Why do we teach our children to read?
You’ve probably never given the question much thought. After all, no one has ever asked you, “Do you want your child to learn to read, or do you think it’s unnecessary?” (If your child’s teacher asked that question, you’d likely be looking for a new school.)
We consider literacy to be so obviously beneficial to our lives, we’d never consider not teaching our kids how to read. But we don’t give much thought to why we teach them to read. If you’re a Christian parent, the answer to this question should be obvious: so they can read the Bible.
The Bible is the most important text produced in the history of the world. It’s the most important text your child will ever read. “Since Moses descended from the mountain with two loose-leaf stones under his arms, all literature can be divided into two genres,” Tony Reinke says. “Genre A: The Bible . . . Genre B: All other books.”
The fact that learning to read the Bible will also help your children read traffic signs, text messages, and War and Peace is certainly beneficial. But every other type of reading is of secondary importance to reading the Bible.
Some missionaries spend years or even decades learning how to teach literacy to unreached people. Why? Primarily, to give those people the tools they need to read the Word of God for themselves. As Christian parents—missionaries to our own children—we want our kids to know how to read so they too can one day read the Bible for themselves. This mindset about teaching can lead to long-lasting benefits for your children. Instead of viewing the literacy process as the means to reach the goal of reading, think of it instead as the means by which your child reaches the goal of reading the Bible.
How to Read the Greatest Book
This may appear to be a trivial distinction. After all, children who learn to read will likely be able to read the Bible. While that is true, a profound shift occurs when we teach reading for the primary goal of reading Scripture. Whatever stage your child is at in literacy education—whether they’re an infant learning words for the first time or a high-school student learning vocabulary terms for the SAT—consider this to be your objective: to shape their reading so they can better read the literature that falls into “Genre A.”
When the goal of reading is to read the Bible, you will think differently about a child’s education in literacy. You’ll begin to recognize small ways you can shift the focus, especially their early reading efforts, in a way that prepares them to become better readers of God’s Word. (They’ll also gain the additional benefit of being better readers of all types of text.)
In 1940, the American philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler wrote How to Read a Book. Adler said his book was for readers whose “main purpose in reading books is to gain increased understanding.” Because this is an explicitly biblical purpose for reading (Prov. 4:7) and because Adler’s guidelines apply to reading the Great Books of the Western World (a course Adler helped develop), his method can help us prepare our children to read the Greatest Book.
The first phase of reading is elementary reading. Adler notes that the four stages of this level roughly align with the early years of the school curriculum:
• Stage 1: Reading readiness—the ability to follow directions, a capacity for sustained attention, and so on.
• Stage 2: Word mastery—the ability to recognize and read basic words, the ability to use context clues to discern meaning of words, and more.
• Stage 3: Functional literacy—rapid progress in vocabulary building, greater ability to use context clues for finding meaning, and the like.
• Stage 4: Advanced literacy—refinement and enhancement of previously acquired skills.
In this excerpt, we’ll cover the first two stages.
Stage 1: Reading Readiness
The goal of this first stage is to develop Bible-reading readiness by creating in the child a desire to learn to read so they can read the Bible for themselves. Even before the child learns the alphabet, you can prepare their heart and mind to hear God’s Word by (1) encouraging them to imitate your reading habits and (2) exposing them to the stories and imagery of the Bible.
A primary way children “learn to desire” is through imitation. They are constantly observing adults to discover what behavior they want to imitate. A child asks for a sip of your coffee not only because they are curious about how it tastes but also because they associate coffee drinking with maturity, with being an adult. They observe Mom and Dad doing something children don’t do, and they assume it must therefore be desirable. Because of this urge to imitate, it is imperative your child frequently observes you reading the Bible. You want your child to associate Bible reading with maturity, specifically a habit of mature Christians.
You’re probably thinking, especially if you have a toddler, you can’t get much productive Bible reading done if your children are around. This is most certainly true. It’s difficult to accomplish almost any productive tasks around infants, much less a task that requires as much sustained attention as Bible reading. So you’ll need to sacrifice some of your time. You’ll need to find quiet time where you can be alone with the Lord to read his Word and find time when your child can see you reading Scripture. The latter times are as much for your child’s edification as for your own.
Another way to increase your child’s desire for the Bible is to expose them to its stories and imagery. In previous generations this meant reading the adults’ Bible translation out loud to children. Unfortunately, this often had the opposite effect of what was intended. When children hear language they don’t understand, they can grow bored and develop negative associations that cause them to want to avoid such material in the future.
One solution is to use a paraphrase—a Bible version that preserves the meaning, if not the text, in language that is more easily understandable. Today we have a broad range of complete Bible paraphrases for children, including the The Jesus Storybook Bible, the International Children’s Bible, and the Easy-to-Read Version.
Another option, particularly suited for preschool children, is to read from collections of selected Bible stories, such as The Complete Illustrated Children’s Bible. Because these books are anthologies, they can’t provide the same scope and grandeur as a paraphrase or translation that contains all God’s Word. Still, such books do provide the essential benefit of getting younger children excited about engaging with Scripture. At this phase of development, that is one of the most important long-term goals we hope to achieve.
Stage 2: Word Mastery
At this stage children are broadening their vocabulary by learning the meaning of new words. For most types of reading, this process comes from being told the meaning or discovering it from the context of the story. For Bible reading, though, there is a way to develop word mastery that can be enjoyable for both you and your child: Take them outdoors.
Psalms 19 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (verses 1-2). God speaks to us through this “general revelation” as well as through the “special revelation” of the Bible. Because they are both forms of God’s truth, we should be attuned to both types of revelation. Paying close attention to general revelation can enrich our reading of Scripture. As Scott Steltzer explains:
A heart attuned to creation’s song is better positioned to comprehend and cherish the truths of Scripture. This is true even with the simplest of terms. Humor me for a moment and read this list aloud to yourself. Shut your eyes after each word and let your mind make the biblical connections:
Sheep. Green grass. Stars. Sun. Tree. Branch. Seed. Root. Light. Sky. Rock. Stream. Sand. Wave. Storm. Cloud. Lightning. Thunder. Mountain. Field. Cliff. Dust. Stone. Locust. Flower. Sparrow. Desert. Sea. Fire. Water.
Since we understand God more deeply through both his Word and his world, withdrawing from creation hampers our understanding of God.
Of course, a child can learn what sheep, locust, or mustard seeds are simply by reading about them. But they will develop a deeper appreciation when they experience nature firsthand—running their fingers through the wool of a lamb, hearing the sound of locusts in the fields, or feeling the smallness of a mustard seed on their tongue.
Going on a nature walk or to a petting zoo is not merely an entertaining diversion. These activities are means of experiencing the general revelation of nature that can have a lifelong influence on how your son or daughter reads the Bible.
This is an excerpt from Joe Carter’s new book, The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents: Help Your Kids Learn Practical Life Skills, Develop Essential Faith Habits, and Embrace a Biblical Worldview, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback).