Many parents have fond memories of their children hanging on to every word of a bedtime story.
They also remember the time when their youngsters began to read independently and devour fairytales or adventure stories. It comes as a disappointment, therefore, when children’s enthusiasm for reading drops off sharply during adolescence. It is worrying too. Children who read for pleasure do better at school than peers who rarely read, and they make more progress in learning vocabulary, spelling and even maths. According to a 2013 study by the University College London’s Institute of Education, having a strong reading ability helps children to absorb and understand new information across all subjects.
In a new publication, Raising Kids Who Read: What Teachers and Parents Can Do, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham acknowledges the concerns of adults about children’s disappearing reading habits. He notes that some teens, who have an estimated five hours of leisure time a day, spend a mere six minutes of that time with a novel or a work of nonfiction. But he says there are ways to re-awaken enthusiasm in teens for books, even in this age of digital distraction. The key, he says, is for adults to understand why teens fall out of love with reading in the first place and then help children to see themselves as readers.
Willingham, a father of four and a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is well known in the United States for supporting the use of scientific knowledge in classroom teaching and education policy. His 2009 book Why Don’t Students Like School? received widespread praise for its insights. His blog, in which he points out scientific findings that are applicable to education, is eagerly read by many people in the American education system.
“There’s a lot of data showing associations between leisure reading and good outcomes in school and in the workforce, but that’s not really my motivation,” explains Willingham. “My motivation for wanting my kids to read is that I like to read and my wife likes to read. It’s a family value and I think that’s true for most parents who are worried about this. I won’t be heartbroken if my kids don’t read but if you’re a foodie, you want your children to appreciate food, and so forth.”
In early childhood, children are enthusiastic about reading — it is a skill they want to develop because it puts them on the same level as siblings and friends, says Willingham.
“All of that changes as they get older,” he adds. “At that point they don’t have choices. There are particular works they are supposed to read and our expectations are higher for what they’re going to do with those texts. They’re expected to do rudimentary literary analysis, they’re looking for facts to support an argument or they’re expected to memorise material in order to take tests.”
Why should this affect reading for pleasure at home? Willingham says many children begin to see reading as drudgery and cannot differentiate between reading that must be completed for education purposes and reading for leisure. “Their attitudes towards reading become more negative … it’s all tangled up with work in their minds,” he says.
Willingham says the argument that digital technology is to blame for children’s unwillingness to read books does not stand up and he thinks it is unlikely that attention spans have reduced over the course of a decade.
“It does feel that kids have shorter attention spans, and that they’re more distractible than they used to be, but that’s because digital technology is leading children to expect full-time amusement,” he says. “If they’re bored with one thing they can make something different happen with very little effort. The consequence of long-term experience with digital technology is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom.”
The other argument, that children do not have time to open books because they are so addicted to their devices, also does not hold water, Willingham claims. “I don’t think they are soaking up reading time,” he says. “The reason may be a dispiriting one and it’s simply that no one does all that much reading. When you look back ten years ago, when children first started getting access to digital technology, nobody was reading much at that time. When I think back to when I was a kid and I didn’t know what to do with myself on a Saturday I didn’t think ‘Oh, I might as well read a book.’ I found all kinds of ways to goof off if I didn’t feel like reading so I don’t think much has changed.”
Unlike walking, reading is not a natural skill and has to be actively encouraged in young people, he says.
Parents should help children to understand the difference between “duty” reading for school and reading for leisure. “It’s important children know that when they are reading for relaxation they can skip bits they don’t like, they can peek at the end to find out what happens or they can drop the book altogether and move on to another one,” Willingham says.
At some point a fashionable book will be all the rage in your child’s school and parents should use this to their advantage. “If everyone in school is reading The Hunger Games or the Twilight series, this is an opportunity to talk to children about the book and ask what they think of it. They can direct their kids to internet bulletin boards and fan sites where other teenage enthusiasts are talking about the book,” says Willingham.
Another ploy is to tempt reluctant readers with books of stories that children already know, such as a novelisation of a film, a book of trivia or backstage gossip from a television show.
“None of this is going to seem enriching to parents, I’m sure, and this sort of reading material might be poorly written and glorify aspects of popular culture they find distasteful. I’ve talked to a lot of parents and they want their kids to be reading A Tale Of Two Cities. My response to that is, if you’ve got a kid who never reads and he finally picks up a book, go with that. The first step is to open his mind to the idea that printed material is worth his time. He’ll come to better quality fiction later on,” says Willingham.
Parents should also consider books that look fun. Thick books with small print can be intimidating to unconfident readers, he points out. Go for books that have short chapters or graphic novels, which look easy because of the pictures. Some children will appreciate comic strip books. Older children might be interested in manga, a variety of comic from Japan, published in genres such as adventure, fantasy, mystery, horror and comedy. Willingham warns, however, that some of these books have mature themes of sexuality and violence.
Teens are hyper-social so reading ought to be social for them as well. Websites such as Wattpad and Figment operate like social networking sites and users can “follow” people who post content. Much of the content is aimed at teens and preteens and authors post a chapter at a time. These bite-sized portions of 3,000 words can appeal to reluctant readers and can be read on a phone during a bus ride.
Most children will not readily accept suggestions for reading from their parents, he adds. “It’s heartbreaking when that happens,” he acknowledges. “With my own children there were books I loved and I was excited to share with them and sometimes it worked out and often it didn’t. I think it’s enormously important not to judge what your children are reading, Naturally, you’re not going to let them read material that is misogynistic, racist and the like, but you’ve got to let them make their own way, and be their own person, when it comes to reading.
“I’m encouraging parents to let go of their own wishes and let their child enjoy what their child enjoys. Parents will further their own goals by showing curiosity about their children’s interests rather than disdain. Taking your child seriously as a reader, by reading a book that he likes or recommends to you even if it not your taste, might make him take himself seriously as a reader.”
What about the child who is perfectly capable of reading but shows absolutely no interest? “Keep at it and don’t give up,” adds Willingham. “Try genres that your child may know nothing about. If he likes action adventure movies, try graphic novels that have those plot lines. Find nonfiction books that match their interest. If they’re interested in motorcycles, get him a magazine or a book about that. Or find a classic novel which is based on a motorcycle trip. Try audio books in the car, where they can’t escape. Don’t be heavy-handed about it but don’t give up either.”
During the summer holidays, parents should construct a rhythm to the day that includes some quiet time for reading when screens are switched off. Children should also be taken, or be encouraged to go, to the library at least every other week. There should be no limits on the number of books they are allowed to bring home. “Again, the idea is if you don’t like it, don’t read it, and have something else to hand that you can turn to,” he says.
Parents want their children to experience the joys of reading but the danger lies in making youngsters feel pressured and unhappy about it. He adds. “Remember your goal is that they enjoy reading, not that they enjoy reading as you do,” Willingham concludes.
Daniel T Willingham is the author of Raising Kids Who Read: What Teachers and Parents Can Do (Jossey Bass, £17.99)
How to maintain interest
● Help children to distinguish between “duty” reading for school and reading for pleasure. Let them know they can skip bits or drop the book if they are bored
● Children should be taken or encouraged to go to the library at least every other week
● Try audio books in the car . . . where they can’t escape
● Teens like their own company, so reading should be social for them as well. Encourage them to look at reading websites such as Wattpad and Figment, which operate like social networking sites
● Don’t judge what your children are reading and don’t expect them to like the same books as you, however disappointing that is. Instead, ask them which books they think you should read