“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.”– Dr. Seuss
We were in Indiana visiting family on our summer vacation. Our kids were 7 and 5, ages when most kids start learning to read. Ours weren’t so interested.
We read to our kids every night, they often see my wife and I reading on our own, and we have books stacked up in crannies and nooks. Dr. Seuss would approve. Like most kids, ours love to listen to stories. But they had little motivation to pick up a book and try reading on their own.
How do we get our kids excited about reading?
I asked my Aunt Joni, who’s always been a hands-on educator. I remember her basement full of maps and skeletons and art supplies—just a few of the tools she used while homeschooling her three kids. (She also recently published her first book, You Are Just Right.)
Her suggestion: plant a reading tree.
Here’s the basic idea. You create a space on a wall that looks like a lonely, naked tree. Every time your child reads a book, they add a leaf with the name of the book. Over time, the tree blossoms with color—a beautiful reminder of the effort your kids are putting into reading. (pssst: parents, you can add books you read here too.)
Here’s how we did it.
Phase I: Plant a tree
The first thing you need is a tree. This part takes a little planning and patience, so do it when you’ve got time to focus, maybe a cold drink to keep you company.
1. Pick a wall.
2. Get some big brown paper. You can find this at any arts and crafts store.
3. Lightly tape the paper to the wall. We used a mix of masking tape and Blu Tack.
4. Draw a big, branching tree shape on the paper. Tip: Get some ideas by googling something like “tree outline sketch.”
5. Cut it out and make sure it’s taped up well. We used masking tape and Blu tack for this too, but play around to see what works best for you.
Alternatively, you can paint a big tree on the wall and avoid the taping and cutting.
Whether you go for paper or paint, take your time and make it look good. It’s going to be on your wall for a long time.
And make sure you take a picture in its leafless winter phase, before it starts to bloom in the spring.
Phase II: Read books, make leaves, repeat
Every time someone finishes a book, they get to add a leaf to the tree. There’s no strict rules—the kids pick the shape and color, and write whatever they want on the leaf. But here are a couple things I’d suggest.
Tip 1: Use thicker construction paper. Your printer paper’s too thin, and the leaves will start to curl up over time (though perhaps it’s an effect you want to play around with).
Tip 2: Make some leaf stencils. We cut up a cardboard box into four different leaf shapes. With the stencils you can easily trace the leaf shapes onto the paper. Here’s a leaf template you can download [PDF] with these four leaves:
Next step? Read a book, make a leaf, and stick it up with a couple balls of Blu Tack.
I also recommend taking a minute to ask your child questions like: What was the story about? What was your favorite part? Which characters would you like to meet in real life? Any ideas for a different title you’d give the book?
Asking reinforcing questions helps them practice recall, reflection, synthesis, and summarizing. All important skills on the path to language learning.
A few tips and tricks we learned along the way
Remember that the overall objective is to get kids excited about reading. So take it easy, and make it fun. Here’s a few other things I’d suggest.
1. Let the kids make leaves however they want. Don’t force stencils, paper, or styles. Focus on the goal: encouraging kids to read. It’s not about making a perfect tree. Besides, who ever saw a tree with perfect leaves?
2. Adapt it to your kids’ age. If your child isn’t ready for whole books, shape it to their current level. Max was 5-years-old when we started our tree. And we live in Barcelona, so he wasn’t being taught the English ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ in school. So we created games to practice these special letters and other vocabulary. Every time he mastered a new challenge, he got a leaf.
3. Write the date. In addition to the book title, we also add the date the book was finished. It’s nice to look back later and hear them say “Wow, I read that book last summer!” Over time we also started adding lines or other little drawings to personalize each leaf.
4. Get the whole family involved. Why restrict it to the kids? Every time mom or dad finish a book, they get a leaf too. It’s another great way to show your kids that reading is fun for everyone.
5. Add chapter books that dad or mom reads to kids. We don’t add most books that mom or dad read at story time. But we do stick up a leaf for books that take multiple nights to finish. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Choose Your Own Adventure stories are a few we’d recommend.
6. Invite others to grow. We had some good friends visiting from Dublin shortly after we’d started our tree. Their daughter was 8, and also learning to read. She added her leaf for The Greedy Python after reading to us one evening:
7. Add a bonus incentive layer. Read 10 books, you get to buy a new book. I admit that this led to us having entire collections of Dogman and Narwhal books. But if that’s what inspires them, it just might be worth it.
8. Reflect and appreciate. This one’s more for you parents. But every time I finish a book, I always take a second to say thank you. To appreciate the fact that I grew up in a place where reading was valued, taught in school, and encouraged by my parents. To be grateful that I have a mind that works well enough to read, learn, and reflect. Even if it often forgets to buy milk on the way home.
We’ve had this going a couple years now, and the tree keeps growing.
We don’t attend to it like we did at the start. The kids now read books at school that they forget to add to the tree. And that’s okay. Because it means reading has become a more normal thing for them, less tied to the extrinsic motivation of the tree. And that’s what it’s all about.
If Dr. Seuss had thought of this, he might have said:
“Fill your tree with leaves of books, see colorful progress whenever you look.”
That’s what you’ll get when you grow a reading tree.