Before I decided to leave the classroom to pursue a career in writing, I taught English/Language Arts at the middle and high school levels. One of the concerns that I frequently heard from parents was regarding reading. Usually the conversation involved the parent saying something like this: “I’ve been trying to get my kids to read more at home, but they just won’t pick up a book. Do you have any suggestions?”
Asking a teacher/reader/opinionated person (like me) if they have suggestions opens the door to a lot of potential responses. But my go-to response was usually to ask the parent what they’d already tried at home. I could give you a laundry list of the responses I heard, some of which would make you either laugh or cry, but I’m going to skip that in favor of actually being helpful. Ultimately, you’ll get a pretty good sense of the types of things I heard from parents by the time you reach the end of this post.
Whether you are a parent or a teacher, here are some of my suggestions to help get kids, of all ages, interested in reading…
1. Encourage your kids to read books based on their interests.
If you love to read, you undoubtedly have a number of books that you would call your favorites. As readers, we love to share these titles with others, often with an overly-optimistic expectation that they will enjoy the book just as much as we did.
Sometimes this happens between parents and children (or teachers and students). We have a book that we remember fondly from our own childhood, and so we naturally want to share that book with the next generation. Sometimes that book is well-received, and the child loves it just as much as we did. Other times, our hearts get crushed when we hear these four little words, “I don’t like it.”
It doesn’t matter what age you are…if you’re reading a book on a topic you have zero interest in, you’re probably not going to enjoy the book. Even as an adult, there are few things I find more tedious than slogging my way through an uninteresting book, and I’ve loved reading ever since I was really young. This is why it’s so important, especially when kids are struggling to read, to find reading material that appeals to their interests.
If you’ve got a sports fan in your house, see if your local library has any books about specific teams or players. Do you have a teenager who is really into video gaming? Every year, Guinness World Records releases a book they call a “Gamer’s Edition,” which talks about world records relating to video games. Your budding artist might find they have an interest in comic books or manga.
For some of my former students, finding enjoyment in reading came down to a moment where they encountered a single book that changed their whole perspective on reading. While I would love to give you a list of books that every child will love, there’s really no such thing. All kids are different, and finding appealing books is something that can take a lot of time and patience.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of comic books, magazines, and player’s guides.
Comic books, magazines, and player’s guides are three reading materials that are often popular with both kids and adults, but they sometimes get a bad rap for not being “serious literature.” Personally, I think that’s a ridiculous attitude for people to have, as all three serve as great examples of how reading can be entertaining. Comic books, in particular, tell engaging (and often exciting) stories. They also have the ability to promote an interest in art.
Magazines, on the other hand, allow us to read articles on a variety of favorite subjects. The pictures contained in those articles are usually eye-catching, and they can help with reading comprehension in the same way as the pictures included in school textbooks. The length of magazine articles is also appealing to readers, because they can be read in a relatively short amount of time, especially in comparison to a novel.
Player’s guides have additional value as a reading choice, because they reinforce the idea that reading is helpful and has a purpose beyond that of “reading for an assignment.” And given the complexity of many of the video games currently on the market, a player’s guide may be an appealing choice for your gamer.
3. Audiobooks are your friends.
If you’ve ever been on a long car trip, I’m sure you’ve heard the following words: “Are we there yet?” When you know you’re going to be on the road for a while, why not put on an audiobook that the whole family can enjoy? If you can find an audiobook with an engaging story and a good reader, the trip can be much more enjoyable for everyone.
Audiobooks aren’t just great on long car trips though! They’re also really helpful if you have a student who struggles with reading. Many of the classics that teenagers are required to read in high school have been turned into audiobooks (some of which can be found for free online). If your student is struggling with reading, having them follow along in their book while an audiobook plays is a great solution. I’ve found that this works particularly well with Shakespeare’s plays, especially if you can find an audio dramatization.
4. Books about favorite movies, television series, and video games make awesome gifts.
When a movie, television series, or video game becomes popular, books about it inevitably follow. Encyclopedias, series companions, novelizations, and behind-the-scenes collectors books are just some of the options. If you have a child who is a huge fan of a specific movie or television show, chances are they will be interested in reading about it.
5. Don’t force your children to read “the classics” before they’re ready.
Ah, the classics…
Back when I was still teaching, I encountered a few middle school parents who were flat-out determined that their kids were going to grow up reading and enjoying the classics. With remarkably few exceptions, these were the parents who typically spent our parent/teacher conference time complaining that their kids weren’t interested in reading. I definitely understand where these parents were coming from, but simply handing your eleven-year-old son a copy of Moby Dick is not likely to have the outcome you were hoping for. (Speaking as his teacher, the only thing I ever saw him do with the book was show all of his friends the title and watch them laugh hysterically.)
The classics are great books, and they’re definitely worth reading, but here’s the honest truth… What we call classic literature can be extremely difficult to enjoy, even if it’s something that you’ve chosen for yourself. These books were written using language that is often different from our modern vernacular, sometimes including advanced vocabulary and strangely spelled words.
Giving a classic novel to a child who is already struggling to read, especially if they have difficulty with reading comprehension, is a surefire way to cause additional frustration. There will be plenty of time for them to read the classics later; some of them will actually be required reading in high school and college. I recommend preparing kids for eventual encounters with these more difficult books by getting them hooked on reading first.
That being said, it is certainly possible to encourage interest in the classics. There are adaptations of classic books written specifically for children (such as the Great Illustrated Classics series), which include large print text and pictures throughout the books. Some of the classics have also been given a YA-Fiction twist, retelling the original story in a modern setting.
When I was a kid, there was a television series on PBS called Wishbone. Each episode featured a story that was similar in some way to a piece of classic literature, such as Pride and Prejudice, Robin Hood, or The Hound of the Baskervilles. The episode would go back and forth between the “real world” and the world of the book, ultimately telling an abridged version of the classic in the process. Wishbone himself would bridge these two worlds, imagining himself as a character (complete with costume) in the world of the book.
While the series isn’t currently running on television, there are a few DVDs of individual episodes available on Amazon. Personally, I recommend watching the episodes for free. Searching for Wishbone on YouTube should bring up a playlist called “Wishbone – All Episodes In Aired Order.” They’re great shows for younger kids, and they might spark an early interest in the classics. They certainly did for me.
6. Take time to read with your kids.
It’s amazing how frequently that I encountered parents who wanted their kids to read more, but did not actually spend time reading themselves. I understand that life gets incredibly busy sometimes, but if we want our families to see importance of reading, we need to practice what we preach. You don’t have to be reading the same book as your child, but let them see you reading something.
There’s been a significant amount of research suggesting that we need to limit our screen time, especially before bed. The National Sleep Foundation website contains articles about a variety of sleep-related issues, including one called Why Electronics May Stimulate You Before Bed. The article is fairly short, but discusses how using electronics prior to bedtime can disrupt your natural sleep cycle. The website recommends turning off electronic devices two hours prior to going to bed.
While I think it’s unlikely that most people will be willing to do this, what if you chose as a family to put away cell phones and turn off the television half an hour before going to bed, specifically for the purpose of spending time reading together? It could lead to better sleep, as well as a fun habit for the whole family.
7. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while for your kids to love reading.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand that I can wave to instantly make your child (or student) love reading. The ideas I’ve presented above can certainly help pave the way, as can participation in reading incentive programs at local libraries and your child’s school, but the journey toward loving reading is just that…a journey.
For some kids, all it takes is one great book to change their attitude about reading. For others, it may take years, or the peer-pressure/influence of a book-loving friend.
Both you and your child may experience some frustration during the journey, but don’t give up. The rewards of reading are well worth the effort!