As a lifelong reader and expert in education, Temima Feldman—general studies principal of the lower grades at Torah Academy for Girls in Far Rockaway, New York—has witnessed the Jewish community’s change in reading styles at home and in the classroom. Her reading interests tend toward historical fiction, while her children prefer graphic novels.
And she has seen a decrease in reading proficiency and in reading interest among many of the students she supervises. Coming from a variety of homes, some influenced by ubiquitous electronic devices, they often have short attention spans when reading. If they have any interest in reading, in the first place.
“It is hard to keep their attention,” Feldman says of the problem that many teachers in Jewish day schools face.
To encourage reading, Feldman has instituted “Book Month” each year at her school, to make reading a cool activity. The month features a variety of fun activities: students bring in blankets and pillows and a book to read on “Cozy Fridays”; they fill out book logs for a school-wide reading contest and get to dress up as their favorite character in a book they’ve read.
Education experts in the Jewish and general world agree—social media, online videos and bullet-point presentations with short sentences and short paragraphs have combined to discourage young students from developing reading habits or appreciating longer tomes.
But the well-known children’s author Bracha Goetz says lack of interest in reading in not as widespread among young members of the Orthodox community “as it is for the general population because of Shabbos, which greatly contributes to reading time.” In other words, kids who aren’t turning to television or electronic devices for twenty-five hours a week are more likely to open up a book.
Certain genres can compete more successfully in this age of limited attention spans. “Jewish comics are very popular,” says Racheli Carmel, a seventh grader from Far Rockaway, New York who is an avid reader. Indeed, visit any Jewish bookstore and witness the sheer variety of Jewish comics available.
How does the Jewish community raise a generation of readers? How do we share a love of reading with young students? Here is some advice for parents and teachers, culled from a variety of education experts, on making young readers likely to turn into lifelong readers:
Start ‘em young: Children are able to listen to books being read before they are able to read them. They get used to the written—or read—word.
Offer variety: All sorts of reading material is available now—newspapers, magazines, blogs, et cetera. As long as they are reading something, let them read.
Let the child choose what they want to read: They know best what interests them.
Take kids to the library: Make it familiar territory.
Start with short-term goals: A chapter a day is easier at the beginning than an entire book.
Make it fun: A book does not need to fit into a syllabus or curriculum. Sometimes it can just be an escape or entertainment.
Allow children to dislike a book: Forcing them to accept your choice may lead them to resent that particular choice and reading in general. Reading should not be seen as a form of punishment.
Model the habit: Kids are likely to pick up the reading habit when they see their parents doing it.
Keep lots of books at home: So children will not need to go to Barnes & Noble or a library when they have some spare time.
Competition: Prizes in school for the most books read (and book reports handed in for each one read) may spur students to read as many books as possible, even if for the sake of the short-term award.
Let children know the benefits of reading: If it teaches them practical skills, improves their grades or facilitates a hobby, they are more likely to appreciate the reading habit.
Introduce your child to a book series: One good book may encourage kids to follow up with other books by the same author.
Discuss books with the kids: Show that you value their reading.
Praise their reading: That will build their self-confidence, and make them more likely to keep reading.
Boost their thespian skills: Ask your children to act out key elements of a book chapter. This gives them practice in identifying the most important parts of the text and an opportunity to communicate in a format that may be engaging for those with writing challenges.
Let kids trade books with their friends: Feldman has started a book swap at her home. Her children trade books with their classmates, and describe why they have found a particular book of interest. In other words, a book club, in the guise of a social activity, for kids.
Finally, “Harry Potter”: No one has kept track of how many youngsters have been turned into readers through J.R. Rowling’s series of books about the boy wizard, but the number (in many languages) surely must be in the millions.
Ruth Statman, librarian at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore Middle School, says she has seen countless students, previously indifferent to reading, who now read one Harry Potter book after another. “Rowling,” she says, “is a genius.”
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action