To Read or Not to Read…this is not a question

To Read or Not to Read…this is not a question
Use book reviews to promote reading and writing skills

Many years ago, when my son was in fourth grade, he wasn’t reading despite having been read to every night to that point.  It was a nightly ritual from early on in his life to read books together.  As in many households with similar rituals, we began our reading journey with picture books, progressed to simple chapter books, and gradually over the years, moved up to the Harry Potter series.  This was a special time for both my son and me, and we both looked forward to it every night.

Gradually, the demands on his time increased with after school activities, homework, even the draw of screens such as video games.  By fourth grade, our special time reading had dissipated, and he would prefer to spend time on his handheld Pokémon game rather than reading a book.

Girls on phones LitPick Book Reviews

Like we experienced with my son, a major problem today among students, and even among many adults, is that people no longer find time to enjoy reading.  There are so many excuses and places to assign blame – social media distractions, time demands of schoolwork, the increased number of afterschool and weekend activities such as sports, even the quality of new books which can touch on topics that parents may feel are inappropriate for their children.  Over the years with changes in funding and the economy, even the accessibility to libraries and bookstores has become an issue (where have all the Barnes & Noble’s gone?  No, online bookstores are not the same…).

Covid didn’t help much, although you would think that with more time home, children and adults would read more.  Nothing doing.  Stats show that what flourished was time online and streaming[1] as well as online shopping[2].  Yes, even my wife and I learned how to order groceries online and enjoyed it, until we didn’t... How about those early morning calls from the shopper at the store because they couldn’t find our brand of jelly.  At 6:30 AM, really?  Just forget the jelly!

Test scores are now showing how staying at home may have affected our children too.  For better or worse, students were kept home from school because of the worries surrounding Covid. Politics aside, since 2019 there has been a decline in reading test scores among fourth and eighth graders.[3]

How can we move forward from here and not get mucked down in the blame game, or worse, in the politics of the past.  Well, it is time to move forward with new ideas to help accelerate reading comprehension and writing.  Enter book reviews.

Book reviews can help
What do you do with a child who does not like to read or who feels they don’t have time to “waste” on pleasure reading?  You invent things to motivate them. Prizes like toys, online time, games, and even book reviews.  Yup, that‘s right.  The latter is how we eventually motivated our fourth grader to read and write.  

With the help of a woman at a local bookstore and our son’s school librarian, we found books on sports, sci fi, and even fantasy titles for him to try on his own.  Not all of them were a hit, but gradually he discovered books which interested him like the Red Wall series and The Chronicles of Narnia.  And to continue to encourage him to read, we created a website and simply posted his comments after he finished reading each book.  Seeing his reviews “in lights” (so to speak), gave him a sense of pride and ownership about what he read.  The more he read and the more reviews he posted online, the more he read and wrote.  The positive feedback he received from teachers and from us, and particularly from his school librarian, added to his motivation.

The rest, as they say, is history as the website where my son first posted his reviews grew into LitPick Book Reviews.  Over the years through LitPick, we have had close to 5,000 people sign up as book reviewers.  Among our younger, student reviewers, our best reviewers in their reading comprehension and writing skills have been those who have a parent sponsor, especially if they are homeschooled. With over 3.7 million homeschool students now in the U.S., statistics on homeschooling seem to support the latter. [4]

We take special pride in reviewers like usernames ntaf and jtaf, sponsored by their mom and homeschooled, who read and reviewed over 75 books each for LitPick, amassing well over 5,000 LitPick Total Points (awarded for review content and writing skills, vocabulary, and grammar). They each also  received a lot of great titles they were able to keep after submitting their reviews to us.  Other leading student reviewers, although not all homeschooled, have also had a committed parent as their sponsor.

And what happens in the summer or even after-school to the reading and writing skills of students? You guessed it, there is a drop off[5].   Book reviews again to the rescue.  What a great way to entice a student to curl up with a good book than also asking them to write a brief review and share their thoughts online for the world to see.  Here is a link to our book review graphic organizer[6]. Book reviews don’t have to be essays…just a simple summary and opinion section will go a long way to engaging readers to write about what they read. 

Benefits of book reviewing internationally 
We have discovered that sharing opinions about what you read online can be a great motivator of people to improve their reading and writing skills, internationally too.  Many international students and adults enjoy writing book reviews in our program to help them improve their English writing skills.  Through the feedback we give reviewers on each review, we have been able to help improve the English writing skills of reviewers from places like the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Ukraine, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sweden.  As we see with our domestic reviewers, these international reviewers also enjoy seeing their book reviews displayed online and often share their book reviews on their own webpages and blogs.

It is time to think creatively when it comes to promoting reading and the benefits it brings.  For many, writing book reviews helps improve reading comprehension and writing and encourages critically thinking about what they read (we certainly can use more critical thinking these days).  So, the next time your son or daughter is glued to the screen of their mobile device, or you find yourself feeling helpless to change the world, think of how the time can be better spent reading a book.  And when done, don’t stop.  There are plenty of places online where people would love to hear what you or your students thought about the book.  And you will find that writing a book review for others cannot just help expand personal growth, but book reviews can have financial benefits too.  More on this topic later…