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Famed Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl was asked recently how to get a middle-grades child to read. The child’s parent said she’d tried requiring a set amount of reading time in order to earn video game privileges but that her child wasn’t reading with any pleasure. Instead, he was reading in a mechanical way, as if he was being forced to eat his vegetables. What, the mother asked, was she doing wrong? And, more importantly, what could she do right?

Before I get to Nancy Pearl’s suggestion of what to do, let’s look at why what this mother did wasn’t working. The problem is economic. The child was having to pay for something he wanted by doing something it was assumed he didn’t want to do. Just as requiring vegetables to get to dessert sends the message that the parent agrees that ice cream is more desirable than broccoli, requiring reading to get to video games sends the message that reading is a chore, like making the bed, that has to be dispatched before being allowed to go out to play.

Setting up these if-then contingencies creates a value system. The activity of greater value is what must be bought by a less-valued activity. In the parent’s scenario, reading can never be fun for her child, since she’s already designated it as much less-fun than video games.

  1. The first step in the solution to this problem is to uncouple video game play and reading. Instead of insisting that reading be done before games can be played, just limit the amount of video game play per day and require a certain amount of reading each day. No activity –reading or video games – should dominate the child’s time. Every child should get outside, should make things, and should play with friends, as well as reading and enjoying screen time.
  2. At the same time, act as if what the child is reading is interesting. Ask him about the plot, about the characters, what he likes or doesn’t like about the way the author writes, and so on. Let him read aloud to you a passage he thinks is funny. Value his reading, not just as a ticket to something else, but as something interesting all on its own.
  3. And then, as Nancy Pearl suggests, get the right books in front of your child. Perl suggests concentrating on funny books, even if these aren’t always books of literary merit. In addition, books of amazing feats, weird science, and strange facts are usually interesting to middle school kids, despite their sometimes lack of reliability. All reading is good reading. Let your child read what he wants.

What if your child is required by his school to read a list of books over the summer? And what if he thinks these books are deadly dull? Again, separate this task from his own reading for pleasure. And because it’s separate, do it differently. Read these books together, working together to get them all read by the start of the school year. Your child will get more out of the experience than if he plodded through these on his own, because he’ll be able to talk with you about the story and you’ll be able to add your own insights. Just don’t let this sort of reading be confused with his own fun reading. Let him feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this homework task and a sense of fun in doing his own reading of what he likes.

Most of all, try not to tie reading to rewards or punishment. Make some reading every day a requirement but also put books in front of your child that he wants to read.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

If your child doesn’t read very much and maybe struggles to read, it’s important that you support your child’s reading at home. But, as you’ve probably found out, just nagging your kid to read doesn’t do much good. It might even make things worse.

Here are some ways you can sneak in more reading at home without making it seem like a chore for your child – or for you. Get as many of these ideas going as you can.

  1. Be a reader yourself. Reading isn’t a “school skill” but sometimes adults act like it is. If you and your child’s other parent think you’re “not a reader” then now is the time to change that. Kids do what they see their parents do. If you want your child to read, let your child see you reading.
  2. Go to the library with a mission. Get a library card and go with a goal to find a book about whatever your child is interested in. Boys tend to like non-fiction and there’s no reason why library books have to be novels. Find books about NASCAR, football, Big Foot or whatever else fascinates your son. Find biographies of famous people your child admires. And remember that girls like non-fiction too.
  3. Read aloud to your kid, even if she seems “too old.” There are amazing books for older kids that adults will enjoy too. Help your child fall in love with books and she’s on her way to falling in love with reading. Read to your child without asking her to do any reading herself or trying to teach her or quiz her. Make this a stress-free daily pleasure.
  4. Ask your kid to read to a younger child. Learning to read smoothly requires a child to read below his instructional level. But when a child is already reading at a low level, reading even lower-level books can be really embarrassing. By reading to preschool kids (or by taping audio books for preschoolers), struggling readers can practice without feeling dumb.
  5. Get your kid writing. Writing is reading, so get your child involved in writing her own comic strip, TV script, puppet show or radio play. Help her write letters to her favorite celebrities, make a birthday wish list, or write how-to instructions for something she’s good at. Get your child a blank journal and encourage her to write in it every day (you might keep a journal too, just to get things going.)
  6. Link your child up with audio books. This is another way to help your child enjoy books and see the point of learning to read well. Audio books don’t take the place of reading aloud together but give your child a way to independently enjoy books on his age level that might be above his reading level. If you like, let your child have an mp3 player and load it with audio books.

Your local librarian is ready to help you and your child find great books to read together, get you started with audio books, and locate books on the topic your child wants to know more about.  The more you and your child go to the library the easier it will be to think of books you’d like to read.

Make reading what the people in your family do. But remember that there are many different ways to read and many different sorts of books. Help your child see the possibilities and see himself as a real reader.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.