The title of this post makes me smile a bit in self reflection. Before kids, I might have thought it silly that there was any advice needed on helping kids love reading. You hand them books, they read them, and it’s love all around, right?
My firstborn understood this. He enjoyed a good picture book, contentedly sat with a pile of books as a toddler, and stumbled into his own love of reading around the age of nine. It was a bit late for my taste, but we got there.
But my second was another story. As a young baby, I tried to read him Good Night Moon, and he’d take it from my hands to hurl across the room. He tore pages out of any books when left unattended. And as a young person on a reading journey of his own? It’s been a love/hate relationship with books, and by that I mean he loves audio books but hates to read in print. Until last week.
Three more little readers have come along, and I realize now that there is more to this tricky business of helping kids love to read. I haven’t always gotten it right, but thankfully I have learned quite a bit along the way. While we all hear about the importance of reading to kids as they grow (and I wholeheartedly agree), there’s more to it. So here are some do’s and don’ts for helping your kids love to read.
1- Don’t rush the process of learning to read.
THIS. I know there are benchmarks and expectations communicated from school. I know there are books labeled with suggested grade levels that may or may not fit your kid. I know your child’s teacher may be concerned, your neighbor’s kid may be further along, and you may be starting to think that your child will never read. But from the research I’ve read, early reading doesn’t have any correlation to academic success but love of reading does.
Keep encouraging. Keep celebrating every little success. Keep steadily helping your child practice. For all of my kids (minus the three year old), they learned phonics and sight words, they struggled to make sense of it, and then one day it clicked. But the click happened at different ages because kids are wildly different. Pressure and shame will not help the process (Come to think of it, pressure and shame will not help your kids truly love anything- learning, Jesus, siblings, whatever). Give your child the gift of their own timeline.
2- Don’t pass judgment on what they choose to read.
Letting your child read things they want to read is key. So what if they’ve read all the same books over and over? So what if they won’t venture out of Magic Treehouse? This world of books is new and intimidating, and young readers will want what they want. Graphic novels count. Audio books count. Books that are too easy for them count. I’m not saying you can’t challenge them when needed, but don’t roll your eyes if they want to snuggle up with the same well-worn pile of books.
3- Cultivate a family culture that shares a love of stories.
You don’t read for hours because you love the process of decoding letters into words, right? You read for love of story (or knowledge, I guess, if you’re a weirdo who enjoys non-fiction.) Even if your child doesn’t want to read on their own, you can whet their appetite by helping them to love stories. Read books to them. Play audio books in the car. Find TV shows or movies that captivate your family and fall into them together. Pay attention to what makes their eyes glisten, to the stories that they lean into, to the characters that resonate deep inside them.
4- Be an example.
I’ll never forget driving home from Lincoln where we had cheered for my brother and my dad as they completed a marathon. “I’ll probably run a marathon some day,” said my four year old from the back seat. When kids see adults do something, it becomes a possibility to them. If you want your kids to read, let them see you reading something not on your phone. Talk about what you’re reading. Talk about the movie adaptations and what you loved or didn’t. Talk about a book you’re looking forward to. Join a book club if you need motivation to read more regularly (it works!).
5- Watch for their break through book.
For my firstborn, he stumbled upon Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events Series at the age of nine and consumed them all in a month. Up to that point, he was fine with reading, but he didn’t choose it for his free time. But those books grabbed him and made a reader out of him (and he has very strong opinions regarding the Netflix adaptation, as you can imagine). For my oldest daughter, it was her discovery of graphic novels that sparked that love in her. I’ve heard many people attribute the Harry Potter series to their own discovery of reading.
It’s tricky to tell what your child will love, but keep offering a variety of books and see what sticks. Sometimes an audio book or read-aloud will spark interest. Sometimes a comment from a friend or teacher will intrigue them. Sometimes it will be completely unexpected. My 11 year old, who for years has told people that he hates reading (a humbling thing to hear as a mom and homeschooler) has recently found his books. It’s an older series called The Great Brain about a family of boys in early 1900’s Utah. The language is tricky. The plots build slow by today’s standards. It’s not fast-paced action but relational humor and daily schemes of one particularly clever brother as told by the youngest. I would have never guessed this would be the book for my boy, but he is loving them.
6- Audio books are your secret weapon.
For a small investment, your child can have access to so many great books. Through digital loans and great library apps, my kids have a steady stream of things that they’re listening to, and many of them over and over. These books have become part of our family language, and I didn’t have to read them a single word. Some of our favorites have been all the Fudge books by Judy Blume, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede, the Reckoners Series by Brandon Sanderson, and J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series.
In our house, we lean heavily on Kindle Fires (which are on sale for $34.99!) They’re affordable, easy to monitor, and convenient. We have an Audible account that let’s us purchase the books we listen to over and over, and we use the Libby or Overdrive app (different kids have specific preferences) to access audio books. They listenwhen they wake in the morning, during room time in the afternoons, and as a bedtime story at night. The timer feature within those apps is perfect because they can set it to turn off when they’ve reached their allotted time (and the bedtime routine goes soooooo much faster because minutes later in bed means less audio book time.)
(A side effect of letting your kids listen to audio books is that their vocabulary and the complexity of their sentence structure will grow exponentially!)
7- Don’t force the classics on your kids.
If a child didn’t like vegetables, would you say, “Here. Try kale!” No. No, you would not. Only vegetable people like kale. (“Kale tastes like spinach threw up.” Parks and Rec, anybody???) I’m not saying you can’t expose your kids to classics or experience them together, but don’t force it. The actual reading is a big enough hurdle without adding the additional challenges of historical context, dialect, and complicated structure.
There are books that help people love to read, and there are books that are for people who already love to read. Consider the difference.
(I’m not saying don’t read the classics. I heart the classics. I am saying that the classics aren’t the key to helping ‘meh’ readers learn to love reading.)
8- Turn off screens.
I don’t really want to wade into all this, but you can’t deny it. Most kids would pick screens over books because it’s easier (and can we blame them? How often do I mindlessly stare at Netflix while my “to read” pile gathers dust?) Having good boundaries for your kids regarding screen time frees them up to be bored, to wander, to tinker, to scribble, and, possibly, to read. I’ve found it helpful to have specific boundaries in place. In general, we try to keep screens off until 3:00. It’s not perfect, but it leaves a majority of the day to explore other things. Maybe you’d rather get it out of the way. Maybe you use a timer. Whatever it is, be thoughtful about the plan and consistent in the routine.
9- Support it.
If you want your kids to love reading, make it a priority. Yes, I’ll take you to the library. Yes, I’ll buy you books for your birthday. Yes, I’ll listen to this story that you’re dying to share with me. Yes, I’ll read a book that you can’t stop talking about (I’m looking at you, The Rithmatist.) If you tell your child you want them to love reading but aren’t willing to participate or enable it, how much do you really want it?
10- Be patient and persistent.
When only my first truly loved reading, every week I came home from the library with a stack of books that I believed the others could read even though they showed no interest. Sometimes those books were picked up and flipped through. Sometimes they were returned without being cracked open. And sometimes someone got bored enough to read them. This was how my daughter discovered graphic novels. First by looking at pictures, and then realizing there weren’t that many words. And then quietly requesting we find more of those.
My pediatrician has often said that to help kids like a variety of foods, keep offering them a wide range. It’s the same with reading. Make lots of books available, and be open to a wide range of genres, topics, formats, and levels.
Minimize the pressure. Maximize the joy. Chill out about it.
The great Kathleen Kelly once said that books we read in childhood shape us and become a part of us like nothing else. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I hope your little readers can find their books, stories that resonate with them and open their eyes to new parts of the world.
Don’t worry. I see you, you non-fiction information collectors. Here’s some more sources on understanding the value of reading, accessing solid book lists, and general encouragement.
Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
***Just FYI- all the links in this post are to the Amazon Smile account for Release, Inc. That means if you shop using those links, Release will get a small cut. It’s a win-win-win, as Michael Scott would say. Thanks!***