Parents want their kids to read more. That seems to be one of those universal statements that holds firm each year. While I offer no bulletproof plan to creating readers in your home, I wanted to share some of the tips that have helped us cultivate a practice (and dare I say, a love) of reading among our kids. Let me say from the outset that my wife is the real hero here. She homeschools the kids and has been diligent in these practices.
Be a Reader Yourself
Our kids learn from our words, but they also learn a great deal from our actions. Simply put, if we say that reading matters and then never crack open a book, we are teaching them that reading actually matters very little. And no, reading Facebook posts and your Twitter account do not count. Let them see that reading is a regular practice for you. Read fiction and non-fiction.
Let them see you open up a real-life book, the kind where the pages whisper a small congratulatory schiiick each time you turn a page. Talk to them about the books you are reading. Discuss the characters. Invite them into the story with you as you share the details that you really enjoy or dislike. This practice, as well as the final one, are the most important tips.
Read to Them from an Early Age
From well before our kids were able to recognize cognitively what was happening, we were reading stories to them. That practice has continued as the kids have grown, and Margaret still spends time reading to the kids as a part of their homeschooling. However, even if your kids are a bit older and you don’t homeschool, you can still find 15–20 minutes a few times a week to read through a part of a series like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Wingfeather Saga. This routine will further solidify reading as a norm in the home.
If your kids are still young, start building reading into daily routines, like right before nap time or bed time. Instead of scrolling through social media, be willing to read them a book when they plop down beside you on the couch and place a book in your lap. Those are the moments where the seeds of little readers are watered and nurtured.
Make Books Readily Available
As Americans, we often spend a lot of money on gadgets and toys, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But, how we spend our money is a good indicator of the things that we truly value. If you want your kid to be a good baseball player, you may go out and purchase a nice bat or pitching lessons. In the same way, if we want our kids to read, we need to invest in books.
I’m not talking about fancy books with fancy covers that are too nice to handle. I just mean regular books that can be roughed up a bit. Little by little, buy a bunch and put them on lower shelves where the kids can go grab them whenever they want.
Likewise, try not to keep all of the kids’ books located in just one room. Place some on shelves in multiple rooms so that books are never too far away. Always in sight, always in mind. That’s how the saying goes, right?
Get a Library Card
You may be thinking, Buy books in this economy? What, am I supposed to sell some blood plasma to afford that? (Fun fact: I did donate blood plasma while in college to help fund my book-buying habits, but that’s a story for another day.) If your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase many books, go get a library card.
A lot of local libraries will let you check out around 20 books at a time, so you could take out a stack every couple of weeks. Our kids enjoy going to the library, where they can explore the shelves in search of new literary treasure.
Libraries also serve as a good first test for series that you want to preview. If you find a series or book at the library that you all enjoy, you might want to buy it and keep around the house. A lot of parents neglect the opportunity that their local library affords them, but it’s a great way to expand your family’s book selection (and it’s free!).
Give Them (Some) Freedom to Choose
It is important to strike a balance in allowing the kids freedom in choosing their books. When we go to the library, we generally give them a lot of independence in choosing the type of books they want, as long as there is no inappropriate content. You want a book on geology? Sure, go for it. You want the book about the magical goat? No problem, have fun!
Let them explore different topics and different worlds that authors have created. Then, ask questions about what they learned, liked, and disliked.
Again, we do not give complete freedom when it comes to reading choice, and inappropriate content is not the only factor that we consider when evaluating a book. While we should be discerning about the content of a book (negative behavior that is praised, underlying social/political agendas, etc.), that’s not what I had in mind here. Rather, I’m referring to the literary quality of the book.
I’m definitely not saying that kids must only read classics. However, we do limit the quantity of “literary candy” they can have. What’s literary candy? It’s reading that has no depth or literary quality. A lot of times these types of books look more like comic books than actual books.
Why do I call these literary candy? Because they often deliver no substance. They are thin on plot, thin on character development, reliance upon cheap humor, etc. Like candy, they are not bad in small amounts, but they definitely should not be the main staple of the literary diet.
Even if you have an older child or middle schooler who struggles with reading, this sort of book may be a good stepping stone to other, richer books.
Limit the Screen Time
In full disclosure, I’m writing this section on a Saturday morning as the kids are about to watch some cartoons or play video games. I’m not opposed to screen time. However, unlimited access to screens is a reading killer. If the average kid has to choose between reading a book or watching a series of silly YouTube videos, the books are going to be collecting dust for a while.
Find a solution that works for your family. It may be limiting screen time to the weekends. It may be limiting it to 30–45 minutes each day. There’s no law here, regardless of what you might read on some family blogs.
The principle is to limit screens in order to give space and time to other more important practices, such as playing outside or reading.
Ultimately, cultivating readers is like cultivating a garden; it takes work. Reading to kids, going to the library, and limiting screen time requires more energy and effort from us. In a world of busyness, it’s much easier for parents to fall back on the digital babysitter. And let me say, you’re not a bad parent if your kids do some screen time. We all need a nap sometimes. But let’s not make the exception our default practice. Let’s cultivate the practice of reading in our personal lives and our homes.
I’d love to hear from you. What practices have you found helpful in cultivating the habit of reading in your home?