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From Readers to Leaders

Plant the seeds for leadership by getting kids "into reading"

Even among kindergarten dads, “leadership development” has become a regular topic.  Sure, early overnight field trips build independence.  Team sports help groom captains.  But one of the cheapest, most accessible ingredients for teaching leadership is scattered throughout all of our homes: books.   Reading might feel a bit nerdy compared to more visibly social kids’ activities, but US President, Harry Truman, made a powerful, enduring observation when he said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”  When parents are thinking about grooming the next Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, they’ll want to remember that each of them got hooked on reading at a young age and made it a powerful lifetime habit.

So, how exactly does reading make leaders?  Several reading habits of readers reflect the power behind this shared passion:

  • Reading creates a common language.  Leaders tend to connect around books and the ideas that they carry. 
  • Leaders read deeply and apply what they read. Leaders tend to read and re-read books and look at how ideas can be applied to different areas of their lives. They’re reading for understanding – not just skimming or scanning for right answers.
  • Leaders read broadly. Reading broadly expands leaders’ worldviews, enables them to connect with diverse sets of stakeholders, challenges their assumptions, and helps them become multi-dimensional thinkers
  • Reading makes leaders powerful storytellers.  Leaders share stories and insights and use them to inspire and influence others.
  • Reading makes leaders better oral and written communicators. Reading helps improve writing skills which enable leaders to organize thoughts and communications.
  • Reading reduces stress (6 minutes at day can reduce stress by 68%)

Great, my son or daughter should read if he or she is going to become a leader.  But how do I make that happen? How do I get them “into reading” so that it’s something that they want to do at home – something that they gravitate toward in their free time? How do I prevent reading from feeling like a school assignment or “homework”? And, how do I do this if my child is either too young to read – or already knows how to read (but doesn’t love it)?

In his “Read-aloud Handbook”, Jim Trelease outlines a series of helpful tips for building children’s interest and reading, underlying reading skills, and their resulting knowledge benefits. An important first step is to make reading a part of a kid’s schedule and activity plan the same way that we add naptime, playing outdoors, art class, soccer practice, swimming class, piano lessons, and the long stream of other activities that we want to “get them into”. The next (and more important) step is to build books and reading into their home environment so that they have multiple touchpoints and role models throughout their days. When reading becomes a natural part of “family culture”, then doing it regularly starts to feel “normal”. Several opportunities to do this include:

  • Allocate time for reading – both for yourself and your child.  Regardless of how busy you are, you are the role model, and young children, in particular, have the uncanny ability to perceive and emulate your habits and priorities.  So, set aside time to read. Read where your child can see you reading.  Then, reserve specific times to share books with him or her --  before bed, or after breakfast, or before dinner, or Saturday morning when he wakes up.  Even 15 minutes of shared reading time, creates an experience that your child will await eagerly.
  • Read aloud to your child. For children who are not yet readers, listening to stories and reading books aloud plants the seeds of interest – both in books and in being able to read.  Reading aloud also enables you to boost the vocabulary of young children far beyond what they will be exposed to at their age and from the much more limited vocabulary of daily conversation.  The result: kids that enter school with advanced vocabularies are able to use those vocabularies to accelerate their own learning.
  • Add books to the house.  Jim Trelease’s extensive research on reading environments and kids’ academic performance draws a direct correlation between interest in reading and books in the home.  He finds that US children with a high interest in reading had an average of nearly 81 books in the home, while kids with low interest in reading had an average of only 32 books in their homes. He then demonstrates that this interest in reading and books in the home correlates directly with higher science scores in high school.  Unfortunately, Trelease finds a huge gap in books in US family homes – for example affluent California communities like Beverly Hills averaged 199 books in the home. But across town in poorer Los Angeles communities, kids were exposed to as low as 3-5 books in the house.  In China, our own research found more than 51% of families had fewer than 50 books at home – and 23% had fewer than 20 books.
  • Separate reading time from media time. Social media, Internet-based information, and TV bombard adults (and increasingly children) with disruptive information throughout the day. The type of deep reading that engages a child requires concentration. Concentrated reading time (or reading aloud time) helps the child develop the habit of reading in longer blocks, absorbing more complete sets of information, and shutting out surrounding distractions.  For parents, this means shutting off or putting away mobile phones, shutting off TVs, and putting computer screens out of view of children during reading time.

Next week, we’ll share tips on selecting childrens’ books – particularly English language childrens’ books and book-related activities that can help build kids English-language reading skills during their summer holidays….and beyond!

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