Monday, April 6, 2015

Getting a Kid to Read: FAQs

Where did you get the books you read as a child?

“How can I get a child to read?” In the last 6 months I’ve been in a number of conversations on this topic—whether the child in question was the person’s own, a grandchild, or a student. Here are some of the questions people ask and some of the answers I've given: 
(1) How do I help a child become a reader?
  • Be a reader. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” Model doing it. Enjoying it. Talking about it. 
  • Be interested in the child’s reading life. Ask questions. What has she read lately? What if she says, “Nothing. I hate reading”? See #2. If she names something, read it yourself. It will give you an idea of other books she might like, expand your reading horizons, and give you a topic of conversation. Then talk about it. What did she like? Why? How did it connect to anything else she’s read, seen, heard about, experienced? What did you like about it? What if it’s a book you don’t care to read? This might actually be a good portion of the child’s life—reading things she doesn’t want to. Enter her world in this experience as well as figuring out why the book appealed to her and how you might expand her tastes from there. And once you’ve talked about her reading, you might have the social capital for the next step.  
  • Share your reading. This doesn’t mean you have to read Crime and Punishment to set a literary example—or that if you are that kind of reader, you need to give your 5-year-old an hour lecture on it. Comments like the following are enough to nurture the ethos that reading is something we do, and we get something from it: “Did you know that Nigeria is the African country with the biggest population? That’s what Time magazine said.” “I really love how reading can help me understand what’s going on inside a person who’s really different from me.”
  • Allow choice. When was the last time you loved something you had no choice in? See questions #2 and #3.

      (2) What if a child doesn’t like to read?
      • There is no child who does not like to read—the right thing in the right place. A love note from his crush. A hack on his favorite online game. Reframe the problem: Just because a child isn’t an avid reader of literature doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to read. He just hasn’t yet found a book he loves. 
      • What will make a book more likely to be one he loves? It should be within range—he has to understand 98-99% of the words on the page in order to hit that sweet spot. Then there’s interest—look into a variety of genres and topics (see #3). And he might need to build some stamina—no Olympic athlete started with a marathon. How do you find books he might like? See question #4.

      (3) What if a child doesn’t like to read “good” books?
      • It only takes 1 home-run book to transform a reluctant reader into a reader. So don’t scorn Captain Underpants or Twilight if it might be the “gateway drug” into a lifelong addiction to the kind of reading that correlates with higher vocabulary, writing skills, knowledge of the world, intelligence, empathy, and college success.
      • A person who reads “bad” books may someday read “good” books. A person who doesn’t read never will. A person forced to read books he/she is not interested in (think of something you find difficult or uninteresting—IRS form instructions? a computer manual? sports scores?) will just be reinforced in the preconception that reading is difficult and/or dull.
      • Experiment with expanding your definition of “good.” Have you ever tried a graphic novel? YA (young adult) lit? What’s the downside of modeling a willingness to step out of your comfort zone and try something new?
      • If a child is a ravenous streak reader, in my experience she will eventually come to the end of teen cancer romances, realize the predictability of the pattern, and hunger for something different. 

      (4) How do I know what to read/recommend? 

      • Ask teachers, librarians, colleagues. 
      • Check out the children’s or teen section at your local bookstore or library. 
      • Explore websites like where you can find recommendations according to genre. If you want to set up an account, you can get monthly newsletters with personalized recommendations, track the books you’ve read and want to read, find out what your friends on the site are want to read or are reading, and post reviews of the books you’ve read. 
      • Do a web search for a particular topic from “books for boys” to “Latino books” to “world lit.” You’ll find recommended reading lists from schools and libraries, and possibly entire blogs (like and my personal favorite, devoted to the topic.

      Then have fun reading, talking about reading, learning more about the children in your life, expanding your own reading horizons, and sleuthing out just the book to capture that child’s heart. 

      Did you have a home-run book? If so, what was it? 

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