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Why Aren’t Teens Reading Like They Used To?

Parents often ask me, “how do I get my child to read more?” I happen to be an expert because, not only am I a learning specialist and former school psychologist and all that jazz, I too was a “reluctant reader.” Fortunately there are so many ways to encourage tween and teen reluctant readers.

1) Create a sacred culture around books from a young age.

I know we had toys in our home but I do not remember my parents ever taking us to Toys R Us or similar spots, except to buy birthday presents for other kids. Somehow, I do not remember feeling deprived. For play, we had a playroom filled with old pots and pans, tea sets, my mom’s old clothes, and dolls (yes, politically incorrect Barbies which I don’t especially care for now). We had lots of art supplies and access to the outdoors, where my favorite game was “Little House on the Prairie.” We did have a Nintendo, but there were parameters and time limits.

So when did I get “spoiled”? Well, at the bookstore. We went to the library a fair amount, but for a real treat, I remember my dad taking me to the bookstore and letting me pick out whatever I wanted. Wow! What a treat. I think I also got ice cream on these outings. I see what  you did there, Parents.

But books were special, a time when I got to pick something new out for my very own library. I always wanted one of those stamps “This belongs to the library of….” So yeah, maybe I was deprived.

Encourage reading dad and daughter
The dad who started it all for me. Circa 1993.

To this day, I still prize my library. Getting rid of a book, for me, is like letting go of a piece of me… even if I didn’t like the book at all! If you ever get a book from me, you will know you are special.

2) Consider innovative incentives.

Although I loved books, as I have discussed in this blog, I did have some learning issues. I loved books, but reading was hard sometimes and I wasn’t always a voracious reader. In the elementary years, it was perhaps easier because I was young enough (and had younger siblings) that nightly reading time was easily enforced.

Come middle school, it’s a little harder to read to your kiddos every night before bed (though many will still love it). How to get them to be independent readers? Well, number one, take away all electronics and designate a nightly reading hour (or half hour). I think a lovely idea is a family reading time, if you can manage it a few times a week. Maybe once a week is realistic. You could keep track of pages, chapters, books read. Consider having a family celebration when certain goals are met (ice cream party? man, that would have been cool). Or not… not everything has to have a celebration attached. Do what works for your family.

But on that note, do not be afraid to go against the grain here. I think my dad saw me struggling the most in summers of the middle school years. He designed a pretty nifty, albeit controversial plan, for me. He paid me to read. Yes. Now, I know this flies in the face of a lot of contemporary parenting advice… don’t pay kids for something that is expected, etc.

But, in my case, I was not spoiled. I think I got, like, a dollar a week in allowance money… I was not treated to shopping sprees, etc. We also lived abroad, where I couldn’t make money babysitting or petsitting, the way many adolescents can.

So, yeah, my dad paid me a penny a page for several summers. He also offered an additional bonus to get me to write: for a two-page typed book review, I got a dollar. Maybe it was more. Maybe your kids will want to negotiate these rates due to inflation. But I think I made close to $50 a summer, maybe more. It seemed like a great gig, at the time… and the incentive just really got me over the mental hurdle that reading was “too hard.” Incidentally, this program ended around high school. Which sort of stunk, but by then I was mature enough to tackle the required summer reading lists on my own. My parents bought me the books on the lists, though, which was still a treat.

3) Don’t worry (too much) about what your kids are reading.

Are your kids happiest reading magazines? Comic books? Books in print or on the Kindle?

I think that’s all okay. There are benefits to reading Chapter Books, sure. But experts agree (real experts, I am not just citing myself) that the important thing is to spend time, daily, with words in front of your eyeballs.

Experts agree that the important thing is to spend time, daily, with words in front of your eyeballs.

No matter the content, children will still develop important literacy skills, such as vocabulary development and comprehension. To help them develop these skills, be sure to ask them about their reading… vocabulary walls or journal, character paper dolls, imaginary games (like “Little House on the Prairie) are all other fun ways to process, make connections, and grow.

What are some of your favorite ways to get kids to read? What are your special childhood memories around reading?


He raised a reader!
He raised a reader!

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