In addition to picturing my children being impeccably mannered, perfectly behaved angels, I also envisioned them devouring books the way I did as a child. My son would tear through the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter while my daughters fell in love with Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and The Baby-Sitters Club series. But like most of my parenting fantasies, this one hasn’t quite come true yet.
Apparently this is not uncommon. “We want to get kids reading, but they are under increasing pressure to do so, and it can overshadow the joy of this wonderful shared activity,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., a professor emerita at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Taking Back Childhood. Of course, part of what makes reading enjoyable is being able to do it confidently. However, “parents shouldn’t be the ones reinforcing lessons or obsessing about fundamentals,” Dr. Carlsson-Paige notes. “They should simply be reading with their kids—that’s it.” In other words, keep it light and fun. Books should make you laugh and smile, transport you to faraway lands, and transform you into dragon-slaying sleuths, making you feel all the feels along the way. “If we treat books like they’re magical, kids will grow up believing that too,” says Shanna Schwartz, lead senior staff developer at Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City.
Start with these expert- and mom-approved ideas and the magic will follow.
Yes, audiobooks count as reading—and they can help children do it better. “Hearing someone reading a book confidently is a great way to experience fluency, which is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with good expression,” says Elissa Mostransky, a grade-school reading teacher and mother of four. Her favorites: E. B. White reading Charlotte’s Web and The Magic Tree House series, which her boys listen to in the car on the way to and from soccer practice. Borrow them at your library, or get a free listening app at Audible.com.
“Children take cues from adults,” says Schwartz. “When you grow up surrounded by junk food, you like junk food. When you grow up surrounded by books, you like books.” Annette Uvena, a mom of two reluctant readers, shares her excitement often: “I make sure they see me reading, but I also talk to them about the book. I’ll excitedly point out something that reminds me of the story, because I want them to see that books bring me joy and will bring them joy too.”
A quiet, cozy, full-of-books nook is a must. “Kids love forts, so just draping two chairs with a blanket can do the trick,” says Christina Droskoski, a grade-school reading specialist and mother of three. “But working with your child to make it an area where she’d want to hang out makes reading time even more appealing.” Consider a beach theme: towels on the floor, a beach umbrella propped against the wall, a poster of the ocean, and sand buckets to house the books. Other possibilities: a pirate's cove, rain forest, or spaceship.
Finding book-inspired activities to do IRL extends the experience, says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. If your 3-year-old loves The Three Little Pigs, take him to see some piggies in person. Reading about the stars? Head to the planetarium. Or take a bookcation—to London after reading Harry Potter, say, or New York City after reading Stuart Little.
Start with Dr. Seuss—March 2 is his birthday. (He’d be 113!) To commemorate the occasion, the National Education Association instituted Read Across America Day for schools to participate in reading competitions, games, and parties. Celebrate at home by introducing your kids to one of the good doctor’s lesser-known works. Some possibilities:
Pick a classic that’s been turned into a movie—Bridge to Terabithia; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—and read it together, a few chapters at a time. When you’re finished, host a family movie night to watch the film version. “It’s a great way to motivate reluctant readers,” says Katie Vaccaro, a grade-school teacher and mother of two.
“Surrounding kids with books at an early age gets them hooked,” says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., a child development expert at Syracuse University, in New York. Curate a basket to reflect the current season—they’ll be excited to see new titles, and tying them to what’s going on that month will bolster their interest. No holiday on the horizon? Hit the library for topics your kid is currently digging. Leave them out (even on the floor of the car!) and they will pick them up. “Don’t keep books up on shelves,” says Dr. Honig. “Let little kids touch them, carry them around, even take waterproof ones into the bath.”
“Reading aloud is both educational and social, so there are layers of value there,” says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. Plus, children learn to read best—and to love it most—when they hear countless stories over many years in a meaningful context (think cuddling on a parent’s lap). Listening also gives tired readers a break. Dr. Carlsson-Paige loves C. S. Lewis, E. B. White, and Roald Dahl for read-alouds. GuysRead.com, specifically for boys, and ReadingRockets.org are excellent sites for book ideas broken down by age and interests.
Lean on librarians—they’re paid to make reading magical for kids. Check in at the front desk before hitting the stacks to see what kind of activities might be going on. Bookmark the website, too, so you can see upcoming events. “Even if you take your kid there for, say, a building project, he’s going to associate the library with fun, and that’s a good thing,” says Droskoski. And be sure to get each of your children a library card. “It will help them take ownership of the reading experience,” she adds.
Books advance early language development. At first, kids notice the pictures; then they learn to turn the pages; then they realize the story is the same each time—all key pre-reading skills. Books with rhymes are especially beneficial: “Rhyming helps with phonemic awareness—recognizing repetition and sounds,” Dr. Carlsson-Paige says. “Kids love rhymes because they learn what comes next and can chime in.” Titles to try:
Mostransky has her three older kids gather on the couch Sunday mornings, and they read together in their pajamas for about an hour. Then, when the craziness of the week comes, no one has to stress about cramming in 20 minutes of reading on top of all the other homework. “Once you start forcing kids to read, you’re taking the fun right out of it,” says Mostransky. If the kids can’t get it done—or they fall asleep, as often happens—they can list one of the books they read on Sunday on their reading log!
“When ingredients and instructions are read slowly many times, it improves comprehension,” notes Droskoski. Get a cookbook at the library (Cooking Class and Kid Chef are both great) and let your child pick a meal to make with you. “Ask her to read the recipe out loud while you chop,” says Droskoski. “Then switch roles.” Have her write out a menu too—incorporating writing in play also bolsters reading skills.
All it takes is two people reading the same book. Have your child ask a friend, or make it a mother-child endeavor. Pick a deadline and a meeting place, and bring a few discussion questions to get things going (best part, favorite character, ideas for an alternate ending). “Reading is a social activity, and book clubs are a great way to share the experience with friends or family,” says Dr. Carlsson-Paige, who is in a book club with her granddaughter. (They have meetings over Skype!)
This enhances comprehension—and enjoyment. (It’s no fun if they don’t get what’s going on.) “It’s not about grilling, it’s about checking in,” says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. Ask which characters he likes best, what he thinks will happen next, what he would do in that situation. “If you over-focus on letters and sounds at the expense of the story, children aren’t as likely to become good readers,” she explains. “If you’re a good reader, you read fast—you’re not looking at every letter, you’re reading for meaning, which is what fuels the reading process.”
“Add books to any passion in a child’s life—or to any struggle,” says Schwartz. Getting a puppy? Add a book. Starting a new school? Add a book. “You’re saying that books can help when they’re feeling sad, or excited, or anything,” she notes. Have the “book fairy” drop it off: “Wrap the book and leave it with a note—‘I heard you’re going to be a big sister. This will help you learn about your new role. Love, the Book Fairy.’” Some scenario-specific suggestions:
Buy your older readers a headlamp so they can stay up “past bedtime.” It helps remind them that reading is a treat and a privilege—and they’ll feel grown-up. Bonus: You can borrow the headlamp for winter grilling!
“Magazines help teach kids that current information is valuable,” says Schwartz. “They give us the opportunity to become interested in things we didn’t know we cared about.” Getting a new issue is exciting, and it’s important to build a ritual around that for your child, Schwartz suggests. If your child gets Highlights, for example, maybe he’ll always go first to the hidden-picture page. Or perhaps he’ll like reading National Geographic Kids while sitting by the big window overlooking the yard.
When your MIL asks about birthday presents, suggest books! Have your kids give them to their friends too, with an inscription that tells the recipient why this book is special for her. “You’re teaching your child that books are a way to connect with others,” says Schwartz.