How to Get Your Kids to Love Reading

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I had lunch recently with a friend who confessed that she finds me intimidating because I seem to have it all together with this homeschooling. I laughed till I cried.

How to Get Your Kids to Love Reading - By Jennifer Harrison1

Seriously, no one has it all together. Especially not me. Well, okay, I know one gal who does have it together, but she scares me. I think loneliness is probably a price you have to pay if you do actually figure it all out. Most people tend to find perfect people intimidating.

My friend went on to explain her mistaken impression of my homeschooling skills: my kids love reading. To her, this defines success. I explained that my kids have not always enjoyed reading. In fact, my youngest is just lately started to come around to it. It is a process. I have to say, it felt really good to realize that yes, for the most part, this is one area in which we’ve done well. I am keenly aware of the many areas in which I am not doing well, so this was nice.

A love of reading opens up the world for our children. If they love to read, odds are high that they will be life-long learners. So how do you do it? How do you teach them to love reading? I want to share my tips and tricks that we’ve used through the years. These cover all ages, so you can jump in right where you are.

Read to them early.

You can find studies galore touting the benefits of reading early. Some hospitals even send black and white board books home with newborns. Early reading develops language skills and sets them up for strong independent reading skills. But what does it look like? It might seem strange to read to a drooling baby who doesn’t have a clue what you’re saying. Remember that you aren’t reading to inform them, but to grow them. Reading is a nice bonding time. Books with a nice cadence and rhyme can be both soothing and stimulating at the same time. Read for a few minutes as part of a nap time routine, or even part of a waking up routine.

When my oldest was a baby, he loved to listen to Noah and the Big Boat more than any other book. In hindsight, it’s a rather dark theme for children, but the writing is quite lyrical and he found it captivating. If he cried during a road trip, we simply started reading, “Noah was God’s faithful friend. His family loved God, too. Other people on the earth were evil through and through.” He calmed instantly every time. It helped that we had it memorized and could recite it at will. It’s been 17 years and I can still recite that book, which brings me to my next point…

Read often.

This can be torture for us as parents. We like variety. Kids like repetition. Hearing the same story again and again is actually quite good for their developing brains. You’ll likely find yourself reading the same half-dozen books daily for decades. At least, it will feel like decades. There will be exhausting days when you will want to stab your ears with a fireplace poker to avoid hearing the story again. I know. Believe it or not, these repetitious reading sessions will be memories you will cherish for the rest of your life.

Read books. Read them every day. Read them as you rock them before naps. As they get older and grow out of nap time, read to them and then give them books to look at during a quiet time. Set it up as a daily habit and they will grow up accustomed to the idea. This doesn’t ensure that they will love reading, but it will not be a painful idea to them. It will be as natural as brushing their teeth or wearing pants.

Talk about what you read.

This begins during the baby years and lasts until your child is elderly. Talk about books. It’s a beautiful thing to share.

When your child is very young, point out items on the page. As you read Goodnight Moon for the zillionth time, say, “Can you find the mouse on this page? What is the bunny doing? Do you see the moon?”

As your child gets older, ask, “Why do you think he did that? What do you think will happen next? Do you know what that word means?” The most important question you can ask is: “Should he have done that?” Good or bad, ask if the character should have chosen that particular action. Get them thinking about the choices being made, the heart motivations, and the possible consequences. This beats any literary analysis course they could ever take.

Associate reading with pleasure, not tears.

As they learn to read, there will be days when you are convinced they are pretending to not remember the phonics lesson they just learned yesterday. There might be days when they ARE pretending, but usually, the information truly has leaked right out of their ears. That, or it is tucked away in their brain underneath sandboxes and Hot Wheels. It will come back.

Don’t take these lessons personally. Simply reteach, gently and patiently. If they are faking, it will be a very boring, repetitive lesson for them and they’ll be less likely to pretend tomorrow. Perhaps they only needed to build their confidence with something familiar. They will eventually learn to read. If it is a painful process that involves emotional reactions (from parents or from the child), it will likely slow things down and it will not endear them to the idea of picking up books for fun.

Be patient. They’ll figure it out at their own pace. If you are anxious about it, they’ll get anxious about it and freeze up. I have a surprising number of friends who all had sons who didn’t read until they were 9-10 years old. This might sound late, when some children are reading at 4, but each of these boys went from reading Cat in the Hat to reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit within a year. They didn’t lose any ground. Relax.

Set a good example.

You need to read. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t feel that reading was important for your child. If it is important for your child, it is important for you. There is a quote that says,

“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” -Charles “Tremendous” Jones

Reading grows the mind and feeds the soul. Let them see you read. As moms, we’re often exhausted and busy and there just isn’t any time. Your child will one day be just as busy. Figure out how to make this a habit now so that they can learn how to make it a habit. Make it a priority and it will happen. You wouldn’t forget to do the laundry, and reading doesn’t need to take any longer than a load of towels. Read as you sit beside them during bath time. Read while stirring the soup. Read during sports practice or doctor appointments. Read in the tub and make time for yourself to relax. Sometimes, getting up early seems like a good time to enjoy reading in peace and quiet, but they don’t get to see you doing that reading. Perhaps you could exchange a different activity to free up afternoon time when they can catch you reading.

Read aloud.

Children love to hear stories read to them. This doesn’t end when they begin reading on their own. When listening to a story, children are able to dive into books far beyond their current reading level. They can listen to great classics and find themselves involved.

We read aloud in our homeschool so that all ages can gather together and share a story that illustrates our history lessons or simply fun. I assign many “read-alones”, but read alouds let us share a story together. There is a gap of 8 years from my oldest to my youngest, but they’ve all been able to enjoy read-aloud time.

Children want to be challenged. Listening to books above their age-level stimulates their minds, increases their vocabulary, and is just all around awesome. There are some great reading lists out there, but try to choose books above their reading level to read out loud to them. That said, a good picture book never gets old. My teenage sons find themselves drawn to the room against their will when they hear me reading to their little sisters. No one can resist a good story.

Trick them.

Our attitudes towards reading are contagious. Try to avoid scenarios such as giving them prizes for finishing books. This can convey the idea that reading is a chore and deserves a reward for enduring. Inspire them with the mindset of reading being the reward.

At around age 7, we make it a Really. Big. Deal. to graduate up to reading in bed at night. We go to the store and let them choose their own book lamp and book basket to hang on their headboard. That night, they go to bed at their normally scheduled time, but they get to stay up FIFTEEN MINUTES later! It’s kind of a big deal. They get to sit and read for fifteen minutes in bed. It feels like a privilege and it IS.

After they began reading, all of my children seemed to find chapter books intimidating at first. It  didn’t matter how short the book or the chapter; they were scared of the idea. I stumbled across a great trick that worked with all of mine to get them over that fear and into chapter books. Cartoons! I found old Family Circus paperbacks on ebay and bought a stack of them. These are chapter book size, but have just one cartoon per page. They loved them! After a few weeks, they devoured the books and were ready for chapter books.

A trick that has worked for many (but not any of mine), is to tempt them to finish a good adventure story. Begin reading aloud a book that you know they’ll love, and stop right at a climax point. Leave it as they are begging you to read what happens next! Tell them that if they want to find out what happens, they’ll have to read it themselves. For whatever reason, mine never fell for this and would go days without showing a sign of caring what happened next. I would eventually have to finish it because the suspense was killing ME! But it has worked for many people and might work for you.

One of my sons couldn’t stand not understanding every word in his book and had a hard time reading at night because he didn’t want to get out of bed to ask me. I gave him a pad and pencil and told him to make a list of words and I would tell him the definitions the next morning. That sounded like work. Imagine how exciting it would have sounded if I told him to look each word up. I’m not certain this is great advice, but what I did was offer to pay him a dime for every new vocabulary word he added to his list. He liked money, so he resumed reading at night and got comfortable moving on with new words. This lasted a few months and cost me a few dollars before he stopped writing things down. Eventually, he developed the skill of gathering context clues and he now has a fabulous vocabulary.

Implement audiobooks.

There are so many good books out there and a mom can only read so much out loud before she loses her voice. There are fabulous audiobook options to help round out our reading time. I handed our history over to Jim Weiss, whom we listen to during road trips. We read supplemental books for our daily history lessons, but our “spine” is just an occasional  treat on our way to the dentist and such.

Younger students can color or do a craft or activity while they listen. I don’t recommend Legos because they get very noisy and make it hard to hear. My youngest learned to knit while listening to audiobooks. I pay my kids to braid my hair during audiobooks. We all win.

Choose Good Books.

It is tempting to choose books that are cheap distractions. Flashy cartoon covers may or may not contain quality reading material. You might get them to start on a few shallow books, but you’ll likely not keep their interest for long. Think of it as cotton candy. They might be thrilled with it at first, but when they are hungry, the sugar doesn’t satisfy. Their minds are hungry. They want something real.

There is a time and place for simple pleasure reading, but that does not mean shallow or even harmful reading. Yes, books can be harmful. We are influenced by what we read. Books that encourage rudeness or stupid thinking create poor readers and poor thinkers. “But he’s enjoying reading!” is not a good argument for giving him material that compromises his character development.

The world is full of so many incredible books that there is no way anyone could ever read even half of the best. Why waste time on rubbish?

Find their niche.

My oldest son took two years to learn to read. My stressful teaching definitely slowed him down, and we started rather early. Once we moved past this, he loved reading. It wasn’t until high school that he realized that he especially enjoys medieval literature. It is NOT my cup of tea, but he really likes it.

His younger brother barely tolerated any of it. We had many discussions on being thankful for the opportunity to learn and that helped him develop a healthier attitude toward school, but he still just didn’t really enjoy it, particularly because he didn’t enjoy reading. He learned to read very early, but just didn’t love it.

When he hit 4th grade, I switched him to Living Books Curriculum. I was worried about how he would react because the reading consisted mostly of nonfiction biographies. I was shocked when he devoured his lessons. For the first time ever, he came to me and said, “I really loved this book! Can you find me some more books about Annie Oakley?” I had spent years hunting for more and more exciting stories to try to garner his interest and nothing was working. The boy loves biographies.

My next child is my daughter who also took two years to learn reading, this time because she felt she had more important things to do. It was Hard Work, and she wasn’t a fan. After a year and a half into teaching her reading and getting nowhere, we switched to The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. She loved the time cuddling on the couch. The lessons were short and easy and she quickly picked up reading. Her younger sister started reading lessons at the same time and both were finished in 6 months.

My first daughter inhaled reading. Once she learned to read, she latched on to fairy and folk tales and hasn’t come up for air since. Her younger sister, however, trudged through reading, never complaining, but never enjoying it. She enjoyed school, but reading was just not fun for her.

Last month, she had to read a short essay for a reading comprehension assignment. She kept walking in the room and saying things like, “Wow! Did you know that redwoods can grow as tall as 379 feet??” She found it fascinating and gathered up interesting facts. She is 9 1/2 years old and for the first time, she said the beautiful phrase, “This is really interesting. Can you get me a book about this?” This child loves nature and she connected with nonfiction. For history, I gave her a fiction story called “R my Name is Rachel”, which shares the story of a girl during the Great Depression. The tale describes life during that time, growing a garden, and some character lessons. Though the child has been reading for five years, she just last week said the beautiful words: “I loved this book!” My heart sang.

There are a lot of different genres and many different writing styles available. Keep looking. Don’t make reading optional as you wait, but keep trying new things until they are searching out books on their own.

And if they don’t?

If they never love reading? It’s really okay. How many fabulous adults do you know who don’t love reading? Plenty. You might even be one of those fabulous adults. Help them foster an appreciation for the value of reading. Don’t allow a negative attitude about it. Help make reading a natural part of growing up, but appreciate that your child has many great traits and there is no law that says a love of reading has to be one of them.


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