What Star Wars Taught Me About Reading Motivation
When my son, Oliver, was in preschool, he became obsessed with Star Wars. He hadn’t yet seen the movies, but was so intrigued with the story that he started talking to and even badgering anyone who knew anything about Star Wars—his friends, his dad, his cousins—in an effort to find out all he could about the plot and the characters. He developed quite an impressive knowledge base this way. I didn’t give his obsession much thought. I simply figured it would culminate with him watching all the movies once he was old enough.
Soon he was in kindergarten and learning how to read. Having spent many years as a teacher and a parent, I felt confident that I could provide the resources and the environment Oliver needed to grow and develop as a new reader. I continued to read to him every day, and now that he knew how to read, I encouraged him to read books on his own, too. We visited the library, making sure there were always interesting and engaging books in the house. I did some research, found books at his reading level, and strategically planted them around the house and in the car, expecting him to eventually pick them up and start reading.
These strategies had worked well when my daughter was learning to read, but things were different with Oliver. Even though he could read them, he almost never picked up the books placed around the house. He enjoyed being read to and though he wasn’t totally uninterested in books, there was hardly a book I could get him to read on his own. Since I knew that children become better readers by reading a lot, I started to get concerned, and he started to get irritated with me always suggesting he read this book or that book. It wasn’t a good combination, so I decided to back off. Deep down I wondered if he would ever become a kid that loved to read.
Then one afternoon we went to the library and saw some friends passing around a book titled Incredible Cross-Sections of Star Wars: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars Vehicles and Spacecraft by David Reynolds. Oliver was riveted. Now, I’ll admit that in all my years as a teacher, parent, and lover of children’s literature, I had never come across this book. The real confession is that even if I had, I wouldn’t have considered it a book worthy of much attention. (Needless to say, Oliver had figured out early on that I had nothing to offer him in the way of Star Wars trivia.) While trying to encourage Oliver to read, I was so focused on the books that I was already familiar with and books I considered “quality literature” that I hadn’t thought to try to find books that Oliver would be really interested in. And frankly, I never even knew there was such a thing as a Star Wars book.
Oliver and I learned together. We soon discovered that there is a whole universe of Star Wars books out there. So we checked one out, brought it home, and Oliver pored over it. I can say with confidence that this is when he discovered the joy of reading. He discovered the super cool fact that by reading books, he could teach himself about things, and he was hooked! We have since checked out every available Star Wars book from the library. Oliver has even used his own allowance money to buy himself books, including the book Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary, by Simon Beecroft, a book that is now tattered from all the hours he’s spent reading it.
Research supports the idea that children will read more if they are given a choice and are able to choose books about topics that interest them. Edmunds & Bauserman (2006) found that “children’s reading motivation is positively influenced by books that are closely related to their personal interests.” This means that as parents and educators, we need to not only help children choose books at their level, but also point them toward books about topics that are especially interesting to them. In doing this, we can help transform them from children who know how to read to children who love to read.
I am glad to report that in addition to Star Wars books, Oliver now reads all kinds of books. As a fun example, just this past weekend, he was completely captivated by a book titled Tips and Tricks for Junior Detectives, by Thomas Brezina. He read it every free minute he had, and even dressed the part, donning his fedora hat, sunglasses, and “trench coat” (his daddy’s jacket). As my husband put it, he “suited up and studied up.” This morning, with his newly acquired secret agent knowledge, he took the book to school to share with his first-grade class. Oliver is definitely now a kid that loves to read.
Krista Easton is a Materials Developer at Developmental Studies Center