It’s that time again: I’m seeing lots of questions about how parents can encourage kids to read. Either they’re facing the looming summer and wondering how to avoid the trap of endless video games and TV, or the report cards have come in and they’re wondering how to prepare a child for the next academic year.
It’s not easy to encourage kids to read. Not that it ever was, but now there are so many other activities (mainly screen-oriented) competing for their attention that reading seems to fall way down the list. I believe there’s hope, though, and that reader kids can be made, even if they’re not born. However, it takes some work on the parent’s part to break through all the digital noise and show them that there’s more to books than the boring stuff they have to read in school.
A lot of people advocate paying/rewarding/bribing kids for reading, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach. You want kids to understand that reading offers its own rewards, and they don’t get that message when they’re reading for money or other bribes. I tend to advise not paying by the book, offering gift cards for reading, or trading video game time for reading time, for example. Schemes like this simply encourage the kid to read something slap-dash so they can get to the goal. It doesn’t encourage a love of reading for its own sake.
Now, I feel differently if the child is part of a larger event like a summer reading program at a library that offers the chance to win prizes. These events don’t usually pay by the book, so it’s not really bribery. It’s more like joining in with a tribe of other readers who love the same thing you do. Many programs like this offer more than just the prizes; there are events throughout the summer and the prize is just a tiny part. And since many are drawings for prizes, not everyone will get one so kids know from the start that they are reading to read, with the prize as a bonus.
So how do you get reluctant readers to read? Here are some thoughts:
Kids are very sensitive to “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you’re always on your phone or watching TV, yet you’re telling them to read, that’s not gonna fly. The kids are going to say, “If reading is so important, why aren’t you doing it?” And it’s a valid question to which you have no valid answer. If you want kids to read, you need to model it for them. Set aside quiet time to read as a family, and let them see you reading at other times, as well. Make sure they see you choosing books at the library or store. When kids see that adults enjoy and prioritize reading, it becomes something interesting to them, as well.
Talk about books, as well. Talk about what you’re reading over dinner, and ask them to tell you about their books. Let kids hear you discussing the latest release you’re looking forward to with the same enthusiasm you use to gush about the latest movie or TV show. Or, mention how excited you are to see the movie/show based on a certain book because you loved the book. You have to teach kids that reading is a valid and interesting activity on par with other offerings.
Don’t get hung up on reading the classics, or highbrow books. If the kids want to read graphic novels or magazines, fine. Perhaps they enjoy reading the manuals for Dungeons and Dragons or other games as part of playing the games. Fine. Same with video game manuals and “expanded universe” type stuff related to video games. If they like books/topics/genres that seem stupid to you, well, you don’t have to read it. Many kids enjoy re-reading the same books over and over. That’s fine, too. At least they’re reading.
While it goes against the notion of restricting screen time, many kids enjoy fan-fiction or other online content like blogs, stories posted on Wattpad, etc. If you can monitor what your kids are doing online to make certain they are reading, these can be good options, too.
Let them read what they enjoy and don’t censor the choices unless it’s just really inappropriate. Enjoyment is the biggest factor in choosing any leisure pursuit, so if it feels like a chore, kids won’t do it. Forcing them to read stuff they don’t enjoy is the fastest way to kill an interest in reading. (And school will do enough of that. You don’t need to add to it.)
Give them agency.
This is related to the above, but it deserves it’s own paragraph. As a kid, you have so little that is yours. You don’t get to make a lot of decisions, and you’re always being told “no” in stores, so choosing your own reading material can be a big deal. Take kids to the library or bookstore and let them choose what they want. (As long as it’s suitable.) If they like a book because the cover is pretty, don’t judge that. In a library, let them take as many books as they want (or the library allows). Sure, they may not read them all, but there’s something about choosing for yourself that instills a sense of ownership and curiosity. Chances are, once home, that pile of books will call to them because they chose it.
Take away/limit other options.
This sounds like punishment, but it’s really not. As a parent, it’s your job to limit the bad influences in your child’s life. If you feel like the screens are bad influences, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “No screens after 6PM,” or turning the Wi-Fi off on Sundays, for example. The kids will whine for a while, but they’ll eventually find something constructive to do. If there are books around, that may be the thing they gravitate toward. If you go this route, be certain you stick to it. Don’t give in to the whining or they’ll know they can “win” if they just protest loud/long enough.
This is one that probably should be obvious, but make sure your kids have access to books. This doesn’t mean you have to go drop $50 at the mega-chain bookstore every week, either. Libraries, thrift stores, book swaps with other parents, yard sales, book sales, and used book stores are all good sources of cheap/free books. The library is the best option since it’s free and they can usually get almost anything you want through interlibrary loan.
Teach kids to browse.
Yes, Amazon has everything in the world. What they don’t have is a fun, tangible browsing experience. There’s little chance of discovering something just by running across it. Often, kids need to see and touch the books for them to be interesting. Picking something out off a website isn’t the same as flipping through some pages in a library or bookstore. Also, a library can open their eyes to the sheer amount of books and topics/genres/formats available. Once they see that there are books for them, that match their interests, they’re much more likely to be interested.
If your kids really hate reading books, try audiobooks and podcasts. It’s not the same as reading a real book, but it does encourage kids to learn to follow a story/argument to the end and use their imagination to fill in what’s going on. It also improves vocabulary. This is a good option for car rides, too. It may or may not lead to an interest in books, but it’s better than nothing.
Tie reading to their other interests.
If your kid is interested in sports, there are tons of biographies, almanacs, stat books, and instruction manuals for every sport imaginable. Interested in history? There’s plenty of historical fiction, biographies, and accounts of historical events. Natural science? Plenty of bug books, dinosaur books, and books about the Earth, the environment, and plants. Space? Got that covered. Superheroes? Plenty of comics and graphic novels, and biographies/historical accounts of many of the heroes’ creators and studios. Whatever else your kid is interested in, I can almost guarantee that there are books on the subject. Introduce your child to them.
I’m loathe to suggest this, but sometimes it’s the only way. You can try requiring kids to read for thirty minutes to an hour each day. They can read whatever they want (and several different things during the time, like two magazines, or a graphic novel and a chapter from a book), but they must read during that time. I’d go with this as a last resort as no one likes being told what to do. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way to get them to see that books aren’t something cooked up by the devil to torture them. If they begin reading on their own, you can drop the requirement.
Read to them.
When kids are young, read to them. Even if they can’t yet read the words, they can understand the magic of stories they hear. And you don’t have to stick to kiddie books. As they get older, you can read actual books to them. What they hear doesn’t have to match their actual reading ability. Often, the ability to read words lags behind the ability to understand them verbally, so they can understand more complex books, even if they can’t yet read them. All they want is a good story.
While you’re reading, discuss things with them. Talk about the pictures, if applicable. Ask them questions: What do they think will happen next? Why did the character do that? How would you end the story? Interaction increases understanding and interest.
Make reading fun and social.
Kids don’t like to feel like they’re isolated from their friends. (Well, most don’t. Diehard introverts like me tend to feel differently.) Try to find ways to make reading fun and social so they don’t feel like they’re being punished.
If your kid reads a book based on a movie, offer to host a movie night with a few friends to watch the movie adaptation. Make reading fun for little kids by reading to them. Do all the voices, act out the parts (no one cares if you look stupid), or offer a themed snack to go with the book. Many libraries and some retailers offer reading programs for kids and teens where they host events and offer prizes. Most of these are during the summer, but there are some that offer them year-round. If your kid has reader friends, offer to host a themed get-together or book club. Look for kid/teen book clubs in your area.
There are also lots of book-themed game ideas on sites like Pinterest. You can create Bingo cards that use genres or formats as the spaces and kids can work toward completing a Bingo. There are lots of other ideas, as well. Use your imagination. There are plenty of ways to make reading into a fun event instead of a chore.
Make sure they’re healthy and capable.
If all else fails and you suspect there may be deeper problems, have the kids checked by medical professionals. Problems like poor eyesight, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and ADHD can make reading hell for kids. Unfortunately, the kids may not have the ability or knowledge to tell you that there’s a bigger problem. All you hear is, “I hate reading,” but the problem may really be that they can’t keep up with their classmates, or the material they’re given is too difficult and they feel stupid or left behind. Or, if they’re like I was, they just can’t see that well and reading is literally a pain that involves lots of squinting. Most problems can be solved, but not if you don’t know about them and take steps to correct the issue.
(Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures)