“If we teach a child to read but fail to develop a desire to read, we will have created a skilled nonreader, a literate illiterate.” —Kylene Beers
Parents hope that their children will become lifelong readers—that once their children master the skills involved in decoding, reading will become a source of pleasure, inspiration, and engagement. While most young children delight in stories and being read to, many tweens and teens do not reach for a book as frequently as we would hope.
This isn’t entirely surprising when we consider the increased demands on older children’s time both in and out of school. Classes, homework, extra-curricular activities, and electronic devices take up time that might otherwise be spent on reading.
As a middle school librarian, I have seen how encouraging voice and choice goes a long way in promoting positive attitudes toward reading. For example, I have a group of students, mostly boys, who choose to read in the library every morning break. When those students recommend books for our collection, I honor those requests in order to validate their reading choices, keep them coming back for more, and build a collection full of kid-approved books.
There are also many ways parents can encourage reading throughout this new, more independent phase in their children’ lives. Here are a few of my favorite tips.
Let your child choose what to read. Having choice is highly motivating and a key factor in developing lifelong reading habits. Aside from material you deem inappropriate or in conflict with your family’s values, parents should let their children choose what to read. Most people buy into this concept until their child chooses to read only comics, graphic novels, skateboarding magazines, or romances. Try not to judge your child’s choices. As Daniel Willingham says, “I believe parents will further their own goals by showing curiosity about their children’s interests rather than disdain. Taking your child seriously as a reader—by, for example, taking a reading recommendation from him—might make him take himself more seriously as a reader.” Once homework is over and free time begins, let your child choose what to read.
Model that you value reading by making time to read yourself. How do children know we value reading if they do not see us doing it? If reading matters to you personally, show that by making time for it in your own life. Tell your children what kinds of books you like, what you’d read if you had more time, and whether you read much when you were their age. If you read on a device, make sure they know that you’re reading, whether it’s the news or a novel.
Rediscover your public library and provide access to books. Middle schoolers do not have the same dedicated trips to the library as they had in elementary school, so in addition to losing time devoted to reading for pleasure, they’re also losing browsing time. Giving children access to a wide range of texts (books or magazines) does not require money but rather a library card and time to explore independently. The public library’s vast collection of print and digital resources gives readers the chance to try out different kinds of books (or magazines or audiobooks). When you’re comfortable, let your child go to the children’s or teen section while you head to the adult section. Allowing them to explore independently shows that you trust and honor their choices.
Avoid terms “reluctant” or “struggling” reader. Being categorized as deficient does not motivate children to pick up a book. Would being called a struggling runner make you want to go for a jog? If your child is being described this way, don’t let them hear you say this. Take a positive approach, celebrate that reading is fun, and keep it light!
Remember that readers of all ages need permission to:
- Not finish books they don’t like. If your child puts down a book without finishing it, this doesn’t mean they lack grit, determination, or an attention span. It means they don’t like the book and that is okay. If you need convincing, see this wonderful article, “The Joy of Not Finishing Books,” in The Guardian.
- Read the books they want without discussing them.
- Read more than one book at a time.
- Re-read books.
- Listen to audiobooks—they count, too.
- Read without the distractions of cell phones or other devices.
Final words of encouragement: Stay in this for the long haul! Many teens and tweens go through periods during which they don’t read at all—researchers describe these once avid book lovers as “dormant” readers. With a relaxed, joyful approach toward reading at home, they are liable to wake up to the joy of books again.