Getting kids to read and love reading are two different things. I spent years doing reading research while parenting three young kids, and here's what I learned about helping them love to read.

By Samantha Cleaver, Ph.D.
September 20, 2019
Illustration by Ana Celaya

During my three years of doctoral work, I spent much of my time researching how parents can read with young children (age 0-8) to help them become good at reading.

And when I walked across the stage to get my Ph.D. in special education with a focus on reading research, I had three young kids of my own—ages 4, 3, and 4 months. My oldest two had been my at-home case studies and I brought a lot of my research into how we read at home. Here are eight things I learned were helpful in getting my own kids to love reading.

Fill the house with books

Having just one shelf full of books to call their own is enough to turn a child into a reader. For me, that means bins of books stored at kid level, so books become just like any other toy they love to play with.

Read what they're interested in

In my house, it's panda bears and unicorns. In your house, it may be trucks or dinosaurs, but always opt for books revolving around your child's interests from shows they watch, characters they love, and experiences they have. Connect books to what they already love, and you're ahead of the game—even if the only book they'll ever sit for is the dinosaur encyclopedia.

Look for books that love language

Reading is built on language. When kids have strong oral language, they're good readers. (And when they're good readers, they like reading.) For toddlers and preschoolers, finding books that have fun with language with rhyming, silly words, and fun sentences to read, are great ways to teach language and have fun with it! Some of our favorites are the Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, and the Bear books by Karma Wilson.

Let them chime in

Part of the challenge of getting young kids to love reading is having them participate before they can read. Reading books that have repeated phrases ("I think I can, I think I can") allows kids to chime in as you read, making them feel part of it all. Check out: The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, The Napping House by Audrey Wood, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault.

Read each book like it's the first time

The parent in me empathizes with the pain of having to read a book aloud for the one millionth time. But, the researcher in me knows that agreeing to enthusiastically read Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle for the hundredth night in a row builds language, vocabulary, and lets my kids know that books are something they can always ask for.

Teach them words

On that note, if I can teach my children one thing before they head into school that will help them love reading, it's vocabulary. I'm confident that my children will learn how to read words on their own (phonics), so I focus my energy on building their vocabularies. Books have words that I don't use every day, like mischief (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak) and grimace (The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen), build their vocabulary through fun stories.

Dedicate 15 minutes a day

With three young kids, we have days so busy that by bedtime we haven't read any books at all. On those days, it's a relief to know that reading as little at 15 minutes makes a difference, even if that doesn't happen until bedtime.

Don't worry about when they learn to read

This is something many parents stress about. But young children will typically learn to read anywhere between preschool and first grade. The early years are for learning language that they'll take with them to understand what they read later. And, if your child ends up struggling with reading, having the language they learn from books will go far in helping them continue to love stories through any school struggles.

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