Tips for Mentoring Students into Advanced Readers...


Every parent and teacher longs to have their students become proficient and joyful readers. My husband and I thought long and hard about how we would approach this in our homeschool and this post gives an overview of our plan. Our school currently has four proficient readers, one emerging reader ,and 3 pre-readers (if you include the one in utero!). My experience is  limited to the size of my family but because they all have such different personalities and learning strengths and yet all eligible students excel in this area, I thought it might be helpful to others to lay out the common factors I think contribute to reading success.


The primary contributing factor is what might be called a Culture of Reading within the home. When reading becomes such a common and positive activity in which little ones long to participate, the problem of motivation becomes a non-issue. Homeschoolers have a huge advantage in this area because reading isn't just a separate school subject, but can easily become a regular source of joy and comfort. There is no one around during those early lessons to poison their mind with words such as "I hate reading!" The opportunity for positive encouragement and example is constant.

When my oldest son was six-years old, he was already reading many books with very few or no pictures. His 4-year old sister would watch him sit in the rocking chair for hours staring at those pages. When he left that chair she would race to it, pick up the book and study it, trying to figure out what the tremendous attraction was to all those tiny black markings. Naturally, she desired to participate in this activity that her beloved brother so often engaged in. 

Each subsequent child has had a similar response to the reading interests of the older siblings. When asked if they would like to learn to read, the instant and enthusiastic answer is always "YES!!" They feel that they are about to take hold of a beautiful treasure!


Another way that reading becomes a positive activity in the home is when it is a primary indoor (and often outdoor) leisure activity. It is given the time and place to blossom and take hold of a child's heart and mind. That means that television must have an extremely limited presence in the early development of interests. During later years, it must not be allowed to stunt interest that developed early. Many families I know limit television watching to only preselected videos allowed at limited times. Aside from keeping a lot of visual and audio trash out of the Ecclesiae Domestica, it also creates an environment that elevates the profile of the family book shelf.

I suspect that I'm mostly preaching to the choir on these issues but I do have one additional recommendation that some do not agree with me on...


I recommend limiting the reading of secular grade school level chapter books. By this, I mean books or book series in the style of those written by authors such as Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume. I disagree with educators and parents who are happy to have reading as an end in itself. The common indication of this mindset is the statement "Well, at least he's reading."  Something. Anything. That's the idea, right? I disagree.


Why do we teach reading? What is the purpose of developing a love and proficiency for reading? We all agree that reading has a rightful place among pleasant leisure activities. As Christians, we also know that it's primary role is to serve the highest end of man by providing rich food for the mind and soul. We should be working to bring our students to a higher level of skill and comprehension than these books promise.

By the time a student reaches high school, he should be able to read, comprehend and even enjoy the works of important historical figures, great classics of Western civilization, significant documents of state, and non-fiction literature relevant to their faith and the Sacred Scriptures. And I gotta tell you... high school comes up quickly... and it's just a hop skip to college. They will not be able to accomplish this task if they have been fed primarily with a steady diet of fluff as long as they like.

Please note, I am not saying that fluff is always bad or inherently evil. I am saying that it is attractive, addictive, and distracting and needs to be extremely limited. In other words, a steady diet of Harry Potter and American Girl books (regardless of how well loved or decent the books may be) will not develop the intellectual life but only keep it blissfully stagnant at the grade school level. 

Just like children, we adults dislike reading what does not come to us easily. Children who hate reading hate it because it is difficult and consequently unpleasant. Adults who hate reading adult level literature suffer from the same problem. We either lack the fundamental skill and vocabulary or we are not accustomed to taxing ourselves with challenging subject matter.

When I was a student, I followed the prescribed path of easy fictional chapter books all the way to 8th grade, with a brief nod to classic literature in high school, and was then released into adulthood with a rather impoverished (and overinflated opinion of) my reading skills. I had to relearn how to read. It was humbling and took years of hard work to grow. I wanted more for my kids. 

When my son was in the 5th grade, he was reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Jules Verne, and Tolkien. All of his grade level peers attending local Catholic schools (with whom he played sports) were all reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid as part of their coursework. 

Are we better than everyone else? Clearly not. We just have the freedom and flexibility as homeschoolers to decide our academic purpose and proceed without the influence of a set institutional curriculum. Consequently, Diary of a Wimpy Kid will not be read by our students of any age. 

So, how do we help our kids make the jump from beginning reader to readers of good books? I admit that it is a challenging stage with the largest dearth of options. But it also should be a relatively short period of time.  It is a mistake to allow that brief period to extend to an entire childhood. If we navigate carefully and thoughtfully during this brief window with a concrete goal in mind, we will be able to give our children the gift of an enjoyable and mature level of reading.

I'll be posting a basic reading list soon with suggestions for each grade level based on what my kids love. 

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments. Please remember that I'm not telling you what you should do... only sharing what has worked well for my family.

Posted on May 21, 2010 and filed under "teaching reading".