Motivating Children to Read – Tips for Parents & Teachers

As I shared last week, fostering intrinsic motivation in children to read will create a world transformed by imagination and learning. This December during National Read a New Book Month, parents and teachers have the power to boost children’s learning potential simply by making books an integral part of their lives.

In my previous role as a reading specialist working with struggling readers in classrooms, I learned that many of these kids didn’t see a reason to learn to read. They viewed reading as a frustrating skill to learn and had few, if any, adults modeling reading. That changed when I began reading aloud to my students. They were swept up in stories, and became engaged and motivated listeners. It was a small step for them, then, to become engaged and motivated readers, who wanted to do the difficult work of learning to read because they had a reason to do so—the book itself. Often I would stop in the middle of a story, and every single child would continue reading it on their own simply to know what happened! These kids cared about what was occurring in the book, so the motivation to read came from within—within the reader, because of the book.

From my decades long career in literacy I have found several ways parents and teachers can encourage this intrinsic motivation to read in  children:

  1. Let children see you reading: Adults are models for children. As a teacher, set “time to read” where everyone sits down and reads either the same book or a book of their own choosing. Show children that you value this time by honoring it.
  2. Talk about your own books: When you’re reading your own “grown up” fiction or non-fiction, let kids know what you think about it. Obviously don’t include mature themes, but share your thoughts to demonstrate what an engaged reader does, what kinds of things you think about (characters, themes, etc.) and notice (words, images), so that they see some possibilities for themselves.
  3. Read together, out loud: This is crucial, yet reading aloud often ends when children are old enough to read on their own. Reading out loud in the classroom levels the playing field. It ensures that all students hear the same words, so they can contribute their thoughts and ideas as equals. At home, it’s a great shared experience and encourages real conversation. This too models for children some of the possibilities inherent in engaged reading.
  4. Surround children with books: While cost can be a factor with new books, the local library is a great no-cost (other than gas or bus fare!) resource. Fill up a book bag for the car when traveling with children. If possible, have a bookshelf with favorite books right there with the toys and electronics. Teachers can encourage students to keep a book in their desks to read if they finish classwork or tests early.
  5. Remember there isn’t one right answer: Children’s openness and imagination often gets trained out of them to conform to an ill-advised, one-correct reading model. Open questions help students realize they don’t need to be an expert to interpret text, encouraging discussion in a safe environment. Ask for their ideas, their opinions and their guesses, and accept them all. Use them to explore the book in new ways. Consensus isn’t necessary!
  6. Match books to readers’ and family preferences: As I explained last week, each reader will bring their own background to their interpretation of texts. Tip: When shopping for new books or visiting the library, read the first page out loud. Does it pique your interest? Then chances are it will pique children’s interest as well.
  7. Create “happy encounters” with books! All positive encounters with literature will rub off on children.

A great resource for parents, teachers, librarians and parents at no charge is the New Books for Young Readers list. Did you know there are more than 4,000 children’s books published on average every year? This list highlights the best new books of the year—read and evaluated by children’s literature faculty and students on the basis of the book’s appeal and appropriateness for young people ages 3 to young adult. This free service developed by the CEHD Department of Curriculum & Instruction identifies books based on standard literary criteria like the use of language in interesting ways, excellence in illustration and well-developed characters or logical presentation of information. You can download the current issue of New Books for Young Readers online.

From my more than four decades of work, teaching and research on literacy, I have learned there really is no substitute for books. They are like food—sustenance for the mind, heart and soul. I believe they are necessary to a rich life and I encourage parents and teachers to step up to the plate so their children can experience the power of reading.

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Lee Galda

About the Author

Lee Galda, Ph.D.

  • Marguerite Henry Professor of Children’s Literature
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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