by Dave Keller
As a parent, some of my fondest memories revolve around countless evenings reading with my children. Most families have their own personalized rituals — my family is no different. For us, reading was more of an event, rather than a mere activity. We read together as a group, often using silly accents and eccentric voice characterizations. Stuffed animals joined in nightly, with my children giving them voice and various quirks as they read certain page.
My children are largely grown now. The days of huddling together reading stories heading into bedtime are long gone.
I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but, looking back, I now realize much more was happening during those times than merely spending quality time together — even more than simply teaching my children to read. We were modeling the joy of reading to our kids. We were increasing their desire to learn.
We were also passing along important character lessons, both directly and indirectly. We’d talk about the choices of characters — and the consequences of those choices. We talked about how the characters treated one another. We talked about desired qualities such as honesty, kindness, and perseverance.
The cognitive benefits of reading are well-known. Research clearly shows consistent reading with children improves critical thinking, brain development, and enhanced communication skills. Indeed, the month of March has several focus points for reading: March is National Reading Month, and March 2 is designated as Read Across America Day by the National Education Association.
As a character educator, I am particularly interested in harnessing the power of reading to help develop character values in young people. Character.org has consistently recognized schools across the country with academic initiatives that enhance character development, through both our National Schools of Character and our Promising Practices programs.
One of our current initiatives is an emerging partnership with the great folks at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides access to new books for children in need. To date, First Book has distributed more than 135 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the United States and Canada. First Book is transforming the lives of children in need and elevating the quality of education by making new, high-quality books available on an ongoing basis.
Together, we are developing a collection of 10 children’s books uniquely designed to connect story content to specific character strengths, such as respect, empathy, honesty, resourcefulness, kindness, courage and responsibility. Together, we are developing character tip sheets for parents, teachers (and others) to use to more intentionally — and confidently – to develop character values in young readers.
So often, people tend to view academic development and character development as occurring independently from one another. One often-overlooked benefit to connecting character lessons to reading is that is helps break through that myth. Indeed, Principle 6 of Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education speaks directly to the intentional integration of character to academic development and excellence.
I encourage you to take time to read to the children in your life. Find creative ways to make it fun and enjoyable — but also be intentional about using reading to open up character conversations. Before long, I suspect you’ll find that the children are developing the ability to find character lessons within the context of the story with little or no prompting from you. As this happens, you’ll not only be developing their academic skills, but you’ll also be building habits of reflection and intrinsic motivation toward personal development as well.