When my son Jack was in preschool, he read Charlotte’s Web aloud fluently to his classmates. When he was in kindergarten, he began disappearing into his room for a few hours every afternoon to read. My son is known for being a reader — for having his nose in a book. He is a kid who devours books.
Friends see my son, and they ask me from time to time how I did it. How did I raise a reader?
My friends have expressed a variety of concerns about their kids’ reading habits. “My kid is not interested in reading. He only wants to play Minecraft.” “My kid only reads X, when I know she is capable of reading Y.” “My kid is lazy. He only wants me to read books aloud to him.”
I am hesitant to give my friends advice largely because I think my son sets the bar too high. Reading is his thing. I do not know why some kids are passionate about reading while others are passionate about playing hockey or building with legos or following ants around the backyard. I do not think there is anything I did or anything my friends could do to ensure that reading would become their kid’s favorite hobby. I have two more kids coming down the pipeline, and I do not expect reading to be their favorite hobby. Instead, I look forward to seeing what they become passionate about.
While it seems unrealistic to suggest that you can raise a child whose number one passion is reading, I do believe that every child can be a reader.
The first step in raising a reader is to expand your view of what a reader looks like. While you may have enjoyed reading Newbery award winning books as a child, your child may not. Making your child read a Newbery award winning book could discourage rather than encourage your child to read. Some readers love comics and graphic novels. Other readers enjoy fantasy series. Still other readers pour over issues of Dog Fancy magazine. Being open to the type of reader your child could become is an important first step in supporting and encouraging your child’s reading.
As a parent and future children’s librarian, I am very interested in what parents can do to help motivate children to read. The following suggestions are based on research as well as my experience working with kids.
1. Make sure kids have access to books they truly enjoy.
This is my number one suggestion. Unless you are an exceptional parent who is already taking regular trips to the public library and supporting your kids’ reading choices, focus your efforts here.
This tip sounds so basic. Yet, it can be difficult to implement in practice. It can be difficult to find time to make it to the public library. It can be difficult to support your kids’ reading choices when your kids choose books that make you cringe.
For most families, the best way to ensure that your kid has access to books is to visit the public library. If you haven’t been to the public library recently, take a trip this week. When you visit the library, make a beeline for the children’s section. Introduce your child to a children’s librarian, and ask the children’s librarian if they can help you find a book or series of books your child will enjoy.
Your child might be interested in one of these popular series…
anything by Kevin Henkes
Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold
Elephant & Piggie by Mo Willems
Judy Moody by Megan McDonald and Peter Reynolds
Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt
Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne
Ruby Lu by Lenore Look
Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrows
National Geographic Kids Almanacs
Babymouse by Jennifer Holms
Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Next, the books kids truly enjoy component.
In the past, I have found it surprisingly difficult to support my kids’ reading choices. Biases against certain subjects (e.g. dinosaurs) and genres (e.g. fantasy) have cropped up that I did not realize existed until my kids expressed an interest in checking these books out.
I have worked hard to overcome my biases because research shows that kids read more when they choose which books they read.
Here is the four step program I have used to support my kids’ reading choices. I began with step one and slowly, over the past few years, have progressed to step four.
Step 1. Let my children check out the books they want to check out — even if the books involve dinosaurs or dragons.
Step 2. Resist the urge to roll my eyes when my kids pick out cringe-worthy books.
Step 3. Enthusiastically congratulate my kids for finding books that they are excited to read at the library.
Step 4. Notice when the most recent book in my kids’ favorite series is published, and check the book out for them.
2. Do not bribe your kid to read. No pizza. No toys. No extra TV time.
Research shows that when kids are given external rewards, their internal motivation to read declines. Apparently, in kids’ minds, if an adult is bribing them to read, reading must not be an activity worth doing for its own sake.
In the short term, bribery works. However, if you bribe your kids to read, their interest in reading is likely to decline after the bribes have dried up. To become a competent reader, kids need hours of practice reading. Kids are unlikely to practice reading for the hours necessary to become competent readers unless they enjoy reading.
Note: Bribing kids to read may not be entirely bad if kids are rewarded with books or if the bribery is an instrumental part of a program that successfully creates a culture of reading in a school or community.
3. Create spaces where kids have books available and nothing else to do.
Psst… Do not tell my kids, but I do this a lot. I’m pretty sneaky. I bring books with us to hair appointments, doctors’ visits, piano lessons…anywhere the kids might be stuck without anything to do. I keep a box of books in the car that the kids can read when we are zipping from one place to the next. (The kids are not allowed to play video games or watch movies in the car unless we are driving for more than two hours.)
In addition, we try to set aside time each night to read and relax before bed. There are nights when bedtime reading doesn’t happen, but most nights it does.
Warning! Do not suggest that your child read. Suggesting that your child read could backfire. Simply let your child know that books are available.
4. Help kids find books about subjects they genuinely want to learn about.
Show kids that books are sources of useful information. If your kid has a new pet or a favorite hobby, check out a good book about the topic. If your kid wants to learn to cook or fold paper airplanes or draw cartoons, show your kid that you can find great information on these topics in books. If your kid is about to take their first airplane ride or visit a friend in the hospital, check out books on these topics.
5. Avoid labeling kids as bad readers. Instead, help kids think of themselves as competent readers.
Research has found that when kids begin thinking of themselves as bad readers, their interest in reading declines. They stop putting forth the effort needed to read challenging texts. When reading, they give up faster than do kids who think of themselves as good readers.
You can help your child think of themselves as a competent reader by banning terms like “struggling reader” and “reluctant reader” from your vocabulary.
In addition, to help your child feel like a competent reader:
- Make sure your child has books available to them that are easy for them to read. It is also fine to let your child read challenging books. But, make sure that your child sees that there are lots of great books available that they can read well.
- Avoid comparing siblings’ reading abilities or friends’ reading abilities.
- Invite your child to read to a younger child. Focus on the reading skills your child has acquired. E.g. “Wow! You used to not be able to read ______, and now you can!”
I would love to hear about your experience encouraging your child to read:
- How do you fit it trips to the library?
- What makes it difficult or intimidating to go to the library?
- What is your biggest challenge as you try to raise a reader?
Please, share in the comments below!