We are asked all. the. time. “How do you get your kids to read?” Our friends and neighbors sometimes marvel at how often they see our kids reading. Most recently at a backyard BBQ, a neighbor shook his head with a wry smile and a shrug over how his daughter doesn’t read, all while offering us delicious burgers and chicken wings. In my work as an international school librarian, I have consulted with parents on three continents for the past 20 years, at every grade level, listening hard and gently trying to understand why their children don’t/won’t read. And I realize time and again, as I begin to recommend books based on their children’s interests or reading projects and those recommendations are often brushed aside, is that many parents are not readers themselves, but have high expectations for their children and what they read.
For us, the answer is simple on the surface. Our children read because we read. And our children read because we actively and tirelessly encourage them to choose what they want to read. But there’s a whole reading ecosystem in place in our family to make sure they choose to read over other activities.
Our son, 11, and daughter, 16, read voraciously because reading is a family value. Mom and dad read. We demonstrate commitment to our personal and professional reading lives by reading openly and often throughout the house. We read first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. We read while we wait in airports, while we wait in waiting rooms. We read on vacation and during the school week. We read all the time. Our kids do the same, because we have role-modelled this from day one. Reading is a family activity that is expected and nurtured.
Books and media have dedicated space in our house. Every room has books in it, either shelves or scattered on ledges and surfaces. We have piles of library books from our international school’s libraries and, as the Upper School Librarian, I have access to all the newest additions to the libraries as well as advanced reading copies. We invest in books. We visit bookshops and libraries all over the world, a way to make even the most exotic places like Addis Ababa or Dubai or Paris feel like home.
We make time to read and read together. We all pile on the couch in our living room library and read together. With snacks. And cats.
Our iPads are full of books, too. The Sora app keeps us full of library titles, and I download Digital Review Copies from Edelweiss+. Digital or print, we are never without a great book to read or listen to.
It can be that simple, really, to get your kids to read. You just have to read. And it is critical that your kids are able to choose what they read.
Many frustrated parents focus on what they know, what books they read when they were young, and have very definite ideas about what kind of books their children should be reading. The books should be “appropriate” or “at their reading level” or “important” or “classic” books.
You have to be open to what your children like to read, to what they are interested in, the genres they enjoy, the formats that they love. When your son, like ours, chooses to re-read all his Dragonball Z mangas (check out the review at School Library Journal’s “Good Comics for Kids”) you have to know that that’s OK. He will also read The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, a Studio Ghibli read-alike for Japanese animation fans. He will gobble up the entire Serafina series by Robert Beatty right after he reads Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid, winner of the 2020 Newbery Medal, for the 7th, 12th, 20th time (yes, New Kid is his favorite book, an excerpt is here. Every middle grade student needs to read this book!).
Right now he’s reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and asking about words like “heresy”. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Our daughter is heading into the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, where so many lament that there is absolutely no time for Grade 11 or Grade 12 students, 16 to 18 year olds, to read for pleasure. So far, not an issue as she’s reading the required summer text The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and also reading The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, currently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the United States and all-around rock star author. She has read all of Reynolds’ other books and even met him at NerdcampMI in 2019, which doesn’t hurt in the motivation-to-read parent playbook. Meeting an author can seriously fire up a reading life at any stage for any child (and any librarian!).
Another hook for teens who are time-strapped, is to make sure they develop a passion for genre or style or fanfiction/fanart. Wattpad is a very popular storytelling platform, a place for teens to both write and read. This will keep them reading even when the schoolwork piles up.
I admire how both our kids are free-range readers who can leave books easily if they don’t enjoy them. While that habit can sting when it is one of my favorite books that I-think-I-know they would enjoy, it helps me remember that I don’t have to finish every book I start either. With so many books to choose from, there is no pressure to commit unless the story hooks them. And because we fill their lives with stories and book habits, we can relax and let them set their own paces and priorities.
Want to get started in case your personal reading life has stalled? Here are some strategies to use to get you and your children reading more:
- Ask your child’s school librarian for some perfect read-alouds for you to take home and set up a routine of reading a chapter or picture book out loud to your child every night. This tells them you value reading through your actions, not just your words.
- Let them see you read. If you are on a device, let them see that it is an ebook, or that you are listening to an audiobook.
- Experiment with your own reading habits and talk about it. Tell your kids that you want to read more. Put some tangible, open investment in your own reading life before trying to force them to read more.
- Let them read books they choose.
- Let them re-read favorite books.
- Let them read contemporary authors and stories. Classics can be enthralling or dull as dishwater. Remember to let them express their likes and dislikes.
- Let them read graphic novels. Graphic Novels are real books and a great way to get all kinds of readers, high-flyers and emerging readers, to devour books in every genre under the sun! Fantasy, Science Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Short Stories and all kinds of nonfiction topics in Science, History, and, oh, the compelling biographies. Encourage them to read graphic novels. Read some yourself and see what all the excitement it about!
- Let them recommend books to you. Read their recommendations and use that shared experience to connect in new ways. Sometimes reading a book together is the perfect way to talk about what’s going on in the world or your child’s life without judgment or having to have all the answers.
- And perhaps the most powerful way to encourage reading and seek to grow in empathy and critical thinking is to help your children choose books that provide insight into the larger human experience. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop describes how books and reading can provide windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors into young people’s lives and the lives of those around them, becoming both a means of “self-affirmation” and increased compassion:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (Harris, “In Praise of a Scholarly Force: Rudine Sims Bishop”, 2007)
Do you read? Do your children read? What reading strategies have worked for you to sustain your reading life? What are some of the ways you encourage your children to develop their reading lives?