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Home Education Magazine

March-April 1998 - Columns

Older Kids - Cafi Cohen

Encouraging Reading

Denise is just this side of panic. She has recently taken her 14-year-old son out of school because he still cannot read anything except the most basic material. How will he ever make a living?

Marcia has a different problem. Her 13-year-old daughter seems stuck in second gear. For more than a year, her homeschooler has restricted her reading to the books of only two authors. On a charitable day, Marcia calls this material kiddie junk fiction. How can Marcia get her daughter to try a biography or poetry or even a how-to book?

Dan faces yet a third challenge. He wants to ensure two things: that his teenagers have a broad educational base and that they are well prepared for college.

I believe that all of these parents' concerns can be addressed with some of the same approaches. Over the years - by talking to other parents, by observing hundreds of homeschooling families, and by trial and error - we discovered a number of techniques that encourage reading (for non-readers and reluctant readers) and that stimulate kids to try more diverse and challenging materials, including some of the classics. Here is my short list.

Volume and Variety

Accumulate a lot of reading material. Build a good home library by frequenting garage sales (books for pennies), library sales, school give-aways. We found that large school districts, especially, scrap great stuff. They do not know what to do with a book like Little House On The Prairie because it lacks a study guide. Call your district and ask what they do with discards.

Think variety in building your home library. The classics are nice, but also include current fiction for all ages, biographies, how-to manuals, poetry and short story collections, popular history and science books, reference books, magazines, and catalogs.

The Trip Factor

Make reading material accessible in your home. Avoid hiding books in closed cabinets and closets. Put them out - on coffee tables and convenient bookshelves, next to the tub, even in the middle of the floor. I wish I had a nickel for every time my kids started reading something they "accidentally" discovered in our home. Surreptitiously arranging for our teenagers to trip over a new title was much more effective than recommending it.

Locating Good Reads

Teach your kids the basics of locating good books. Make certain they can use the library card catalog to find material on favorite subjects and by favorite authors. Most kids discover that if they like a certain book, a second book by the same author will probably appeal to them just as much. But often kids overlook asking the librarian or friends for recommendations of similar authors: "I like Roald Dahl's books; who writes similar fiction?"

Introduce your older children to annotated reading lists and book reviews. Your librarian can help you find reading lists with comments for each recommended title. As a starter for book reviews, read the Home Education Magazine column "So Many Books," and discuss which books would be fun to try. My favorite reviews are at, a large on-line bookstore that features comments by both professional reviewers and interested readers.

Grace Llewellyn (in The Teenage Liberation Handbook) says, "Cultivate the habit of browsing." Teach your kids (by example) to wander around the library or a large bookstore and grab what looks interesting. To save money, I browse bookstores with a pencil and paper and make lists of items to request at the library. Browsing on-line, at or other sites, raises bookstore browsing to a new, efficient, fun level.

Respect Kids' Reading Choices

Many new homeschooling parents worry about grade-level reading, finishing everything, covering the classics, answering "comprehension" questions - in other words, didactic approaches to reading. If you want a home full of avid readers, I would encourage you instead to respect your kids' reading choices.

Do not worry about grade level (assuming you can figure out what constitutes a given grade level). Some material your teenagers choose may be too difficult (that's how readers build vocabulary and reading competence). Other books may be too easy (that's where readers learn to read for enjoyment, when the "tasks" associated with reading disappear).

Also, do not worry about incomplete reads, that is discarding a book before finishing it. I used to ask our kids to give everything a 10% chance. A 10% chance means that you read 10% of a book or article - give it a fair trial - before you give up on it. For a 230 page book, that would be 23 pages. If the 230 page book bored you silly for the first 23 pages, there is little likelihood you will get anything out of it. Proceed to something else. As more than one tee shirt and coffee mug has informed me: so many books, so little time.

Similarly, in our home, we did not discourage re-reading. Both my kids read certain books over and over. They both said that every time they re-read a selection, they found something new to consider and came afresh to appreciate the author's form and style.

Family Read Aloud

A staple of educating younger children is: Read To Me. It works great with older kids as well. Pick titles that the whole family can enjoy. Reading aloud is a wonderful way to explore poetry and prose. You can also use it to introduce classics, unfamiliar subjects, and other material your teenagers might not select for themselves. Some books we began as read-alouds, the kids - not wanting to wait for the next installment - finished on their own.


We loved discussing books over meals. Our kids tried many different titles after hearing their father and I dissect plot, characters, and style. Your reading - and particularly your talking about reading - may stimulate your kids. Dinnertime discussion is a way for parents to provide what teachers call "advance organizers." An advance organizer is - roughly speaking - an overall description of the book, its characters, its themes. It makes it easier to read the book, especially a challenging one.

Conducive Environment

Make certain that your home is conducive to reading. More specifically, make certain there are quiet areas where kids can read. This may mean limiting numbers of TV's, time TV is permitted, and so on. Often when I meet parents who complain that their kids "never read," I find a TV in every room of the house or a TV blaring all day long.

Pretty Packages

When I was a teenager (in the 1960's), I often fingered a copy of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility at the public library. I probably even checked it out once or twice, but I never got past the first paragraph in the heavy, dark, forbidding-looking hardbound book. Sitting on my desk today, I have a Dover Thrift Edition of the same book. This paperback is attractively bound, lightweight, 261 non-intimidating pages. What a difference. I know, in this format, I would have read this book as a teenager. They say, "Don't judge a book by its cover." But I do.

And I suspect most teenagers do. Stay away from literature texts for that reason. Can anyone enjoy anything between the covers of a 10-pound book? Can anyone fail to enjoy something like the Dover Thrift Editions, which are so sensually pleasing?

Reading Groups

Encourage your teenagers to form reading groups. Generally, these groups meet monthly to discuss a previously-agreed-upon title. Reading groups, inter-generational or composed only of other teenagers, encourage all readers to articulate their thoughts about the reading selection. Often your kids will plough through a classic for a reading group that they would never attempt on their own. It is fun to learn how many different ways readers of the same book interpret it.

Books On Tape

More and more, we are seeing books on tape in bookstores and at our local library. These are great for slow and reluctant readers as well as for those who want to be introduced painlessly to a new genre or subject. I have known several homeschoolers who "covered" a fair number of classics - all on tape. We also found books on tape an interesting way to pass the time on long car trips.

I have met more than one homeschooler (with severe dyslexia) who learned almost everything from books on tape. Books on tape are educational life-savers for true dyslexics, for those with compromised vision, for kids who learn better through the auditory channel, and even for some hyperactive kids who need to move around a lot all the time.

Covering the "Classics"

Is there a list of classics and must-reads for the high school years? How about college preparatory books? Actually, there are hundreds (thousands?) of recommended reading lists (just check the Internet or ask your librarian for one pertaining to teenagers and college prep). And nThem cite the same list of books. No list is definitive; there are no Must Reads, no books whose lack will create The Great Educational Hole.

The principal value to such lists is that they constitute another source of ideas for reading. What to try next - for family read aloud, for the teenager seeking a challenge, for a reading group, for books on tape - what to try next may come from These lists. Also, perusing these lists shows you what impresses college admissions officers. Just do not feel that any one title is mandatory. If your teen is having trouble with a certain recommended book, you can always find something equally impressive he will enjoy more. Just use the 10% trial rule and shop around!

See The Movie

Occasionally, perhaps for an independent-study course or out of sheer curiosity, your teenager will need or want to tackle something that he finds incomprehensible. To make it through these titles, try the following advance organizers.

*See the movie. My daughter came to love many Shakespeare plays after seeing the corresponding movies. My son made it through MacBeth (required for an English Literature correspondence course) after seeing the movie three times.

*Listen to the tape. The entire selection or an abridgement may be available on books on tape. Many selections that seem incomprehensible in written form come to life on tape.

*Read the Cliff's notes (available at large bookstores or college bookstores) or similar summaries. Cliff's notes are synopses of commonly-read classics. I also like the summaries in The Great American Bathroom Book, Volumes I, II, and III (originally published as Compact Classics).

*Read reviews plus the first chapter and last chapter of a difficult title - and call it good. The reviews can provide you with the plot and characters of a required reading; the first and last chapters give you a sampling of the author's style.

Log It!

Recordkeeping is an important incentive for some kids. Reading logs are fairly easy to keep and can develop into impressive documentation for college applications. Like scrapbooks, we enjoyed perusing these logs several years later. I suggest that all homeschoolers begin keeping a reading log at age 12 or 13, if not earlier.

What goes in the log? Just three columns - unless your kid wants to do more. The columns are Author, Title, and Rating, 1-10: 1 being a book not completed because it was so boring/incomprehensible, and 10 being a book so great it will be re-read often.

© 1998 Cafi Cohen

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