How to Raise a Child Who Loves Reading

There's a fair bit of parental strategy that goes into it.

African American girl reading in living room
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One of the most noticeable things about my house is that there are books everywhere. Beyond the overstuffed wall of bookshelves, they are piled on the kitchen island, dining table, window ledges, and living room end tables. They're strewn on the floor, shoved under the bathroom sink, and left on the stairs as a signal to be carried elsewhere. Try as I might to maintain some sort of order, it's almost impossible to stay ahead of the disorder, but part of me doesn't mind. All these books mean one thing, that we're a reading family. 

This didn't happen automatically. It has taken years of strategy on my part to create a household atmosphere that's conducive to regular reading. I've come to realize that too many families wait for it to happen naturally and then wonder why their kids don't love books as much as they'd like. I assure you that, if that's how you feel, it can be reversed. It's never too late to start teaching your kids to love books and reading. Here is some advice on how to begin.

1. Read Aloud to Your Kids

Kids love listening to their parents read, even as they get older, so don't stop reading aloud to your children just because they can read on their own. This is a perfect opportunity to challenge their abilities, vocabulary, and worldviews by reading books that are more advanced than what they might choose on their own. I have found it's most effective to cater to the oldest child's comprehension level and that younger ones are kept enthralled partly by the fact that their older siblings are so interested in it. If you tailor your choices to the youngest, you'll lose the older ones.

2. Give Them Good Books to Read

By "good" I mean quality literature that makes kids think, not just entertains them. Of course, some books can be fun (my boys love "Dogman" as much as their classmates do), but I think it's important to teach kids to appreciate books that may take effort to consume, but are worth it in substance. In their seminal homeschooling how-to book from 1999, "The Well-Trained Mind," Jessie Wise and Susan Wise-Bauer warn against "lightweight" reads, giving the then-trendy examples of "Goosebumps" and "Sweet Valley High" (though I don't know many kids who still read these now).

"[These] books develop a child's taste for short sentences, simple sentence structure, easy vocabulary, uncomplicated paragraphs, and shallow, simple plots. This won't help him make the transition to decent literature; it may teach him to turn away from anything that makes his brain work too hard. A diet of [lightweight books] does not promote the patterns of thought that produce intellectual and personal excellence."

3. Maintain a Steady Flow of Fresh Books

Every week I place online orders for books from the public library. That way there's a constant flow of new books into the house that I leave in strategic locations for my kids to discover. And discover, they do! I often find them poring over books on shark facts, space exploration, or ancient Egyptian pyramid-building that they never would've thought to get themselves, but are intrigued because it's right in front of their noses. Accessibility and novelty are both key to maintaining enthusiasm about books.

4. Create Opportunities to Read

Several years ago I read an article by Trent Hamm in The Simple Dollar about how he implemented an after-school reading hour. When his kids came home each day, they were expected to sit with their books. He did the same and together they made great headway in books they'd all meant to read but for which they'd never made the time. This is a good idea. Whether it's after school, before bedtime, or on lazy weekend mornings, establishing an official reading time could be a good strategy for many families. Get it on the calendar and stick to it.

5. Remove Distractions 

With hand-held devices being as prevalent and addictive as they are, it's near impossible to expect children to give them up voluntarily for a book! That's where parental responsibility comes in. I think parents owe it to their kids to insist that devices be powered down and unplugged, phones put away, and books pulled out. (They're doing too much of it, anyway.) The good news is that, once kids finally get into their books, it creates the same quiet, peaceful atmosphere in the home that many parents strive for by allowing screen time. 

6. Model a Love for Reading

If you expect your kids to read, then you have to do it, too. As Stephen J. Covey wrote in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families," "You can never not model." So if that means shelving the phone, dusting off the old concentration skills, and sitting down with a book, then so be it. Allow yourself to rediscover how fun it can be to get sucked into a great detective series or travelogue or work of historical fiction. 

7. Talk About Books with Your Kids

The dinner table is a great place to start reflective conversations about books. Ask every family member, even the youngest, what they have read that day and what they've learned from it. This will hopefully prompt animated discussion and debate about the issues raised in the books. As the parent, you can tell stories about books you've read, which will help pique their curiosity about what books contain and are capable of conveying.

8. Take Books Wherever You Go

Leave the devices at home and take books instead. It's the old-fashioned way of entertaining children in a pinch, but it still works. Train your kids never to leave the house without a book, in case they find themselves waiting. The good thing is, books never run out of batteries or lose a WiFi signal. 

9. Create Cozy Reading Spaces in the Home

Kids are drawn instinctively toward cozy spots, and if they have a book to enjoy there, all the better. Create a few out-of-the-way places for them to sit comfortably, near a window, away from the kitchen noise. Blankets and pillows add appeal.

10. Give Your Kids Paper Books, Not E-Books

Studies have shown that children retain information better when they read it on paper, as opposed to a screen, so avoid giving your child an e-reader to use. A paper book stands out in a predominantly online world. It allows them to create a relationship of sorts with the book, to reread and earmark, to become familiar with a book's feel and smell. All these are very real parts of the reading experience.