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Child Proof

How to Raise a Kid Who Loves to Read

Children reading books at a park.
Children reading books at a park.
Credit: Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

FFor kids, reading isn’t just a hobby, or something to help them pass time when it’s raining outside. It’s transformative: From an early age, reading — or being read to — has important cognitive and behavioral effects. Researchers have found that reading at home may promote brain development in young children, grow their vocabularies, strengthen their ability to focus, and improve their social-emotional development, making them less hyperactive and less prone to separation anxiety. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging parents to read to their children starting in infancy.

The good news for parents: To create an enthusiastic reader, surprisingly, doesn’t take much. “The recipe is almost too simple,” says Barbara Marinak, a dean and professor of reading at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. And you can start laying the foundation long before they actually know how to read, or even what reading is.

Get them used to words—lots of words

With preschool-age kids, Marinak says, “deep, rich, ongoing conversation” helps develop language skills — and the stronger those skills, the more prepared they’ll be when first faced with words on a printed page. So let your child jabber away, Marinak says, even when it means answering the millionth “why” in a row, and ask them to elaborate on the stories they tell you.

Even before children become talking machines, it’s critical to read to them. Reading to young children helps develop their own excitement for books, says Richard Anderson, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. If you can make reading time feel like something special, all the better: “You want to create a fun, intimate event,” he says. A bedtime-story routine is a great way to do it. Snuggle up with your kid, and make the story interactive by asking them questions about what’s happening in the book. But other times of day are just as good for reading — there’s no reason to limit your story time to right before you tuck them in.

Read the same story over and over and over and…

As children get old enough to voice their own opinions, they may start demanding the same story over and over. Even if this makes you crazy, “it’s very developmentally appropriate,” Marinak says. She encourages parents to resist the urge to skip a few pages or suggest something else, and instead read a book in full as many times as your toddler wants. “They are committing this to memory, and they’re developing a trusting relationship that the book isn’t going to change.”

Read in front of them

That favorite picture book shouldn’t be the only reading material consumed in your home, though. It’s important to model being a reader. If you want your kids to love reading, they should see you and other people around them reading, too. Yet the 2019 Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report, which surveyed a sample of more than 2,700 kids and parents across the United States, found that as kids got older, they reported having fewer and fewer people in their lives who enjoy reading.

This means being intentional about when you crack open a book. Parents who want to spend some quality time with a book might wait to read until their kids are asleep, when they can finally get some peace and quiet. But by doing this, they miss an opportunity for modeling. “I’m not saying you can’t read when [the kids] go to bed also,” Marinak says. “But please make sure that you read in front of them as well.” It doesn’t have to be books, Marinak adds — perusing the mail, a magazine, or even a Cheerios box still counts.

Put them in charge

Once kids are old enough to read on their own, there’s one more thing to remember, and Marinak thinks it might be the most critical element of all: choice.

“Choice is an incredibly powerful component of human motivation,” Marinak says — in all things, not just in reading. “Little people like choice, and big people like choice.” In a 2012 study of fifth graders, Marinak found that letting kids vote for the next book their teacher would read aloud helped make them more enthusiastic readers. Marinak says parents can recreate this effect at home by letting their kids pick their next story from several options.

The Scholastic report also highlights the importance of choice. Among kids age 6 to 17, the report found, 89% said their favorite book was one they picked out themselves. And 88% said they’re more likely to finish something they chose.

Pay attention to and respect your child’s preferences, which may not be what you expect. Marinak says that children ages 4, 5, and 6 tend to prefer nonfiction (say, National Geographic’s Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs, or the historical Little People, Big Dreams series) to fiction. In one 2006 study, 84% of first graders chose a nonfiction book from a selection that included a mix of books (Animals Nobody Loves may be a downer title, but apparently it’s a classroom hit). Some kids love magazines, or only want to read books by one author. Boys in particular often go through a phase of reading joke books, or books of lists, Marinak says.

Whatever your child opts for, “honor all print,” she says, and don’t disparage their choice, even if it’s Big Red Barn for the 200,000th time. The important thing to remember is that by creating a book-loving child, you might be creating a book-loving adult.

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