While wide-reading is essential for the development of your child’s literacy, it is equally vital that your child enjoys it. So, how do you find a book that is appropriate for their skill level, educational, and that they’ll have a good time reading? Moreover, how can you as a caregiver support your child in growing their love of books? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
Here, you’ll find Matrix’s comprehensive list of the Best Children’s Books of 2023, plus some info on wide reading for academic success. If you’re looking to better understand why reading for meaning (and pleasure) is so important for literacy development, or want actionable steps for getting your child to read more, scroll on! You’ll find the answers you’re looking for in our guide below. Otherwise, if you’re just itching to get your hands on a new book, simply navigate to the “chapters” menu on the left of the page (or at the top on mobile) to see the top 10 book recommendations for your child.
So, how can you support your child’s English literacy outside the classroom? Well to begin, we must first ask ourselves how English literacy is actually developed in the first place. Do kids simply learn everything they need to know in class? Can you trust their teachers to magically wizard new words into their brains? Or do you need to buy exercise booklets, or hire a private tutor? In answer to the confusion surrounding these particular stumpers, companies often coax caregivers into purchasing lengthy word lists, textbooks and/or comprehension booklets for their child. While these can sometimes be helpful resources, they are no holy grail. Why? Because much of our literacy is actually learned implicitly.
That is, conventions of narrative, grammar, spelling and punctuation are largely learned through the act of reading itself. And the proof is in the pudding. Even among the most prestigious universities in Australia, you won’t be hard-pressed to find an English major who doesn’t know what a “predicate” is. Why? Because although this simple grammatical term is considered primary school level knowledge, you don’t actually need to know what a predicate is to use one.
In fact, each of us uses predicates every single day. It is by consistently reading and conversing (i.e. direct exposure to the English language) that we become proficient in using predicates, irrespective of whether we’ve have had a formal education in grammar. So, if PHD students and published authors are getting by without knowing how to split an infinitive, there’s got to be more to literacy than what our grammar textbooks are letting on.
While even the most successful literary scholars might not know their way around your child’s grammar vocab, there is one thing they usually do have in common. They grew up reading. Reading widely, and reading a lot. Through the act of reading alone, students are able to intuit much of the knowledge and conventions that fall under the umbrella term of “literacy”. Our brains are adept at learning through observation and imitation, and a simple work of fiction will model to your child:
Funnily enough, though highly sophisticated, these lessons can be found in even the simplest picture book on our reading list. Not only that, but they will remain the focus of your child’s studies in academic English up until Year 12. So I child who reads, in actuality, is already studying for the HSC. Talk about a head start! Not only that, but research has demonstrated that reading regularly can help your child grow their empathy, build emotional intelligence, expand their imagination, and even improve their memory and concentration!
Okay, so time to make your child read, right? Wrong. While reading is clearly beneficial for both your child’s literacy and their cognitive development, these benefits begin to fade if your child doesn’t actually like doing it.
A child who enjoys reading has a vested interest in understanding the narrative. They care about the characters, and want to know what happens next. This means if they find a word or sentence they don’t understand, they are much more likely to spend cognitive resources, or “brain power”, trying to resolve these problems. This could involve searching up the definition of a new word, or asking you for help interpreting a sentence. They might even reread entire pages over and over again, just to make sure they aren’t missing crucial details. This method of reading, often described as “reading for meaning” or “proactive reading”, is where the real learning happens.
On the other hand, a child who is made to read won’t have such a productive time. Even if they read every word carefully, enunciate every syllable , if they don’t care about the story – if they aren’t curious – they simply won’t internalise information from the books they read. Not only that, but they’ll likely find the process of reading exhausting and monotonous. As a result, these students will often fail to develop healthy, long-term reading habits.
Psychologists like to explain this phenomenon in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated read for their own personal satisfaction. For these kids, reading is an activity they enjoy, so they will readily commit their time and energy to it. Meanwhile, students who are extrinsically motivated to read are being spurred by external factors (maybe a parent is forcing them, or they are reading in exchange for a McDonalds dinner or extra TV time). These students may read regularly, but they won’t read proactively. For them, reading is a chore, and later in their academic lives when these outside motivators decline, they may lose interest in reading altogether.
So, how can you encourage your child to not only read widely and regularly, but to be intrinsically motivated to read?
A love of books is not something that is easy to teach. Though you’ve likely been inundated with messages about the importance of reading, when it comes to actually getting your child to like it, caregivers are often left in the dark. So, let’s skip past all the fluff and launch straight into some simple, actionable steps you can take to jump-start your child’s love of reading.
When choosing a book, get your child involved in the process. Listen to them and pay attention to their interests. If they are fascinated by the stegosaurus, do some research; you might be surprised by just how many dinosaur encyclopaedias there are to choose from. Moreover, when consulting our reading lists (find the “chapters” navigation panel at the top of the page), consider letting your child choose the book they like the look of best! Another popular method is for caregivers to take their child to the bookstore with them. There, you can buy them one book of your choice, and let your child pick one out for themselves. This usually makes for a happy compromise!
The best reading routines start long before your child is able to read. That’s right. There is nothing more important in the earliest stages of your child’s literacy journey than modelling healthy reading habits to them. Kids who regularly witness their caregivers read, or who are frequently included in the act of reading, will be much more inclined to read themselves. Try to read to your child from a young age, even if they are just listening. This alone will encourage your child to develop an interest in books.
If your child is already an independent reader, a reading routine could simply involve setting aside one hour daily (maybe just before bed if your child isn’t a dozer!) and allocating it as “reading time”. While it doesn’t have to happen every day, try to be as consistent as possible (For example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 6:00-7:00pm).
Unless your child is over twelve or chews through books like chocolate, they will probably benefit from a more interpersonal reading experience. If you have the time, this might mean using reading time to read a book with your child. Depending on the difficulty of the book, and your child’s ability, you have a few options. You can either read to them (with the option of having them follow along in their own copy), the two of you can take turns reading, or you can have your child read the book to you. Another fantastic option is to purchase an audiobook version; that way, if either of you struggle with or get tired of reading, you can rest your eyes and minds. Simply lie down, close your eyes, and listen along. Book clubs are also a fantastic option if you can rally some other parents behind your cause!
By making reading time a collaborative act, not only are you able to spend quality time with your child, but it also uniquely equips you to nurture their love of reading. At the end of reading time, reserve a few minutes to talk about the book with your child. Ask them about their favourite characters or what scenes they found particularly interesting. Did they learn anything new or have any questions? While the focus of these discussions should be on listening to your child, this is also a fantastic opportunity to work out just how much of the story they understood. In other words, this is your chance to gauge whether your child is reading passively, or reading for meaning.
If you don’t have the time to read with your child, or they are already a motivated, independent reader, discussing their books with them remains crucial. Why? Because reading can be an incredibly isolating form of entertainment. Unlike popular movies and sitcoms, your child will likely struggle to find peers at school who are reading the same book as them. So, if they don’t have a group of friends who are just as excited about the Chapter 9 plot twist as they are, make sure your child feels empowered to talk to you about it. If you aren’t familiar with your child’s book, a simple conversation is your opportunity to change that! And the secret to a great conversation? Approach your child with curiosity. A child who is enjoying a book will happily explain complicated plot points and describe their favourite characters to you, as long as you demonstrate a genuine interest (and ask plenty of questions). Just remember, your job isn’t to test their knowledge. It’s to understand and share in their passion. Kids are incredibly intuitive, and if they sniff out that you’re just trying to assess their literacy, they’ll be reluctant to include you in their reading life in the future.
Unfortunately, some kids will still see this coming from a mile away, no matter how hard you try to sound interested. If your child happens to be a reading maverick with this 6th sense, don’t push them; they’ll just become more standoffish. While it might come across to you as simple preteen angst, this moodiness can actually be a hallmark of adulthood. We know, it’s difficult to imagine how aggressiveness can possible be a sign of maturity, but it’s true. As children develop autonomy, many become increasingly resentful of being assessed, monitored or questioned, as this can feel belittling. To them, your questions are an encroachment on their independence, no matter how good your intentions. In this case, think about how you might start a conversation with a colleague or friend. The key? A more reciprocal exchange. Consider broaching the subject by talking to your child about what you’re reading first. And be solicitous. Discussion prompts that are individualised and demonstrate an interest in (and respect for) your child’s opinion will go a long way. Things like “I was reading this and wanted to know your opinion on ____________.” or “I thought you might find the chapter I just read really interesting; can I talk to you about it?” can be excellent conversation starters.
If you’re struggling to get your child reading in the first place, buying them a book about a TV show, movie, or something they are already passionate about can be a great place to start. Don’t shy away from graphic novels or books about video-games. While a lot of stigma surrounds these seemingly “non-academic” text-types, when it comes to reading, elitism should be checked at the door. Ultimately, if your child is reading words and they’re enjoying them, you’ve done something right. Yes, even if these words are in a comic book, or are bright pink and scrawled across the bottom of an illustration.
If your child is already an avid reader, you’ll notice that their interests will start to evolve. They might gravitate toward a particular genre like romance or science fiction, or perhaps Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth will capture their heart, and before long they’ll be ploughing through the third Lord of the Rings book. Always, always, always encourage your child to follow their passions, no matter what they are. This might involve spending dinner talking to your child about their favourite Brandon Sanderson novel (yes, their spaghetti will be cold by the time they’re done explaining the difference between a longsword and a broadsword). For other kids, encouraging their passion will mean sitting on the bus for two hours because the graphic novel they’ve been begging for about “the shapeshifting teenage girl with short red hair” is only available at Kings Comics on Clarence St.
While it can be tempting to nudge your child toward more “sophisticated” texts, this can actually be harmful. For one, forcing kids to read books that are above their reading level, or worse, that they have no personal interest in, is putting them on the fast track to hating books. So, what can you do if your child has been reading for a while, but only ever seems to take interest in picture-based books?
Well, you might be surprised to learn this isn’t such a bad thing…
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged when it comes to academic English is that there are different kinds of literacy. While our minds tend to jump straight to traditional forms of literature when we hear the term “literacy” (things like books, short stories, and poems), this is a deceptively narrow picture. Of the seven text types that the NSW English curriculum identifies for study, only three are strictly word-based (poetic, prose fiction, and non-fiction texts). The remaining four (drama, film, media, and digital texts) have very little to do with reading at all. So what are the different types of literacy, and why is your child’s love of picture books actually a good thing?
Visual literacy is the ability to identify the technical features of an image and how they are used to create meaning. It involves things like colour, contrast, size, and composition. Although these terms might be outside your child’s vocabulary, children who love pictures usually have an intuitive understanding of these features. That’s right. When it comes time to formally analyse visual texts in high school, it might just be the comic whizz in the class who picks these terms up the fastest!
Visual literacy is assessed throughout high school English, and most HSC English Paper 1 exams include at least one visual text (be it a movie poster, a comic strip or an advertisement). Not only that, but several assessments will require your child to analyse a visual text of their choosing, or even compose their own. Funnily enough, even when it comes to non-visual assessments, it is not uncommon for Year 12 student to score 20/20 analysing a picture book. Shaun Tan’s works, as featured on our Year 1 – 2 Book List, are a popular choice among secondary students due to their rich symbolism. Some other text types that teach visual literacy include comic books, graphic novels, photographs, graphics, illustrations, posters, and photos.
Moral of the story? Don’t be discouraged if your child seems to gravitate toward graphic novels. There is a reason many have made it onto our reading lists! While they might strike you as juvenile or unsophisticated, many picture-based texts are actually incredibly complex, with target audiences spanning from young children to adults! Not only that, but the form as a whole remains a fantastic tool for developing both your child’s literary (word-based) and visual literacy. So, as long as comics aren’t the only thing they’re reading, rest assured knowing that you can celebrate your child’s love of picture-based storytelling for what it is: an academic strength, a kind of literacy, and a unique passion.
Auditory literacy is the ability to identify the technical features of sound and how they are used to create meaning. It includes elements like tone of voice, volume, pitch, pace, and intonation. Again, even if these words escape the current understanding of your child, if they are a music, podcast, and/or audiobook enthusiast, they will likely pick them up the fastest.
Like visual literacy, auditory literacy is assessed throughout high school; students will be asked to analyse podcasts, interviews, and songs frequently. Some other text types that teach auditory literacy include audiobooks and spoken-word poetry.
So, how can you apply this knowledge to your child’s reading journey? Well, if your child is struggling to transition from picture-based books to novels, it might be worth considering getting them an audiobook version of their first chapter book. Not only will this allow them to take a break from reading when they get fatigued, but they’ll also have the option of reading along to the audiobook. Perfect for long car rides or just quiet time at home, you can be content knowing that your child is developing their auditory literacy, and hopefully, their love of storytelling along with it.
Cinematic literacy is the ability to identify the technical features of film and how they are used to create meaning. As an image and sound-based medium, cinema actually includes several of the auditory and visual features we already discussed. However, it also has its own unique elements, such as camera shots, camera angles, movement, speed, focus and lighting. When it comes time to analyse film in English, it is the film buffs and TV show enthusiasts in the class that will find these techniques the easiest to analyse. So no, your child’s obsession with the animated TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender is not a waste of time. Because, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the process of watching is actually implicitly developing their cinematic literacy.
Throughout your child’s journey through secondary school, films will pop up everywhere. Your child will be assessed on their ability to analyse the technical features of a range of movies. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have at least one film case study in both Year 11 and Year 12. Some text types that teach cinematic literacy include movies, TV shows, short films, animations (2-D, 3-D and stop-motion), music videos, documentaries, and vlogs/youtube videos. That said, picture-based texts (like comics and graphic novels) are an invaluable stepping stone into the world of visual storytelling, of which film is a part. So, yes, your child’s love of movies and picture books might actually be improving two different kinds of literacy.
Since the main focus of this article has been literary (or word-based) literacy, we won’t spend additional time discussing it here. We’ll also exclude consideration of dramatic (or performance-based) literacy for now, because while just as valuable, its application to the topic of “Children’s Books” seems tenuous at best. Nonetheless, the important thing to realise is that literacy isn’t just about words. There are many texts that fall squarely outside the bubble of reading and written “literature”. Nonetheless, these texts still have educational value for your child. Don’t underestimate them.
Ultimately, a balanced exposure to visual, auditory, cinematic, and literary (written) forms is the best way to support your child’s English literacy. Every book featured on Matrix’s reading list has been carefully selected for its capacity to nurture your child’s academic potential, so don’t shy away from the picture books! Moreover, don’t be afraid to source books from a reading list above or below your child’s actual age or school year. Children learn at different rates, so you are much better off choosing a book that is suitable for your child’s reading level than picking one from the level they’re “supposed to be at”. Remember, if you want your child to get the most out of reading, they need to actually enjoy it, which is kind of hard to do when you’re stumbling over every second word. Now comes the easy part. Find the “chapters” menu at the top of the page and take a look at our selection of the best children’s books of 2023. Whether your kid is four or fourteen, there you will no doubt find a story to capture their heart, expand their mind, and of course, develop their literacy in the process.
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