Even though Laura Baumert’s son Andrew can choose whatever book he likes for the 20-minutes daily sustained silent reading program at his middle school, he still finds reading a chore.

Over the years, the sixth grader from Washington, Michigan, has been on the receiving end of various incentives to gently nudge him into doing more reading: his elementary school used reading logs and rewards for time spent reading, and at home he is allowed to stay up 30 minutes past his bedtime if he reads an actual book. But so far nothing has done the trick, and Andrew rarely reads of his own volition.

Baumert doesn’t really know why her second son doesn’t like reading but keeps on trying anyway, finding places to fit it in between his other interests, which include typical middle school boy stuff: lacrosse, basketball, riding his bike, and playing video games. She takes him to the library often, and gathers good book recommendations from other parents, teachers and librarians, but stops short of forcing him to read a certain number of pages at home, thinking it will do more harm than good.

Schools have traditionally taught children how to read, and have always tried to encourage reading. But with an understanding that greater literacy is needed for the 21st Century workforce as well as higher benchmarks to meet, schools like Andrew’s are coming up with programming that not only supports the nuts-and-bolts of learning how to read, but tries to hook kids as well: giving kids free time during the school day to read what they wish, holding all-family “literacy nights” to give away books, reading contests with prizes, and more.

Parents often want to do the same at home. Some may feel like Baumert, a veterinarian at an emergency clinic, who said that between work, kids and extra-curricular activities, she’s often too tired to fight the reading battle. She knows that loving reading has a host of benefits for her son; she is just not sure where to draw the line.


Despite all the effort poured into enticing kids to read—the prizes, the posters, the contests—many U.S. students say they don’t enjoy it. A survey conducted by Scholastic last year found that reading for pleasure drops off drastically for kids after age eight. Only 51 percent of kids surveyed said reading is something they like or love to do, a nine percent drop from when the survey was first conducted in 2010.

And by age 15, the U.S. doesn’t even make the top 20 countries in the world who enjoy reading most. University of Virginia professor Michael McKenna, co-author of World Literacy: How Countries Rank and Why it Matters, compared PISA literacy achievement scores to the Enjoyment of Reading Index, in which 15-year-olds answer 11 questions about their reading enjoyment, and found two very different lists. Those who read the “best” — Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong — didn’t necessarily like it the most. “You don’t have to be a world-class reader to be a reader, you just need a modicum of skill and proficiency,” said McKenna. Even though the U.S. ranked 17th on the PISA in reading achievement, when it came to reading enjoyment, it didn’t even break the top twenty. Who loves to read most? Albania, Turkey, Shanghai-China, and Kazakhstan.*


 According to the Scholastic survey, three-quarters of parents reported wishing their kids read more for fun. But how exactly do parents do that?

Though there may not be a single secret, there are evidence-based things families can do to encourage kids to read outside of efforts made at school, said University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham, author of Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. And the first one is tweaking the reasons behind wanting kids to read in the first place.

Willingham wants parents to re-imagine the act of reading as having less to do with school and more with a life well-lived. Instead of telling kids that reading books will help them get good grades or find a good career, he said, make reading part of a larger family value: loving to learn.

“Reading is part of a broader context of values that parents communicate to children,” Willingham said. “These are families who value learning new things. And not just in the context of school.”

When learning about the world through books becomes a family value instead of a school responsibility, parents are no longer seen as enforcers: instead they’re the enjoyers, Willingham suggests. Kids may then absorb the values message, ‘reading is important to who we are; reading is what we do.’


Modeling good reading behavior also works, said Willingham, in which a child might observe that Mom or Dad must like reading, so maybe I would, too. Modeling can even be done with your cell phone or iPad, said Devorah Heitner, parent of two and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World—just tell your kids what you’re doing when you’re sitting on the couch, looking at your phone. “I do a lot of my reading on the internet and other forms of screen time,” she said, though she spends time on social media and games, too. “So when we’re modeling reading habits for our kids [and you’re on your phone], let them know what you’re reading. They won’t be able to tell just by looking [at you].”

One thing Heitner warns against is creating a Screens vs. Books mentality, in which parents may be tempted to reward “real reading” with screen time. (Willingham also advises to tread lightly with any rewards for reading, though he said sometimes they may work.) Yet parents often feel like digital devices compete for the time kids would use to read, and are looking for guidance.

High school English teacher Jarred Amato knows that, for his Nashville freshmen, cell phones are indeed a barrier to reading. In a recent blog post titled “What 100 Ninth Graders Told Me About Why They Don’t Read,” Amato recounts a survey of students and confirms what he already knew: though students cite many reasons for not reading—can’t find a quiet place at home, other responsibilities and activities—cell phones take top priority.

“Cell phone addiction is far and away the number one reason my students said they don’t read,” Amato said. “They are almost powerless to it. It’s not just a kid problem, either—adults and kids are reading less around the world. And I think there’s a value to talking to students about that.” In hopes of rewiring a habit, Amato has been having students put their phones away and practice reading quietly in his class with whatever book they like, hoping they will do the same–even for a few minutes–at home.

Willingham said that by time kids are teens, when increased autonomy and social activities crowd their days, encouraging reading might be an uphill battle, so it’s best to instill the ‘family value’ early, when children spend more time with parents. And though he said there’s research to substantiate how television’s arrival changed reading habits, for digital devices, it may not be so cut-and-dried—after all, kids have been finding other things to do for a long time.

“It’s not the case that there was this golden age of reading, back in the old days,” he said, laughing. “I think of myself growing up in the 70s, and who is kidding who? If I wanted to horse around with my friends, I wanted to horse around with my friends. We didn’t like look at each other and say, well we’ve got nothing to do, let’s go read Great Expectations! We had other ways to kill time even though we didn’t have X-Box.”

Though Baumert knows reading more would improve Andrew’s school performance, that’s not her number one concern. Critical thinking skills, empathy and a method of relaxation rank high on her list. For now Andrew reads only because he has no choice, but Baumert is optimistic that he will find the book that ‘ignites’ a love of reading. She also loved reading as a kid, and still finds that reading helps her relax and decompress.

“I read a lot as a kid. I still remember trying to read through the tears at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows,” she said, “and being disgusted at the abuse Buck suffered at the beginning of White Fang. So many books had such a huge impact on me.”

Willingham’s Tips for Raising Older Readers:

* Make sure kids have access to books. Drop by the library often. If it’s affordable, leave books lying around the house, in the car, even in the bathroom.

* Don’t control kids’ reading. The temptation to “put the hammer down” for a page count may only result in a reaction and pushback. Comic books, graphic novels, and books below reading level all count.

* Get kids involved in a peer network of readers.  For example, teen author John Green has created an incredible network of readers and fans that connect online.

* Offer reading material that draws on something they’re already interested in. If there’s a movie they already love, get the novelization of the movie, or a book about backstage gossip on set.

* Don’t forget that as the parent, you are the cheerleader, not the literature judge. Don’t worry if it’s not Shakespeare, the point is to show kids that “interesting things are found when you read print.”

*This post has been updated to clarify Shanghai as Shanghai-China in the PISA results. 

How to Help Students Develop a Love of Reading 7 November,2016Holly Korbey

  • Susan K.S. Grigsby

    One thing not mentioned in this article but should probably be well known is this: school librarians – the traditional promoters of reading for pleasure, the curators of quality/popular literature for children, the enthusiastic and passionate storytellers – are an endangered species. School systems all over the country have reduced or entirely eliminated school librarians in favor of reading coaches or literacy coaches or instructional technology coaches. In many cases these certified professionals have been replaced with classroom teachers without any library certification or paraprofessionals without any teaching certification. On top of that, school districts all over the country have severely limited the financial support of their libraries, too. I’m not saying that changing these facts will completely change the statistics cited in this article but if you show me a school with a strong and active reading culture I’ll show you a school with a fully supported, certified school librarian embedded into the instructional day.

    • Excellent point, Susan! Librarians are integral in building a school’s reading culture.

    • mildmannered

      Yes! Certified school librarians! Older, sweet ladies and moms are nice in a library but they rarely are librarians.

  • Yes! Fostering intrinsic motivation for reading is about building a community of readers and proving that reading has value beyond grades, points, and badges.

    • Jeffrey Pflaum

      It’s about intrinsic or self-motivation when you try to build a passion for reading. Reading is about an “inside feel.” The articles I read about creating the motivation to read in adolescents describe extrinsic techniques. Maybe they’ll work in the short run, but if you’re thinking about creating lifelong readers, you need to go deeper inside kids’ heads, in my opinion and from my experience. Two examples might explain further where I’m coming from: A sign outside a library around Halloween (Monticello, NY) was directed to very young readers: Approximately: “Come to the library and take out books and get a free pumpkin.” Yes, I believe that will work with beginning readers. However, when a father of a 6th grade student came up to me on open school night and complained: “I buy my son lots and lots of books but he never picks up one to read.” Sure, he’s giving him a choice of books to read, and that’s great, but it’s still peripheral in the eyes of his son because he’s not motivated internally. “You can lead a horse to water…”

  • wheat42

    We read to both of our children the day they came home from the hospital. We kept dozens of books in the house, and read whatever they were interested in.They are now 27 and 19, and love to read

  • ms_kat

    So my personal research focus at school this year has been around how to promote independent reading. My students read for about 30 minutes in at least one class period a week and I check in with them at least once. That conferring process matters to getting my students to feel obligated to read. The other thing that is really exciting my students is the social aspects of reading. Kids are talking books, sharing books, just way more excited. It’s fun to participate in book culture if others are doing it too. The other thing we do is regularly talk about what good readers do and I read and share what I’m reading which ranges from YA to nonfiction.

    As a parent, it works the same way. My daughter is a reluctant reader; my son is a super reader. When we have time to talk about the books, my daughter wants to keep reading. The talk doesn’t even have to be “deep” but it can be as simple as, why do you like this character? What part made you sad? What are you reading next? Etc. And the reward for reading is more books of their choice. It seems to be working.

  • Mariana Abou-Rizk

    What counts as “reading”? Is it only books? Only fiction? To what extent do mangas count as “reading?” As a high school student, I almost never read books outside of class. I instead read a lot of newspapers, news magazines like Time Magazine, and short-form nonfiction, generally. I liked reading to be informed, and still do. The eighth grade had sucked the fun out of reading books, and even now that I’m in college I don’t read outside of the required materials for class. Until age 13 or 14, I read books for fun, but my 8th grade language arts teacher made us read and analyze books such as Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (which was at least easier to understand than the other two). It was a pretty normal middle school, but 8th grade language arts was unnecessarily hard, boring, and all the literary books were old. It sucked the fun out of reading and unfortunately that’s how a lot of English classes felt during and beyond middle and high school, with the exception of classes like Shakespeare 101 in which there was more opportunity to engage with the text in interesting ways.

  • Anna Smith

    Shanghai is a city in China, not a country. 🙂

  • janmaus

    A couple of really good points here related to a reading culture in the home. While lots of studies enforce the idea that parents who read to their kids develop better readers, I came across one a few years ago–that I cannot locate to cite this morning–that children who see their parents reading for pleasure are more likely to do so themselves. Another key reason to read to kids is vocabulary development–a friend who teaches Reading Recovery says that lots of “low performers” can decode the words just fine, but it doesn’t do much good because they don’t understand the words. Audiobooks are a wonderful way to develop interest in a story and introduce authors. I use them in the car, not so much for my 5th grade grandson who enjoys conversation, but for his older brothers, now in college, whose bickering drove me to distraction before I started plugging in books. An unexpected benefit–helping the middle boy, a reluctant reader, develop concentration. Seriously limit or even eliminate television when kids are little–you won’t really miss it much, either. As children develop wider interests, books may wax and wane in importance. Grandson, who reads at a 10th grade level, balks at the 30 minute reading period until he comes across a book that grabs his imagination, at which point we can’t get it out of his hands. During those times he is relatively uninterested, I give him National Geographic or something related to science or history and let him get his 30 minutes that way. Timing has a role. Instead of pushing homework and books immediately after school, some physical activity helps burn off pent up energy, then settle kids down to homework just before supper. We do pleasure reading later in the evening to slow down for bed and when I’m there, I read, too. We make sure he has books for his interest level instead of always pushing more challenging material–if he’s reading for information he gravitates to adult material on his own. We also make no distinction between using an ereader, tablet, or hard copy–content is content and good readers need to manage on any format.

  • Gilbert Martinez Valverde

    Many of our kids come from homes where reading is not a priority, first of all. Do you think your kids don´t read because they like video games better. That is just an excuse. Mine do not read because they do not understand well written Spanish, academic Spanish is for them like a foreign language within a foreign language, even though many of them are born in homes where Spanish is the primary language.

  • Sockida

    Is there a reason why Shanghai is listed as a country? I know that it’s not part of any specific province in China and has its own status of separate municipality. But it’s still part of the People’s Republic of China. Maybe it’s a typo? Maybe that’s just how the study was conducted? Just curious as to why it’s listed that way.

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Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey’s work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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