How to Raise a Motivated Reader

It’s an easy trap to fall into: You tell your kid to read for 20 minutes and he can have extra video-game time. Or ice cream. Or something new and shiny. Yet when we reward our children for spending time with a book, we are focusing their intention away from the act of reading and from their own independence as readers. But is it really possible to create an atmosphere at home where reading is seen as its own reward?

“Yes!” says literacy expert Barbara Marinak, dean of the Division of Education at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD, and co-author, along with Linda Gambrell, of No More Reading for Junk. “Give children unlimited access to books and other material, see that their reading material is relevant, and give kids a choice about what, where, and when to read. And always, always talk about what you read.”

The best way to nurture a love of reading is to let children take ownership of that part of their lives, honor their choices, and share in the worlds opened up to them from reading.

How to Give Your Child Optimal Access

Research shows that more access to books—and an environment that supports reading—increases a child’s interest in reading. So providing a wealth of reading material at home is the place to start. Create a dedicated space for your child’s library. Kids’ interests change quickly, Marinak says; she suggests adding new titles from regular trips to the library or bookstore, and passing along books your child has finished reading. “It affords them a chance to share something they loved, which is a very empowering feeling,” she adds.

Give Kids a Voice

Educators agree: Children are more likely to be motivated to read when they choose their own books. In fact, choice, Marinak says, “is the single most powerful motivator for humans, period. Home is where kids can and should have limitless choice.” Beyond allowing children to choose what to read, give them the freedom to select where and when as well. Under the piano bench with the dog? Fine. Standing in the ocean with the waves lapping his ankles? No problem.

What’s Relevant?

Because children can get overwhelmed reading texts that are too hard, and bored with those that are too easy, ask your child’s teacher to recommend books to add to your home library, including high-interest, moderately challenging options, as experts often suggest. If your child loves series, by all means let her read every last volume. Same thing with favorite authors. Ask questions like “How did number four compare to number three?” or “What do you think the author is going to do with that character in the next book?” Try to avoid yes/no answers; series, especially, invite good opportunities to compare and contrast.

Parents as Partners

Marinak doesn’t believe in mandating a set amount of time or number of pages children must read at home. If kids don’t naturally gravitate toward reading, she suggests reading with them. Crack open a cookbook and read a brownie recipe together while you bake. Read directions for a board game or DIY kit. Some readers need options, and parental company, to help them come around to finding their own pleasure in the written word.

Rewards for reading do not help children become motivated readers either, says Marinak, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. You may get a short-term result, but once a prize isn’t dangling, he won’t be motivated to do it again. “If you must reward your child for reading, offer an extra 10 minutes of read-aloud time before bed or go online and pick out a new book together. The best way to nurture a love of reading, however, is to let children take ownership of that part of their lives, honor their choices, and share in the worlds opened up to them from reading. Set the stage early, and your child is in for a lifetime of learning and pleasure.

Pam Abrams

Pam Abrams is a writer and mother of two who splits her time between the city and the country, and frequents the farmers’ markets in both locations.