm, even if you’re not sure what they’re talking about. She has a much better memory for stories than I do sometimes.
  7. Try not to complain. Some kids’ books are boring. Or you might just really dislike something that your kid loves. I’ve been know to grumble “please, not that one!” on occasion, but I try to never say no to a book unless it’s just too long for the amount of time we have for reading.

Advice from Better Beginnings

If you’d like a more professional take on the importance — and how to — of reading with littles, check out this PDF on Making Reading Fun from Better Beginnings. If there’s a baby in your house, read this one on language development; it, of course, includes reading.

And if you have tips on reading with kids — especially older kids who might have lost some of their enthusiasm for books — I’d love to hear them. Or tell me your favorite (or your kids’ favorite) books.

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  1. I was your daughter as a child. Read encyclopedias because that’s what was on the shelf, read the backs of shampoo bottles in the bathroom to learn to pronounce multi-syllabic words… 🙂 My girls and I read a lot, but we got out of the habit as they grew, and I have not done it as much with my son for some reason. His bookshelf looks the same though. Need to get back to it.

  2. I have read *everything* since I was a child, including the ingredients on cereal boxes if there was nothing else handy! (That can be scary, by the way.) You’re doing a great job of allowing your daughter to grow up a reader!

  3. This is spot on! I believe reading to and with your child is one of the most important gifts your can give. I know that as a parent, a grandparent and a teacher. Thanks for sharing this.

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