Getting Kids Reading and Why It’s Critical
The path of a reader is not a runway but more a hack through a forest, with individual twists and turns, entanglements and moments of surprise. (Holden, 2004)
Research from the National Literacy Trust has boiled down decades of literacy research into two big takeaways for parents:
1) Importance of reading for pleasure for kids
When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, I suspect that children simply do not have a chance. (Krashen 1993, p. 85)
Although the cornerstone for lifelong reading is laid in the early years, we also know that it is never too late to start reading for pleasure. (Sheldrick-Ross, McKechnie & Rothbauer, 2005).
2) Parents are one of the most important literacy teachers
Research has repeatedly shown that motivation to read decreases with age, especially if pupils’ attitudes towards reading become less positive (McKenna, Ellsworth & Kear, 1995). Thus, if children do not enjoy reading when they are young, then they are unlikely to do so when they get older.
Can we use incentives to get our kids to read more? Unfortunately, no. Several studies have shown that incentives do not significantly affect motivation to read.
Yet, never has it been so crucial in this knowledge based world economy for kids to acquire a love of reading. Not only will jobs of the future require literacy more than at any point in history, but reading enjoyment is the single most important predictor of a child’s future sucesss.
Reading for pleasure is an activity that has real educational and social consequences
Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. International Reading Association (Moore et al., 1999, p. 3)
Reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2002)
So, what does this mean for parents? We are singlehandedly the biggest influence on how our kids view reading. Remember hearing advice on modeling reading for our kids? Moms and dads both need to demonstrate that we read for pleasure? Well, the research backs this up.
Parents are one of the most important literacy teachers
You might have heard about how it’s so important to role model reading in front of your children. Not just moms, who often are the primary “bedtime story” reader, but dads also play an important role in demonstrating the value of reading for pleasure.
Parents and the home environment are essential to the early teaching of reading and the fostering of a love of reading. 84% of pupils in a survey for Reading Connects indicated that it had been their mother who had ‘taught them to read’. Parental involvement in their child’s literacy practices is a more powerful force than other family background variables, such as social class, family size and level of parental education (Flouri & Buchanan, 2004). Surveys repeatedly show that parents are aware how important it is to read to/with their children. However, the Reading Connects survey also showed that a fifth of pupils felt that their mother did not encourage them to read at all, while a third also felt that their father failed to encourage them to read.
Baumann and Duffy (1997, p. 22), highlighted the following five factors that help children become readers:
- A print-rich environment, where they are read to and given opportunities to read, where they see their caregivers read, have opportunities to engage in pretend play, are encouraged to interact with environmental print and visit the public library
- A language-rich environment, where they are encouraged to have discussions with their caregivers
- A knowledge-rich environment, where they learn about the world through such media as television and computers, and where they interact with the outside world by taking trips and talking with people about topics of interest to them
- A nurturing environment, where they interact with a variety of people who believe that one purpose of literacy is to entertain
- A home environment, where they make connections with their schools
But what happens if we are reading ourselves like crazy but our kids fail to follow our footsteps? How do we get our kids to love to read?
My Reluctant Reader Reading Challenge
I was in that same boat. As a child and an adult, I read voraciously but my oldest child was a reluctant reader. It was combination of many factors. Her first grade teacher was chronically ill and there were literally subs for subs. She dislikes attention drawn to her and felt performance anxiety when forced to read out loud. Of course, reading aloud was the only way I could tell if she was decoding correctly.
In turning her around from a Reluctant Reader to a Voracious Reader, I sought the advice of teachers, mom friends who used to be teachers, and literacy specialists. I tried a LOT of ideas. Some ideas, like reading piles of carefully screened picture books one summer, required that I troll the library three times a week. A mom friend suggested setting up a book club for her. A lecture on literacy I attended listed the benefits of rotating books around the house including the bathrooms. I tried them all.
From Reluctant Reader to Voracious Reader
It didn’t happen overnight. I’m not exactly sure what idea worked the best, or indeed, if it was just one idea that did the trick. All I know is that from first grade when my daughter was reading independently but reluctantly, we tried a lot of things to make reading Exciting. Fun. Interesting. A habit. And, by fourth grade, she was reading for pleasure on her own. By sixth grade, she was reading voraciously.
In fact, there isn’t just one magic bullet. Getting kids to love to read takes many attempts at bat.
I am convinced that every child has the potential to unlock a love of reading. It’s not the same path as my reluctant reader daughter, but I bet we would have passed each other on the zig zaggy path towards reading as an enjoyable past time. As a parent, I know you can do it too and I want to help by sharing ideas that I’ve tried with more ideas that I’ve found. Getting kids to love to read is my passion and the reason why I started my blog.
Reading Strategies to Get Kids Reading
It’s especially important to get boys reading. Research has shown that the decline in enjoyment over the last five years has been more pronounced among boys than girls.
There are few things we can focus on as parents to get our kids to develop a lifelong love of reading. The first is finding ways to motivate them, that unfortunately, do not include incentives. Another important factor in fostering lifelong readers is choice.
I want to share the ideas I’ve tried and the ideas I’ve collected to get kids excited about books and reading.
– Book Club for Kids
Setting up a book club for each of my kids has turned out to be their favorite activity in the world. A book club needn’t be boring or a lot of work. It doesn’t have to escalate into the complexity of a “mini-birthday party” either. I think of them as group play dates where the kids also learn valuable skills like group dynamics. Being a leader. And also, being a good follower.
My child doesn’t always read the book before the meeting. But something magical will happen at every book club. One of her friends will talk about the book. How much she loved it. Where the good part begins and why it’s worth it to read past “the boring part.” Sometimes the kids will pick characters and act out parts of the book ON THEIR OWN.
Yes, the book clubs still need a short structured activity based on the book. But reading the same book as friends will start to become a pleasure. And sharing beloved books will help turn on and encourage other kids to read. I have all my posts on our book clubs here including how to set up a book club for kids.
I found that a peer book club for my children was one the most effective ways to get them reading more, and excited to share their favorite books with their friends. It was also a great way to learn about new books from their friends, and peer recommendations carry the most weight!
– Finding Books That Match Your Child’s Interests
I read books on dinosaurs for an entire year. The following year was all about Pokémon. For my daughters, we went through a fairy phase where the plots and vocabulary were so redundant that I was forced to make snarky comments. Matching books to your child’s interests is like mining for gold. Start with what they love to do and then work in concentric circles adding in different genres (non-fiction, fiction, graphic novel, historical fiction, biography etc.) around the same subject. Sports? Nature? Fairies? Skateboarding?
I think that there is no much thing as a “bad” book. If it’s frustrating that your child only reads “one kind of book,” branching out within that subject into other genres is a great way to slowly branch your child in new reading directions. For Reluctant Readers, I always start by asking them what they like to do and what they’d like to read about. Let them guide you with their interests and use their input to give them a lot of choices. Head to the library or the bookstore with this feedback and do a book “speed dating” session to find books that are appealing.
– High Interest Books for Kids Who Hate to Read (a.k.a. Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
I’m sure your child likes Diary of a Wimpy Kid because pretty much every kid on the planet does. But if that is the full extend of the books your child likes, fear not. There are Spawn of Dairy of a Wimpy Kid books! I’ve also collected books that appeal to reluctant readers.
High interest books are simply books that have great appeal to kids who are reluctant readers. Typically there are a lot of graphics or pictures and the font size might be bigger. High interest books will have a fast moving plot to get kids sucked in from the first sentence.
If you know What your child likes (and perhaps it’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series) but you’ve run through the series, the next best thing is to try to find more books that are similar. Luckily, the huge success of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books has spawned many imitators that are also very appealing.
– Trying New Genres (Non-Fiction, Graphic Novels, Easy Chapter Books, Graphic Novel Hybrids, Magazines, Advanced Picture Books)
It’s easy to get caught in the chapter book trap. That’s the trap where kids think that the only books that count as READING are chapter books. They race from picture books into early chapter book series. While some are great, there are other genres to be mined if your child starts to lose interest in a chapter book series that starts to feel repetitive by book 4 or 5.
There are also many articles that stress the importance of reading non-fiction. Indeed, the world around us know requires a visual translation of knowledge. The idea here, though, is if your is tired of reading, he or she may just be tired of reading the same genre. Mix it up. Take a trip to the library, the magazine stand, the book store, the garage sale, or the bookshelf of your child’s friend, and explore new genres.
– Multicultural Books
Sometimes kids need to read books that reflect the world that they live in and characters that remind them of themselves. Other children might like to explore the world around them by seeing new cultures and points of view. Perhaps a book might help your child to understand a classmate better. Books are wonderful ambassadors for understanding our differences as well as validating who we are.
– Award Winning Books
While everyone may be familiar with well known awards like the Caldecott (for best pictures) or the Newbery, there are many other children’s book awards like The Children’s Choice Book Award where KIDS choose the winners! I’ve collected lists of award winning books to help you find the perfect book lists for your child.
If you find the idea of getting your child to read more daunting, stressful, or downright aggravating, fear not. The fact that you care about this and are willing to try is more than half the battle. A love of reading doesn’t have to happen overnight. Think of it more as planting the seed and tending it carefully. The important thing is to keep trying new things until your child has discovered the pleasure of reading. It’s a gift to your child that keeps on giving.