Why Most Children Don’t Grow up to Be Readers—and How You Can Change the Odds


Why aren't kids reading
Photo: Pixabay

The average American parent would like their teen child to spend an hour and 15 minutes per day reading for pleasure (compared to an hour playing sports and 35 minutes watching TV).

In reality, the average American teenager spends six minutes per day reading for pleasure (compared to about 45 minutes playing sports and more than two hours watching TV).1

Parents want their teenage children to read independently. For the most part, they don’t.

Here’s why: In the moment, when teens are making decisions about how to spend their time, reading is not winning. Few teens say they hate reading. It’s just that they’re not choosing reading when confronted with a choice between, say, reading and watching TV or checking social media.

In order for reading to win out over these other activities when children are older, some combination of two things will have to be true:

  • Your child actually likes reading more than other activities.
  • Your child has developed a self-concept as a reader, such that he considers reading to be a nonnegotiable part of his life.

Even if you do everything right as a parent, your child will probably go through phases of reading and not reading as he grows up. When your child is young, your goal should be to plant seeds of reading pleasure and self-identity, so your child chooses reading more often later, when she’s in charge of her time.

Now, when your child is three years old, I’d suggest there are three important things you can do to increase the chances your child will choose reading later.

1. Put books everywhere

Make it easy for your child to find books because — well, they’re everywhere he goes. Your child should be stumbling over books. There should be books in his bedroom, of course. Wall bookshelves have a special advantage: They allow the child to see more titles. Book covers are more likely to stimulate your child’s interest than books spines.

Also, you might put small baskets of books in the kitchen, car, and bathroom. Your child can help manage these piles of books, trading out some for others. Adult books should be visible around the house, too, and your child should see that you care and talk about your books.

It’s always a great idea to make a special reading nook somewhere, like a tent out of blankets. Or set up a corner of his room that’s extra cozy and has books in it. Or give him his own special shelf in your home office, someplace that feels important.

Another good idea: Put a physical dictionary in your kitchen and use it to look up words. When you hear a word you don’t know, tell your child, “I don’t know that word. Can you help me remember to look it up in the dictionary when we get home?”

If you’re looking for a low-cost way to get lots of books for your home, check out Books by the Foot.

2. Help your child discover the delight of reading

When your child is three, discovering delight is more important than learning letters or “getting through” books.

Most children are naturally interested in being read to. However, we can make the experience even more positive for them by tuning the style and context of our reading moments. Here are some ideas you can build on:

  • Make reading time snuggle time.
  • Don’t just read the words; get excited about the story and ham it up!
  • Enjoy a favorite drink while you read.
  • Read together as a whole family.
  • Go to the library and let your child choose a book; stop for a favorite snack on the way home.

Consider how you can create family rituals and traditions that make books and reading even more fun for your child. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham suggests, for example, that every birthday, including adult birthdays, could include at least one book as a present. Or grandparents could narrate and record a book for the birthday child.2

Some of these ideas will be right for your family, and others won’t. Always keep in mind the ultimate goal: frequent, emotionally positive experiences around reading and books.

3. Manage your child’s time so there is always time and space for reading

Your child needs time to have positive experiences with books. You have to make sure that time exists.

Set certain times when reading is just what you do. Don’t ask your child, just do it habitually so that it’s expected. Bedtime is natural, of course. Bathtime can be great, too. A friend grew up eating breakfast at her grandparents’ house across the street, and her grandfather read aloud at the breakfast table every day, even through high school!

Another friend used to put art supplies out every Friday night so that if her kids got up early on Saturday while she and her husband wanted to sleep in, they’d go into the kitchen and get intrigued by whatever was left on the table. You could try this with books, along with a special snack.

Time to read has to be protected as well as created, and here’s where electronic devices are one of the greatest challenges for parents. Most preschool children love moving images on a screen. They’ll often choose to play with a device or watch TV over reading. Setting limits when your child is young is crucial.

Also, avoid “rewarding” your child with screen time after she reads. That’s sending the wrong message. You want him to come to see reading and books as more interesting than screen time — at least sometimes.

Your child will not grow up to be a reader if she has not experienced joy in reading. There are multiple reasons to limit your child’s screen time, but one of the best is to give your child time and space to discover the delight in books.

Following these steps will not guarantee that your child will grow up to be an independent reader. There are many more bridges to cross before that might happen. But early experiences create a foundation on which you and your child can build. Start now and have fun!

Do this one thing

Think about what reading-related experiences your child should have now so that he will sometimes choose reading over other activities when he’s older.

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Why Most Children Don’t Grow up to Be Readers—and How You Can Change the Odds
  1. Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, p. 1.
  2. Willingham, p. 60.