Ditch the home readers – real books are better for your child

Sometimes Fun with Dick and Jane isn’t so fun after all, meaning kids will disengage from reading. Liz West/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As school resumes for the new year, the “home reader” routine for primary school children also recommences. For many parents and children, reading these short texts can be the most agonising part of the nightly homework routine. It’s no wonder that so many children dislike reading their home reader.

These books are often mass-produced, boring texts that hold little excitement or mystery. Frequently, they are the same book that your child has read before, either in class or as a previous week’s home reader.

However, parents brave the battle of reading these books every night as we all understand that learning to read takes practice. Parents are often all too familiar with their own experiences of Dick and Jane-type readers from their childhood.

Reading does take practice and time to master. Children do need ample opportunities to practise their reading, therefore reading at home is vital. However, it is important these reading experiences are enjoyable, fun and exciting. Otherwise, what is the benefit of returning tomorrow?

What are home readers, where do they come from and how are they used?

Home readers are short, easy-to-read books, which are typically levelled in terms of reading difficulty. Children in the lower primary school grades typically borrow a number of these books each week to take home for reading practice. In many cases, children are given books matched to, or slightly below, their reading level. Books are sometimes chosen for them by the teacher, a parent helper or by the students themselves.

Commercial reading programs provide schools with an easy, quick way to add multiple copies of these readers to their classroom libraries. The accompanying resources that are supplied with these kits are typically generic lessons. The International Reading Association has warned teachers to ensure the materials are accompanied by research supporting their success.

Standardised readers don’t allow the teacher to tailor instruction to suit the students' needs. Shutterstock

Commercial reading programs frequently fool the purchasers into believing that using their standardised system will make learning to read easier and faster. However, these programs very rarely cater for the individual and diverse needs of students and are infrequently supported by research. Teachers that differentiate their instruction during reading lessons are those who will best suit the varying and complex needs of the children in their class.

Research indicates that many commercial reading programs spend too much time focusing on word analysis instruction (the sound of the word) rather than thinking about what the words – and the book – mean. The prescriptive lessons described to teachers in support materials for these books also do not consider the often different and varying needs of students within a particular class.

Why should we ditch the home readers?

Recent research highlights that when children are provided with the opportunity to select their own reading material, they achieve greater levels of success. Sometimes, these choices may be harder, but the interest level creates the opportunity for the child to stay motivated to solve their normal reading problems.

Ironically, further research just released by Scholastic, a major publisher of commercial reading programs, highlights the importance of wide, varied and self-selected reading in creating fluent and resourceful readers.

Parents often feel as though they have no choice when it comes to reading home readers with their children and feel unable to speak with authority about this with their child’s teacher. All teachers are open to new possibilities in order to engage the children in their class to read. A short note or meeting quickly explaining the reading that you plan to do with your child and a selection of the books you are planning to read in lieu of the readers is more than adequate.

What should we read instead?

Real books! A visit to the school or local library or bookstore will unearth thousands of entertaining and enjoyable books to engage your child. Here are a few suggestions of how to start:

1. Let your child make the choice

Letting your child make their own choice about what they want to read is the most powerful way to encourage them to be motivated and interested readers. If your child loves dinosaurs, find the section in your local library and borrow as many as you can.

Don’t worry about the book being too hard – you can use a strategy to help your child access the text when reading together at home, or you can read it to them. Don’t worry if the book appears too easy – this will provide valuable reading practice for your child and it will be something that they can access independently.

Lastly, don’t make your child’s choice wrong – this is about them and their reading, you want them to be excited and wanting to return.

2. Use your librarian’s knowledge and expertise

Librarians are a frequently underutilised resource. Almost all will be able to supply a synopsis and name of great books that will interest and excite your child. A quick chat when you pop into the library each week with your child about reading interests and successes will keep you on top of the librarian’s mind – you’ll be amazed what they will keep aside for you each week.

3. Have fun when reading – don’t teach the book

Most importantly, make reading together the most fun and enjoyable part of your and your child’s day. Read the books together with funny voices, or take turns to read different characters. Talk about your favourite parts of the books when you are finished with them and which authors you like the most.

As cherished Australian author Mem Fox suggests, don’t teach the book – enjoy it!

Committing to a better reading life with your child does take time, to choose great books together and to experience them. For an hour each week visiting the local library, you can make a priceless investment in your child’s reading and educational future.