Raising a reader

The experts agree – instilling a love of reading in your child early puts them on to the path to success

Eleven-year-old Liam Gable is an avid reader. Photo Credit Blair Gable


He was talking by 15 months, and recognizing words a few months later. Now, at age seven, Jennifer Erwin’s son, Harley, is a “voracious reader,” devouring everything from books about dinosaurs and science to the manga his father collects.

“Even when he was a newborn, we’d read everything aloud to him – children’s books, of course, but also articles from our iPads, and bits of magazine articles,” says Erwin.

Liam Gable is another avid reader.

“I read quite a bit, at least one book a day,” says the 11-year-old Ottawa resident. “It’s fun and I like connecting with the characters. My favourite kinds of books are fantasy and adventure/mystery.”

“When he gets a new novel, it will often be finished by the end of the day,” says Liam’s father, Blair Gable. “We have a hard time keeping new books in the house, but thankfully, he is happy to read the same books over and over again. He reads everything from young adult fiction novels, National Geographic encyclopedias, Dungeons and Dragons rule books, and cookbooks. He even watches TV with the closed captioning turned on. He is currently reading “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” with his mother at bedtime and “Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox.”

The evidence suggests that it is never too early to start, says Rose Vespa, executive director of The Canadian Children’s Book Centre in Toronto, “even if it’s singing songs, lullabies or nursery rhymes. It is a great way to strengthen the bond between parent and child as well.”

Rose Vespa_Photo Courtesy Emma Hunter, The Canadian Children’s Book Centre

“They can be read to long before they understand,” agrees Doone Estey, principal at Parenting Network Inc. “At this point, the parent can read whatever they like,” she says. An Adlerian parenting expert, speaker and co-author of Raising Great Parents, Estey helps parents bring out the best in their children, their families and themselves through the Parenting Network.

Doone Estey_Photo Courtesy Doone Estey

Reading has a long list of other benefits, which are not limited to: teaching self-reliance, self-soothing and self-confidence; instilling independence; enhancing vocabulary; improving concentration; aiding sleep; reducing stress, lengthening lifespan, building empathy and social skills and stimulating the imagination and creativity.

“These are things that kids need to keep on developing as they progress into adulthood,” says Vespa. “That’s why you want your kids to love reading.” That’s where The Canadian Children’s Book Centre comes in – the CCBC exists to bring Canadian books and young readers together to foster a lifelong love of reading.

Starting to build literacy skills while your child is young will help prepare them for school, says Robin Gallagher, librarian, children and teen services with the Ottawa Public Library. “In literacy settings we talk about ‘pre-literacy,’ which is everything a child learns about literacy and reading before they begin to read themselves. Developing these skills will give your child the confidence and motivation they need as they head into formal schooling in kindergarten.” 

Robin Gallagher_Photo Courtesy Robin Gallagher


Overcoming barriers

“Parents are definitely stretched these days and they shouldn’t feel guilty if they aren’t doing all they wish they could do,” says Estey. “If they can even manage 10 minutes during afternoon “quiet time” or before bedtime, it makes a big difference,” she says. This could also mean enlisting a sibling, a relative or a friend to help. 

“Having books in the house is always a good way to ensure that parents encourage their kids to read, even if they don’t always have time to sit with them,” says Vespa. “Regular public library visits are a good way to keep a supply of books around for kids to have on hand. If children are not reading on their own yet, board books and wordless picture books will still do the trick as kids can look at the pictures and imagine their own story to go along with it.”

“Literacy skills can be developed in many ways when time doesn’t allow you to sit down with a book,” agrees Jessica Halsall, children’s specialist for program development with the Ottawa Public Library. She suggests encouraging your child to read what they see around them. “This could mean reading the cereal box as they sit down for breakfast in the morning, or reading street signs on a drive in the car.”


If you haven’t been reading to your child and would like to start, it’s never too late.

“If the child is resistant, it can take longer,” says Estey. “Some children do not like to read at all, for various reasons. When they object, getting their eyesight checked and screening for a learning disability can help. Making the activity fun by giving the child books that interest him is important. Comic books are better than no books at all.”

The key is not to force too much, too quickly. “If the parent pushes too hard and power struggles ensue, the child might come to associate reading with stress or anxiety,” says Estey. “Sometimes parental expectations are too high, so scaling these back can be crucial.” Estey suggests short sessions and letting the child set the timer. Sessions of five or 10 minutes a few times a day can work better than one longer session, she says.

“Forcing the child to sit still and listen or try to read is sure to backfire,” Estey continues. “Rather, read aloud while the child is playing nearby, in the bath or trying to fall asleep. When he or she does sit quietly, try to involve the child in the story by pointing out names of pictures, asking what comes next, making animal or machine sounds, etc.”

As with any skill, coming to it later can slow learning, says Gallagher. “But we are big proponents of lifelong learning, no matter the skill. Parents can find an ‘in’ for their child – whether that’s a book club or a subject that excites them, or an alternative format (like audiobooks, e-books or graphic novels) that allows them to keep up with their peers,” says Gallagher.

Vespa also considering books as gifts for birthdays and holidays as a way of encouraging kids to read, and most importantly, to “never stop gently encouraging kids to read and exposing them to opportunities to find that right story or book or subject matter that will spark this lifelong habit,” she says.

Still struggling with finding time to read or capturing your child’s interest? Estey suggests encouraging children to draw along with the story if they are restless, or checking out reading-aloud apps.

 Audiobooks, apps and e-readers

“The options for reading formats have grown exponentially in recent years and this is great,” says Vespa. “It increases the chances that kids will find a format that works for them in terms of reading for fun. The same is true for adults as well.”

The Canadian Paediatric Society suggests that parents stay within screen time limits recommended for their child’s age. This means no screen time for children under two, and less than one hour per day for children under five years. The organization also suggests choosing e-ink e-readers if possible, but e-books are helpful for those with reduced vision, dyslexia or those who are reading in a second language (because you can use built-in dictionaries without interrupting the flow of reading). Audiobooks are also great, providing many of the advantages of being “read to” while also limiting screen time, Gallagher says.

The family that reads together, stays together

The biggest benefit of family reading time is a sense of togetherness, says Estey. “Continuing to read to children even when they can read for themselves also provides an opportunity to stretch the child’s understanding and vocabulary as well as create a platform for discussion.”

There’s also a side benefit to reading to your kids. It keeps parents’ own skills sharp, and family relationships benefit from family literacy activities, as they strengthen bonds, which, in turn, encourages lifelong literacy, says Halsall. A strong family literacy foundation at home, with adult support, sets children up for success and engagement in school. According to Scholastic’s 2017 Kids and Family Reading Report, parents’ reading habits play a large role in determining how often kids read: 57 percent of kids who are frequent readers have parents who read books five to seven days per week, compared to only 15 percent of kids who are infrequent readers.


Jessica Halsall_Photo Courtesy Jessica Halsall

Just ask Gable, who has a family of readers. “I read quite a bit, (and) my wife Heather would have a library if she could,” he says. “We always have a few books on the go and there are books all over the house. We read to the kids every night, which is probably the biggest contributor to his love of reading. He is allowed to stay up later if he reads quietly in his bed, so it feels like a win for both of us.”


The fun never has to stop. As the Gables prove, there’s no rule that says reading with your children needs to come to an end, even after they learn to read. “It is a great way to spend quiet and fun time together as a family,” says Vespa.





Tips to get your kids reading


  • Public libraries offer books in many formats both in library and online. Library staff are very skilled at providing resources to parents and good book recommendations for kids as well. – Rose Vespa
  • Does your child have a subject that they love? “Find a book about it. Reading is a practice, so no matter what your child is reading, they are developing their skills as a reader.” – Robin Gallagher
  • Parents who make fewer corrections when their child reads aloud will have better success in the long run, as the child will not end up being as frustrated. Parents who well-meaningly correct every mistake could be producing anxiety and the fear of making a mistake in their child. “The ability to remain non-judgmental greatly influences their children’s approach to reading.” – Doone Estey
  • Building reading into the daily routine helps create stability and knowledge of the expectations for children. Discuss with the child when they think the best times for him to read would be – before or after breakfast, with or without a snack, which chair to sit in, etc. – D.E.
  • Set up small rewards, such as a game of checkers or hide-and-seek or going for a walk after. “The obvious choice is screen time, and for time-pressed parents, often the only one.” – D.E.
  • Making sure the child has had some exercise (jumping jacks, somersaults, yoga) or fresh air before settling down to learn is beneficial. – D.E.
  • From an early age, engage in the five daily practices (read, write, sing, talk, play) that will prepare your child for reading and help them develop important pre-literacy skills. It doesn’t matter in what language you read to your child – or in what language you talk, write, sing or play with them. – R.G.
  • There is no need to be prescriptive about the type of book your child “should” read. Pay attention to what they like. Children’s preferences are as varied as those of adults. – R.G.
  • Make reading as pleasurable as you can. Follow your child’s lead. – R.G.
  • Make time for reading – this shows that you value its importance. – R.G.



More than books at the Ottawa Public Library


Books and Magazines: 

  • Board books, which are short and small and durable (0-3 years) 
  • Picture books of various complexity, both fiction and non-fiction (2-8 years) 
  • Easy readers from very beginner readers to independent readers (6-8 years) 
  • Fiction and non-fiction, of various levels 
  • Comics and graphic novels 
  • Magazines, for all levels 
  • RAPP (Readers and Parents Program) packs, each containing a book and interactive activities that that support language and literacy development. The packs are geared towards children aged six months to six years, and include helpful literacy tips for parents. 


Audio-visual materials: 

  • DVDs, fiction and non-fiction
  • Music CDs 
  • Audiobooks, fiction and non-fiction
  • Video games 


Online and digital offerings:

  • Streaming video and audio, for education and for entertainment 
  • Databases 
  • E-books 



  • Museum passes 
  • Ski passes
  • Telescopes  
  • Access to 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and more 


Useful websites

The Canadian Children’s Book Centre




Ottawa Public Library



The Parenting Network




“Parents and educators can encourage a love of reading in children by emphasizing how fun it can be. Reading together can be a lovely nighttime ritual that both parent and child can look forward to after a bath or before bed. Children watch their parents’ habits and behaviours, so reading a newspaper online or in print, or a book, will be noticed by your child when you are at home, encouraging them to emulate what they see as a normal daily routine.” – Rose Vespa