Sneaking a love of reading through cinema's back door

"What's your favorite movie?" I heard my second-grade daughter ask her friend in the back seat of my car.

"Um ... I don't know," she stalled, adding brightly, "but I can tell you what my favorite book is!"

Good choice of friend, I thought, hoping the recommendation wouldn't be lost on my daughter. We had read to Bronwyn daily since she was an infant, and she had always loved this. But after starting school, she became increasingly convinced that movies were much more exciting than books. "Can I watch a movie? Can we rent a movie?" issued from her lips with increasing frequency.

Her choice for family night was invariably video, and she'd prepare and serve a special snack to celebrate the thrilling event.

I really didn't mind her watching a good movie once in awhile, but I started to be concerned that her reading was not progressing as it should. She was an average reader at school and showed no interest in reading on her own at home.

I suspected that practice would make her reading less laborious and hence more enjoyable. So my husband and I tried to get her to read something to us before we read to her each night. But Bronwyn complained loudly about this, and we usually didn't have time for both anyway.

Finally, I hit on an idea that brought her love of movies into positive play. For every three hours Bronwyn spent reading on her own, she would be allowed to watch a movie. She didn't relish having to do all that reading, but she was inspired to think that she could earn as many movies as she wanted, whenever she wanted.

We used the same little charts her teacher had designed to encourage early literacy in her pupils. There were 12 hearts to color in, one for each 15 minutes of reading. They were labeled presumptuously, "I love to read."

At first, Bronwyn read the easiest picture books on her shelves and made sure I gave her credit for every minute. She'd have the next movie picked out before the first heart was colored in. The reading was only a necessary evil to endure for the sake of the prize.

But the incentive was working.

Gradually, her reading improved. Soon she was picking up the book we were reading to her at night (we were on J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy then), and reading a few pages on her own. It was way above her level, but she was so eager to find out what was going to happen next that she'd stumble through it. By the time we finished "The Return of the King" several months later, she was reading whole chapters of that eighth-grade book.

Over Christmas vacation she devoured "Charlotte's Web," explored "Aesop's Fables," and got lost in "Bound for Oregon." (She got very excited a week later when she found out that the Oregon we were driving through was the same Oregon!)

Then she discovered Harry Potter, and was attached to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by a very short string until she had finished it. Reading became a joy - even a privilege.

"After I finish my violin practice, can I read?" she asked me one day. Another day brought the delightful request: "Could we have a family reading night tonight?"

Now there's no holding her back. She is two or three movies ahead and has stopped keeping track of her reading time. Recently, I heard her talking to a different friend in the back seat of the car.

"Do you have any Barbie dolls?" her friend asked.

"No," Bronwyn said. "I used to be into Barbies, but now I'm into books."

My only concern at present is that she's not getting much exercise. Maybe I ought to start a new incentives program: for every three hours of exercise she'd get to read a book.

Nancy Case lives with her husband and three children in Grass Valley, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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