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8 Ways to Get Kids Reading

A Plan That Just Might Work...

When I was a girl, I read until my eyes hurt. I was an undisputed bookworm, skipping playground activities to read my way through recess. I’m still that girl. I lose track of time; the laundry sits; dinner is late; I don’t register someone calling my name. So how did this English major become the mother of two kids whose fondness for reading is tenuous, at best? As iPods and cell phones began consuming our lives, I watched with horror as my kids’ puny attempts at reading withered under technology’s bright lights.

Not one to be defeated by an iPod, I was determined to change the situation one summer. My goal was to provide time, opportunity, and incentive to read all the time. We began at the local bookstore, where I told my kids to pick three books. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my kids were miserable browsers. They didn’t understand the art of rifling through books, reading flap jackets, and scanning opening paragraphs to determine if the book is a must-read. They didn’t know how to get hooked, and lacked the selection instincts readers refine with time. The sheer number of books available overwhelmed and paralyzed them.

We left the store depressed and empty-handed, but I quickly regrouped. Eventually I hit on a plan, and am pleased to report our success. This strategy, given structure, periodic maintenance, and the occasional enticement, worked well to get my kids to the reading table. You can do it too, and here’s how:

1. Use your school as a resource.

Since the field trip to the store was a bust, I decided to seek expert advice. I found age-appropriate reading lists at school and I asked the reading specialist to tell me the books “all the kids were reading.” If your school doesn’t have a reading specialist, then seek advice from the school librarian.

2. Go online and save time.

Armed with fun titles and popular authors, I headed for the county library’s online catalogue. Using the online catalogue saves time, gas, energy, and plucked nerves. In minutes I found 20 books I thought my kids might read and clicked hold. Then I waited three days for most of my requests to arrive, picked them up and created an instant mini-library at home. I did this once a week to vary the books. Eventually, the kids were excited to see what Mom was bringing home.

3. Start with the popular stuff.

Rather than focus on books I felt would challenge or teach my kids, I started with books they’d find interesting. I doubt the literary value of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Pretty Little Liars, but my purpose wasn’t to instruct, it was to engage. Presenting the kids’ version of beach reading allowed for a faster connection to the book.

4. Find an assortment of books.

I selected books from all genres and reading levels. After she read every Nancy Drew mystery in the library system, my daughter surprised all of us by reading a book about a young woman’s attempts to swim across the English Channel. As a swimmer, my daughter identified with the main character. And my son – who had been a shark expert as a toddler – read Jaws.

5. Make creative use of TV shows and movies.

This isn’t as counterintuitive as it sounds. My daughter’s summer homework was to read any two books from a short list, which included Little Women. I was thrilled, as I had read the book at least three times by the time I was her age and I hoped to share this childhood favorite with her. She’d have none of it. The book was “slow and boring”– her words. So I persuaded her to watch the movie with me, which piqued her interest enough to the read the book. It was slow going, but she read it and we had lively discussions about differences between the movie and the book. I used the same trick to introduce Sherlock Holmes to my mystery-loving son.

6. Make use of driving time.

Don’t dread the long vacation drives! We took the mini-library with us, then set parameters for the drive to Maine: Read one hour, earn one hour of music or movie time. Reading first, electronics later. If they read for one hour, the movie was shut off at the hour mark until they banked more reading time. The minimum block of time was an hour. Amazingly, they read more than they listened.

7. Listen to your kids.

With the exception of Little Women, whatever books my kids felt disinclined to read, I took back to the library, no questions asked. We also returned to the bookstore at the end of the summer. We talked at length about which books they’d enjoyed, then found similar books and dug in, lounging for hours in the reading areas while we browsed. My son liked the Matt Christopher sports books, so we looked for sports-themed books. To my delight, one of the books he picked came from the adult section!

8. Incentives work.

Call them bribes if you must, but use them if you need to. Keep incentives small – stickers, an ice cream, a song from iTunes. Remember, the idea is to get the child to open the book and read, no matter why they’re reading. Sometimes I’ll throw in a bribe, er – incentive – to convince a kid to read an unusual or more advanced book.

These tips have been honed over five years. As this summer wraps up, I’m realizing how much easier it has become. One day our family motto will be, “Have book, will travel.” We still battle sexy electronics, and sometimes I issue a moratorium on their use until an appropriate amount of reading’s been managed. The kids accept it and don’t fight it so much anymore. Stick with the plan and your kids will surprise you. Just last week, my daughter asked me if I had a copy of Pride and Prejudice. You know I do.

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