How to get your kids to read more

Disclaimer:  I don’t really have any practical experience with this because nobody in my household is what would be termed a “reluctant reader.”  But my mom was worried that my sister was a reluctant reader (she wasn’t, she just wasn’t a bookworm– she’s one of those who prefers book-club style books at about the rate that a bookclub reads them) and I’ve also done a research project that brought me into the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation literature which is largely tested with children’s reading.  That said, I will not be providing citations because this is a hobby blog-post and I am lazy.

There are two big reasons that someone might not be a reader.  The first is that they just don’t have anything to read that is as compelling as whatever else they’re spending their time doing.  The second is that they don’t have what is termed “facility” in the literature– that is, they’re not that good at reading.

The first is potentially more fun to solve– you go through the joyous experience with your kid of finding what they find compelling.  They can ask their friends what they are reading.  You can try out all sorts of random stuff at the library.  Alternatively it might involve being unfun if your kid has unlimited screen time and you’d like to cut back on that but there’s resistance.

The second can be complicated.  Sometimes there’s an underlying learning disability keeping a kid from gaining reading facility.  If that’s the case, you’ll need to see a reading specialist.  Sometimes though, it’s just that they haven’t gotten enough practice reading or never learned the basics of phonics.  If they’re young, you can do more reading with them.  You can work on phonics.  Then there’s the question of how to encourage practice without making a kid hate it.

This is where the literature on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation gets interesting.

There is a large literature showing that if you pay good readers to read, they read less after you stop paying them than does the control group that never got paid to read.  That is, paying good readers to read kills intrinsic motivation.

A smaller literature suggests that this negative finding is *not true* for kids who don’t read because they don’t have reading facility.  Paying them to get over the hurdle– to practice reading– means that poor readers who were paid to read up to the point where they can read fluently, they read much more on their own than the control group that wasn’t paid.  That is, extrinsic motivation until enough practice has been done to make reading easier and actually fun leads to intrinsic motivation.

There’s all sorts of concerns about fairness and so on when you have multiple kids, but this is just to be clear that it is ok to reward your kid for practicing when they’re really bad at something and it’s no fun.  It’s probably fine to reward yourself in those situations too…

Numbered suggestions:

  1.  Read a lot yourself.  Have lots of books around.  Kids do what they see their parents doing.  If you read because it’s fun, they will be more likely to as well.
  2.  Read to your kids– you can do this without resistance probably through early middle-school.
  3.  Go to the library regularly.
  4.  Keep lots of all sorts of reading material around, especially if a kid indicates that they like something.
  5.  Comic books– books with pictures and words.  These are great for all ages.  I prefer the funny Calvin and Hobbes style stories, but some people also enjoy super-hero style comics (Squirrel girl is wonderful for all ages!), or Sandman, or Cerberus or Hyperbole and a Half or … the list goes on.
  6.  Series.  A lot of book series are designed to grow in reading level as your child grows in reading level.  The Magic Treehouse is an excellent example of this (and seems to be particularly good for oldest children, but in our experience doesn’t excite second children as much, possibly because the younger sibling is TSTL).  It starts out short and easy to read and then gets longer and more complex.
  7. Magazines.  Even trashy ones.
  8. Video games that have lots of story and text.
  9. Subtitled anime (or other non-English shows with subtitles).
  10. I don’t have a 10th suggestion, but maybe one of the members of Grumpy Nation does?

Grumpy Nation:  What encourages people to read?  Are you a reader?  Why?  Have you had experience with reluctant readers?

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34 Responses to “How to get your kids to read more”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    I would also say “give it time”. My oldest kid went from zero interest or skill in reading to a voracious reader – but not until he was 7 and in the second half of first grade. Now my middle kid is entering 1st grade as a reluctant reader (he loves being read to but hates trying to read), and I’m hopeful that will change by the end of the year.

    So I suppose my point is – just because your kid isn’t a reader at 4 or 5 (or 6 or 7!) doesn’t mean they won’t be at 8 or 9 or even high school or college.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Excellent point!

      It’s awful when parents (or teachers) label their kids as “not a ____” or “bad at ____” and then the kid takes on as their identity something they might have grown out of or worked to change. Kids change a lot!

  2. Turia Says:

    I would add audiobooks, especially if your kid is struggling. Audiobooks trigger the same parts of the brain as reading does, and an audiobook allows a kid to ‘read’ a story that matches their true comprehension level, not what they can read on the page. If you’ve got a kid who’s seven, or nine, and struggling through ‘baby’ books, it’s so important that they still have access to the books aimed at their grade level (or above), so they get the ‘good’ stories too. Audiobooks are also great for reading while following along if you can find both paper book and recording.

    E. was a semi-reluctant reader at age 5 until it ‘clicked’ (and from age 6 he’s almost never seen without a book in his hand). He was learning to read in French at school, so what we did was have him read to us (in English) at home for 10 minutes every day before screen time. Some days there was a lot of resistance, but the combination of the consistency and the short amount of time really worked well. I also spent a lot of time at the library getting readers that were just the right level of difficulty. I think that makes a big difference in those formative months/years, but it’s a lot of emotional labour and I recognize that I was privileged enough to a) have the time to go and sort through the options every week and b) belonged to an exceptionally good public library.

  3. Alice Says:

    This is useful for me to read–thank you.

    To the best of my knowledge, my kid read her first independently-read word when she was about 2.5. Now, at 5, she’s technically proficient. If we do every-other-word in a new book, she reads them all with some mispronunciations for more complex words. I’ve really struggled and failed to find books for her that she might want to read independently, though. She’s reluctant. The problem is that from an emotional level, she Does Not Want to encounter (a) rule-breaking/bad choices, (b) mean behavior between characters, or (c) things that scare her. She will ask me to stop reading a book to her if the drama level is too high for her. And it seems like all of the books I can find at her technical reading level are too high-drama for her, even things an adult would look at as no big deal. For more than a year, I’ve been reading nonfiction to her at bedtime, along with a couple of beloved Boynton board books. Nonfiction doesn’t bother her, and the Boyntons are meant for a pretty young audience.

    I was a voracious reader, but didn’t learn to read until 6 and didn’t fall in love with it until 7. I’ve been worrying that I’m not setting her up to be a big reader because I haven’t found the books she loves yet. I would very much like for her to be someone who enjoys reading, though. A love of reading has brought me so much good, I want the same for her.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ohohoh—I need to get my memory on this but DC1 and I were both similar. I may do an ask the grumpies on this in the future—books for sensitive readers.

      I can recommend nonfiction (scholastic has a ton of great choices at the picture book level)… for read to me chapter books: miss pettifour, the five little peppers… I’m sorry I have to come back to this but I will and I will have a ton of recommendations at varying reading levels. Also I feel for your kid! It is hard being sensitive! I still have trouble with conflict and drama.

      Update: I just remembered that DC1 was scared of much of Dora the Explorer. Like Swiper! And The grumpy old troll who lived under the bridge was seriously traumatizing. Poor sweet little DC1. Hard to believe zie is now a teenager who has no problem watching Star Wars or leading online mafia games.

      • Alice Says:

        Oh, wow, thank you! And thank you also to the downstream commenters where I’m not seeing reply buttons, too. I’m putting Miss Pettifour and Nate the Great on the to-buy list.

        (And we haven’t gone the Dora route, but I will say that as recently as 3 months ago, she was running out of the room and asking me to “go out of” episodes of Daniel Tiger. I was the same way– I remember running out of the room over sitcom storylines in which I could tell that people were about to feel embarrassed. It’s why I never got into Beverly Cleary when I was a kid. Too emotionally intense!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Early Beverly Cleary is way less intense– Henry Higgins, Henry and Ribsy etc. They’re much more 1950s style.

        Bubble Guppies didn’t exist when DC1 was little, but from what I remember it should be much much better for a sensitive kid. Light and funny with no deep emotions. All the kids seem pretty mature in it too.

        Nate the great didn’t have much longevity for most of my family members– there’s a sweet spot where the interest level and reading level meet which was very small for my family (including me!). Cam Jansen lasted much longer– it’s just a little more difficult than Nate the Great. Most of them aren’t any more emotional than Nate the Great but a few of them are. (There are like 100 of them, give or take. DC1 read them all.)

        One of these Fridays I will post a coherent post on this topic. It is near and dear to my sensitive heart.

      • minca Says:

        My 6yo DD is also sensitive— +1 for a post!

        What she’s enjoying:
        – Sophie Mouse
        – The Owl Diaries
        – My Furry Foster Family
        – Mrs. Piggle Wiggle
        – Zoey & Sassafras
        – Calvin & Hobbes
        – Magic Treehouse (she’ll skip any “scary” parts)

        We tried Mathilda…hardly got through 2 pages!

        For shows/movies:
        – Doc Mcstuffins
        – Gaby cats
        – Cat and the Hat (big favorite!)
        – The Great British Baking Show
        – Aristocats (some minor fastforwarding)
        – Sound of Music (make the concert the end…or even the intermission!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The Owl Diaries are so sweet!

        DC1 and I did enjoy Mrs. Piggle Wiggle even though the whole point of each chapter is that a child has misbehaved. Again, I think it’s that it seems more abstract than personal in a lot of these early-mid 20th century books by American authors so the logic centers are engaged rather than emotions?

        And there’s just something delightful about the idea of being able to grow radishes behind your ears.

    • Sarah S. Says:

      My son has very similar preferences to your daughter. Any amount of rule breaking, in particular, is completely out of the question (and the time travel in Magic Treehouse definitely counted as rule breaking).

      Reading Frog and Toad books together worked well and I would highly recommend those, but what really got him reading on his own were Nate the Great mysteries. There is nothing scary about the mysteries (my son could deal with a missing beach bag) but the mystery-based plots presented a situation where he finally wanted to know what would happen badly enough to read on his own. We started out by alternating pages for the first chapter or two because that’s where a lot of the new vocabulary for the story or new characters would be established, but then I would excuse myself to do something else he would want to keep reading. We actually had to stop him from reading at some points because he would be mentally exhausted and frustrated but would want to push on to the conclusion.

      The other thing I will recommend is e-books if going to the library is a hurdle. My son was in Kindergarten when the pandemic started so we had no physical library access. It’s so hard to know what kids will like, and I had a really hard time figuring out if books would be at a good level early on. Getting e-books out of the library was a great way to try things out. We tried many other series and authors before finally hitting on Nate the Great, but once we did find a good series his progress was pretty remarkable and very fun.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Also the early Henry Higgins by Beverly clearly where the conflict is too many guppies. (Not the Ramona books). There are just these older slice of life books that work well. I need to get some time to remember back when DC1 and I were little. But definitely miss pettifour.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Another brief thought– American early 20th century children’s fantasy novels are also good. Even though say, The Wizard of Oz, has what should be scary bits they don’t actually seem that scary? (Not true for: the gnome king who truly distressed me, the princess who cuts people’s heads off which didn’t bother me the first time but does now.., or the wheelers–those creep me out still– but The Wizard of oz itself DC1 and I both read many times. Book 2 also good and (spoiler) Trans-positive!) There’s just something about most of these books by Americans where you just know everything is going to be ok and problems seem silly or fun instead of scary. (Quite the opposite of their British counterparts.) Edward Eager is another author in this vein, though he’s later than Baum. (Baum also has some lovely short stories where there’s no conflict at all, just utopias made of candy floss and lemonade. All available free from gutenberg!) And Ruth Chew. Like, there are adventures, but they’re generally either cozy or, in the case of Baum, they’re described in such a way that it seems more logical and less emotional/personal. Most of Ruth Chew you know everything is going to turn out ok– they’re not going to get trapped in Mexico, or the witch is going to turn out to be a good guy etc.

      Today, Escape from Mr. Lemoncellos’ library is in that tradition.

    • EB Says:

      The stories and settings may be a bit baffling for her, but children’s books written before the 1970’s are FAR less likely to be upsetting. Not they they don’t have interesting plots and good characters, but these are more likely to be within a context of safety and kindness.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Not all though– if you get far enough back they can be pretty distressing. See: The Great Brain, Penrod, etc. Generally when they’re about boys. (But then you have sweet books like Homer Price which is similar to Henry Higgins where the problems are having too many donuts.)

        Kids just beat each other up! And beat animals up too! And this is just like… normal. Lots of older gentlemen teaching boys how to fight instead of how to use their words. (Why yes, my mother forced childrens classics on me, why do you ask?)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        *Homer price did have some chapters that distressed me. Not the donut chapter, but some of the other ones had people behaving badly. Like actual villains.

  4. xykademiqz Says:

    My eldest (now 21) was and is still a voracious reader, one of those kids whom you never see without a book. The younger two aren’t really, and it’s not the fluency, as they were both early readers and good spellers. The middle boy (14) reads manga and anime-tied light novels for fun, and also likes nonfiction (science, history, etc.). He reads fiction for school, but mostly grumbles. He’s a pretty good writer, based on what I’ve seen, definitely strong in analytic writing (parsing text). The youngest reads well, but won’t read on his own without prodding. He likes to read with me, so we take turns, one chapter him, one me. He likes scary books, also funny books, action and adventure; we’re currently reading Masterminds book 1, it’s really good; I also just got him a book of regional scary stories from the place where we’re currently on vacation. He liked Max Einstein book 1, book 2 I agree with him is a letdown so we dropped it; Big Nate and Junie B Jones were a big hit for a long time.

    I chuckled at your comment on how Magic Tree House is a hit only with oldest children. That has definitely been our experience. Eldest tore through them (we have many, many of them), but his younger two brothers don’t really care.
    And FWIW, eldest has always been into sword-and-sorcery fantasy in a way that neither of the younger two are.

    Tangent: Book buying is my vice, so there are always plenty of books around, of every genre. I’ve also been buying and reading a lot of poetry lately (midlife existential crisis!) and it’s such a balm for the soul, seriously. Kids should be reading to more poetry. Most of my youth I had such singular focus on my work, which depleted me emotionally and sucked my soul dry. I am so much happier now that I am allowing myself more time to immerse myself in art, all sorts of arts, and I wish we could foster better the importance of art in young people; for sure no one emphasized it to me when I was young; it was always “achieve, achieve”! I see it my undergrads, too, many will say they haven’t read a book since high school. Between striving to achieve and the demands of socializing/dating, none of which are conducive to tending to one’s inner life, many young people get quite disconnected from themselves; I hope for them to not wait till they’re middle-aged before they find their way (back) to art as a necessary ingredient of a balanced life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Middle boy sounds like a reader to me and one with good taste!

      I just bought a copy of my favorite children’s poetry book for DC2–it’s still in print! (Dover classics children’s poetry coloring book). My thought is that DC2 can copy out the poems in cursive to hit both of those requirements. They’re fun ones like purple cow or man on the stair or jabberwocky.

  5. RH Says:

    For my now 8 yo, the pandemic actually helped! He was halfway through 1st grade when schools closed so his ability to read was in place. He enjoyed when we read together but wouldn’t choose reading on his own. For summer 2020, I was wfh full time, dad was at work (hospital) and there was no childcare situation that we felt comfortable with. So he spent the summer at home as an only child, bored, which actually helped him to start picking up books more on his own because “there was nothing else to do”. I kept a healthy supply of books around that interested him and encouraged him to read but left it at that. I’d often get out of a meeting and find him curled up somewhere in the house reading!

    A year later, he’s not a kid that constantly has a book in his hand, but will still choose reading over many other activities (not counting screens, of course). He also enjoys reading in situations where he’d otherwise be bored, like in the car. I had an issue fixed at the dentist a few months ago and had to bring him along and he happily sat and read for an hour. Everyone there was shocked that he wasn’t playing on a phone or iPad. They never see kids reading.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC2 has read SO MUCH over pandemic. I think we regularly go through at least 30 library books a week, maybe more. Reading is fun! (Though maybe not as fun as video games…) Boredom is a great motivator, especially when the alternative to entertaining oneself is housecleaning.

  6. Lisa Says:

    Funny about the Magic Tree House – it was the opposite with my kids! Older two were meh, but the youngest tore through every one in the school’s library last year (they let us check out books even when school was all online). My older two kids didn’t love reading on their own until their reading skills caught up with the level of books they wanted to read. They much preferred having me read Harry Potter or the Hobbit or other favorites to them for bedtime stories over reading a dumb early reader on their own.

    I’m trying to remember what my oldest (who is also pretty sensitive) liked to read once they got into reading on their own. El Deafo made a big impression, and they really liked the Guardians of Ga’hoole and Wings of Fire books (although there is certainly conflict and rule breaking there). When oldest was really little they loved to have me read The Boxcar Children to them (over and over and over).

    • Lisa Says:

      The thing my youngest likes reading by themselves now that they can is the Press Start (Super Rabbit Boy) series – short graphic novels that are about video games (so yes to conflict & rule breaking).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The exception to the rule!

      I liked the original boxcar children series as a kid but DC1 was not a fan. (I also read the bobbsey twins as gentle readers where not much happens, but I am pretty sure the suck fairy visited them and that’s why they’re not really available anymore unlike the boxcar children). DC2 says the new boxcar children series is fine, but not as good as say, Wings of Fire!

  7. Debbie M Says:

    What made me a better reader as a kid was bringing me to the library on a regular basis. What made me not want to read was having to write a book report (having to pay close attention and figure out things to include in the report and pause reading to take notes).

    A friend of mine found that earning a master’s degree in English killed her motivation to read. For years afterwards. Eventually she was able to stand reading kids’ books and moved up from there.

    Of course people with undiagnosed bad vision and dyslexia often don’t like reading.

    You can definitely read at a higher level on things you are interested in (like, perhaps, Minecraft books).

    My brother is not a big reader–he eventually found some books he liked and just read those over and over.

    My dad was not a reader at all (the he could read and he did like telling stories). But he preferred learned everything by talking to people. He was all about verbal communication and negotiation. (The opposite of me–I don’t like bothering people and would rather learn by reading.) So I expect reading is more attractive to introverts than extroverts (except maybe reading plays aloud with each person getting different roles).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I haven’t been able to read Pride and Prejudice since college for that very reason (though I did make an exception for the addition of zombies). I find that studying literature I dislike makes it more enjoyable, but it kills my enjoyment of things that are naturally fun.

      • Debbie M Says:

        That’s so crazy, huh? Brains are weird. And I guess literature classes are weird, too!

  8. Natka Says:

    I think seeing grown-ups reading for fun definitely triggers the reading=fun connection for many kids. I love reading, my parents love reading, and so did my grandparents.

    Our 3 kids (7, 11, 12) all like to read and they all love it when we read aloud to them. We go to the library almost every week and we talk a lot about what books the kids would like to put on hold, what they want to read next… they also like browsing at the library.

    I agree with an earlier commenter who said “give it time” – yes, I saw that especially with our youngest, who loved listening to books but did not particularly enjoy reading on her own until her reading ability caught up with her interests.

    I also agree that audio books are great – both for reluctant readers and for voracious readers. Sometimes it’s just so nice to listen to a good story!

    Another suggestion for reluctant readers: watch a movie first. There are so many film adaptations of so many wonderful books, but the books almost always have more details…. plus, it may be easier to read some books if you already kind of know where the story is going. That was how I ended up reading Jules Verne, Dumas, and Stevenson – I loved the movies based on their books and wanted to know more. Also, “Sense and Sensibility” – I saw the movie first and then got the book.

    What I worry about is that not all books are created equal…. there are some “junk” books that maybe an entertaining easy read but don’t have much substance. And then there classics that may be excellent but can be very hard to get into…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Junk books are the best! Leave substance to book clubs and school (unless that’s your thing, in which case you do you).

      My mom made me read a lot of classics and I don’t think I actually got much out of the crappy ones. Good ones are still good. (#dumas #austen #brontebutnotemily #trollope #orczy #sabatini #shakeapeare oh wait all my favorite classics were the junk of their time!). And for reluctant readers anything that increases reading facility is good.

  9. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    “There is a large literature showing that if you pay good readers to read, they read less after you stop paying them than does the control group that never got paid to read. That is, paying good readers to read kills intrinsic motivation.”

    Are we using “paying” very broadly here? Like, would rewards for reading time (like our library does over the summer) also kill intrinsic motivation?

    JB is a very interested reader on their terms, which is great, and I wonder if having them participate in the summer reading challenge will ultimately be counterproductive in feeding the love of reading for the sake of enjoying reading. While I know there was no way that would have been counterproductive for me, I loved reading more than anything and I’m just mad now that I didn’t have the ability to earn prizes on top of that, I also know I was a weird kid and JB is nothing like me in many ways.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t know. IIRC the experiments either used money or MnMs.

      Personally I think any negative effect sizes from summer reading would be small but also I’ll note that most summer reading programs have started rewarding days spent reading instead of number of books, which I think is based on mindset research.

      Anything that increases reading facility will increase intrinsic motivation. At 5 there’s still probably plenty of facility to gain.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      And yeah, I got the Pizza Hut mini pizzas in elementary school and thought it was crazy I got rewarded for doing something fun.

  10. Dana Says:

    Finding interesting reading is a huge help. For some reason Dog Man graphic novels are magic. Any 6-8 year old just loves them. For non-fiction there is a great graphic series called Science Comics. My son has read and re-read both these series many times and I would say they broke him out of being a reluctant reader. He’s still picky about WHAT he reads but he will happily read now. He doesn’t like drama or suspense at all either but there’s a growing genre of graphic novels for young readers that he can enjoy.


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