Tips And Tricks Parents Can Use To Nurture a Love of Reading in Kids

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For many families, reading is a pleasurable activity when kids are young, but becomes a battle as kids get older. Parents are more aware than ever that strong reading skills are fundamental to academic success. Teachers also feel pressure to make sure students are reading on or above grade level, often with their evaluations and salaries hanging in the balance. On top of it all, parents are increasingly finding that it’s hard to tempt kids to read when there are more alluring entertainment options like video games, social media and TV to occupy their time. All of this has turned reading into a battleground, when it should be a joyful experience.

“Your job is to teach your children how to love to read,” said Pamela Paul on KQED’s Forum program. Paul edits the New York Times Book Review and co-authored, with Maria Russo, the book How to Raise a Reader.

Paul understands parental anxiety about setting children up for success -- she has three children herself -- but she reminds parents that it’s the teacher's job to teach kids how to read. They are the ones focused on raising reading levels and giving assessments to determine reading levels. If parents focus too much on their child’s reading level, obsessing over what group they’re in and how they compare to other students, they risk making reading seem like a chore to their kids.

“I have a lot of sympathy for teachers and a lot of times it’s not their choice,” Paul said. “It may be state or district imposed.” But she says the best way parents can support teachers is to help their child learn to love reading. And sometimes that means protecting a space at home where kids can read whatever they like, even if it’s below their grade level, or not what adults might consider to be “good” literature.

“The last thing you should do is put pressure on them,” Paul said. “Because that kid, believe me, he knows he’s at that level and he feels bad about it.” Feeling bad at something usually isn’t fun, so if a kid is reminded of their reading level at home, he probably won’t want to read for pleasure.

Parental Attitudes Toward Books Matter

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“It does start with the parent,” Paul said. “So even if you haven’t been reading a lot, it is important to bring books into your life because kids look to their parents as role models.” For parents who aren’t already big readers, she suggests that parenthood could be a chance to make good on those resolutions to read more.

She recommends starting a reading routine with infants, even though it may seem like they aren’t getting much out of books at that age. For one thing, it can help parents, who may not have ever read aloud, get comfortable with the idea. Reading time can become a daily ritual for connection, child snuggling with their parent, hearing their voice, playing with the pages. From a very early age, kids are building positive memories and associations with reading.

And there’s no reason this protected time has to stop as children grow older, Paul said. People love stories — that’s why audiobooks and podcasts are so popular. Many parents, and teachers, continue to read to older kids who continue to find it pleasurable. Reading a book aloud together also gives parents an opportunity to start conversations with their kids about the book or its themes.

Paul also points to research showing that mothers are more likely than fathers to read to their children, and that both parents are more likely to read to their daughters than to their sons. Paul hopes parents are mindful of these gender gaps and work to reverse them. The research shows that girls are often more avid readers than boys, a trend that parents may inadvertently be perpetuating from an early age.

Paul also recommends surrounding kids with books at home. Put books in every room. Stack them on the coffee table, in the TV room, put them in the bathroom, make it easy for kids to pick up a book wherever they are. She even suggests sneakier tactics, like piling books about turtles on the coffee table if a child just mentioned being interested in them, for example.

She also understands the temptation to hand kids a phone or iPad when waiting in line at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office. But, those are also perfect moments to pull out a book. She recommends parents always have one or two along for those moments.

The goal is to develop an intrinsic love of reading, so make reading special. In her house, Paul’s kids have a set bedtime. But they are allowed to stay up 30 minutes longer if they are reading in bed. This type of strategy makes reading special, a treat that comes with privileges. That’s very different from rewarding a child for reading with candy or screen time -- extrinsic rewards that send the message that reading must not be very fun.

And since technology is often the alternative to reading, Paul recommends parents follow the same rules they set for kids. If there’s a rule of no phones at the table, that goes for parents, too. And if there’s a no screens after 8 o’clock rule, with those last few minutes before bed being reading time, that goes for parents, too.

Let Kids Read What They Want

In the spirit of making reading pleasurable, Paul reminds parents not to judge what their kids read. It may not be high literature, but that’s all right. Comics, books about baseball statistics, fantasy, graphic novels, these are all great forms of reading. Just as adults sometimes like to enjoy a trashy read, kids do, too. That doesn’t mean they aren’t starting to learn the difference between good and bad writing.

“If you want kids to read, they need to have what they want to read around them,” Paul said.

Some parents worry that if they let their children choose what they read, they will encounter subjects or language that is inappropriate for them. Paul isn’t too worried about this issue. She points out that most kids will skip over the parts of books for which they aren’t developmentally ready.

“Kids take in what they’re ready for,” she said. And often, the other stuff doesn’t quite register. But if it does, Paul would much rather kids get their first exposure to sensitive topics from a book, which has been carefully edited, rather than from the internet or friends, where misinformation abounds.

And there are more great young adult books available than ever before, many of which tackle the exact themes that concern young people. Authors are taking on identity, social justice and family issues.

“Really good books can validate a situation and help a child feel not so alone,” Paul said.

Or, on the flip side, books may offer children a window into experiences they didn’t realize other kids their age were having. That builds empathy. Rather than being scared that kids will encounter difficult topics, parents can use these reading experiences as jumping-off points for more nuanced conversations.

Paul remembers when her 10-year-old daughter came to her and asked for help with a word she didn’t know -- heroin. The book was about how the opioid epidemic was affecting a young girl’s family. Paul admits she was surprised, but she’s glad her daughter is building an awareness of what other families may be dealing with. And, she was glad the book contextualized the issue, not glorifying drug use in any way.

What About Teens Who Won’t Read Anymore?

This exact scenario happened to Maria Russo, co-author of How To Raise A Reader. She followed all the practices she recommends in the book and her daughter was an avid reader for most of her childhood. But then, when she was a teenager, she abruptly stopped.

Adolescence is a time of incredible change, often accompanied by the desire to rebel. Young people are defining their identity in new ways, often in opposition to their parents, at least at first. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they may drop habits from their earlier life as they figure out who they want to be. Give them time: They may pick reading up again later, as Russo’s daughter did.

As with many aspects of parenting teenagers, parents have to walk a line between giving their kids independence and support. When it comes to reading, it may be that kids just need the right book at the right time. Maybe it’s a book about a social issue she’s involved with, or an athlete’s biography. Maybe the book that will get that child reading again is one that reflects his or her racial identity or sexual orientation. Or maybe that teen is tired of reading about people his age and wants something a bit more adult.

Paul suggests rearranging the bookshelves at home to make it easier for a kid to stumble upon something she’s interested in reading. Maybe organize all the fiction and nonfiction together, or subtly turn books that might appeal with the book cover out, so it’s more enticing.

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The overall message Paul wants parents to hear is not to let anxiety about how well a child is reading at school get in the way of encouraging them to enjoy it. Read together as a family. Model reading as a fun activity. Give books as gifts, or make trips to the library a regular part of the family routine. Make books the easy choice of entertainment, and reading a special treat all on its own.

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