Books, Blogs and Teens: Encouraging Readers

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"My son used to love reading when he was a little guy," a mom recently lamented. "Now I honestly can't remember the last time he read for fun."

This parent isn't alone in expressing concern about her child's waning interest in reading as he grows older. The latest reports point to steep drops in literary reading and reading for pleasure among fifteen to twenty-four-year-olds in the United States. In addition to a marked decline over the last couple of decades, recent data shows that reading for fun drops precipitously from childhood to the teenage years.

This is especially concerning given that in 2013, only thirty eight percent of American twelfth graders were considered proficient readers. Despite the overall downward trend across studies, getting an accurate picture of the reading habits of children and teens is no easy task. For starters, there is no consistent measure of what constitutes “reading.” Some studies ask only about paper books while others include magazines, e-books or online reading. In addition few studies count “short form” reading such as tweets, text messages, or blog comments.

There is no question that the reading habits of young people in the digital age are changing quickly. While school age children continue to prefer paper books over digital, the number of kids reading e-books has doubled since 2010. That's not to say this trend is bad. The jury is out on the impact of e-books on literacy. There is hope that tablets can engage reluctant readers and build adaptive scaffolds for struggling readers who benefit from things like animations, narration, and multimedia content.

Whether your child reads paper or tablet, there are things that you can do to keep your child engaged:

  • Model it. Let your child see how important reading is by doing it yourself. If you are reading on your tablet or phone, tell your child what you are reading (novel, newspaper, etc...).
  • Schedule it. Build reading into the daily routine, everyday if possible.
  • Keep reading out loud. Many parents stop reading to their children once they start school. Keep it going! As your youngsters get older, choose long chapter books and poetry. Don't be afraid to read books that are a bit more complex than what your child would read to herself.
  • Visit the library. Make library visits part of your routine. Check out teen spaces, maker spaces, and tech time as ways to draw older youth to the library.
  • Use audio. Audio books can pass time on long car rides. Listening to stories is a great brain builder.
  • Give books as gifts.
  • Help your child become an author. Encourage your children to write stories down or record them. Let him illustrate the story by drawing, designing online, or cutting out pictures and photos.
  • Create spaces to read. Arrange your home to encourage reading. Carve out at least one comfy place to cuddle up to get lost in a book.
  • Don't give up on paper. Reading paper-based books may help us practice deep reading - something that we still need in the online world.

Researchers will continue to explore the relative value of what young people read (paperback vs. tablet or fiction vs. Twitter) In the meantime we shouldn't lose sight of another important factor: why they read. Jeffrey Wilhelm, a researcher in literacy and literacy education, argues that educators and policy makers often ignore the central motivation for avid readers - they read because they love it.

It turns out that passion is an active ingredient for ravenous reading. Perhaps the best way that we can help reluctant, infrequent or struggling readers is to focus on how fun it is.

  1. Treat every text as valuable. Rather than scoffing at fan fiction, graphic novels, and Tumblr, offer opportunities for interaction, discussion, and more reading.
  2. Offer choice. Let your child choose their own reading material. You can certainly introduce your child to new material and expose them to a lot of options but young people should have choice both inside and outside of school to read about the things they are most interested in.
  3. Avoid too many reading rules. Let young people read the same books over and over again, skip to the ending or stop reading books they don’t like midway through. Avoid trying to control a young person’s reading habits through criticism, nagging, or over-praising.