When I was a child, my mother and I rode a bus to and from the downtown Wichita Falls, Texas library every Wednesday and Saturday morning. I can still see it now: a brick, three-story building with floor-to-ceiling windows and the children’s section tucked away in the basement. The librarian, a kindly woman with gray-streaked hair, was always there to help me find the three books I could check out with my library card.
Polished wooden benches were scattered across the linoleum floors, each filled with boys and girls looking through books as their parents made their selections from the stacks on the upper floors. Returning home, Mother and I would hurry to sit on the daybed that served as our sofa, where she would read aloud one of my treasures, each filled with colorful pictures and illustrations to enhance the excitement of the narrative.
Those early years of being read to by my mother, father, aunt, and grandmother spawned a voracious appetite for reading that has remained constant for threescore and seven years. In my experience, a love of literature of all types is perhaps the greatest gift any parent could give their child, a passport to distant lands and a time machine to other eras. It can also give your child many advantages in the years to come.
Here’s how reading can help your child succeed, and how to introduce them to the joys of reading.
Literacy vs. Reading
Stories have been a primary medium of communication since the first family clans. Storytellers capture our imaginations, link us to the past, and establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Myths and legends passed from one generation to the next explain the unexplainable and remind us of the human values considered essential and ethical, both now and in the past.
In the ancient Western world, only those wealthy enough to afford a life of leisure or those in religious positions had the opportunity to learn to read. With the advent of the printing press, which made reading materials widely available, as well as improvements in public education, literacy became the norm rather than the exception for the common man.
However, the ability to read and write does not necessarily equate to a love of the written word. Many people assume “literacy” and “reading” are the same thing, but the former refers to the ability to read and write, while the latter refers to the act of interpreting printed words. And while most people today have the ability to read, fewer and fewer are doing so for enjoyment.
The State of Reading Today
The percentage of American adults who read any work of literature declined from 56.9% in 1982 to 43.1% in 2015, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. This is even though the percentage of college graduates in the population more than doubled in the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Pew Research reports that one-quarter of Americans did not read a single book, in whole or in part, in 2017.
More alarming, the percentage of Americans who read to satisfy curiosity, understand the events and environment around them, or relax fell more than 30% between 2004 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) American Time Use Survey. People between the ages of 15 and 44 read for an average of 10 minutes a day or less.
This is unfortunate. Being able to read but not doing so is akin to having the ability to run but electing to stay on the couch, eating chips and watching TV. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Twain may or not have been the source of that adage, but its truth is undeniable.
Why We Read Less Today
Adults offer a variety of explanations (or excuses) for their lack of reading. Here are some of the big ones — and how you can overcome them.
1. Not Enough Time
The average working person in 2015 spent 8.86 hours sleeping, 8.13 hours working, and 3.28 hours on leisure activities each day in 2015, according to The Wall Street Journal. The remaining 3.73 hours were spent on a variety of activities including eating, household duties, and shopping. This use of time has not varied significantly since 2003.
Those who fall in love with reading make sure to include time for it in their daily activities. According to Pew Research, the average American reader enjoys 12 books a year, or one per month. Emily Temple of Literary Hub extrapolated this to calculate that a “voracious” reader finishes a book each week (or 50 per year), while a “super” bookworm reads 80 books per year.
According to a poll by Goodreads, more than 75% of Americans can read a 300-page book in nine hours or less. That means the average person can easily read a large book in a month simply by setting aside 20 minutes a day.
2. Not Enough Money
There is no need to spend a fortune on leisure reading. According to the School Library Journal, the average retail price of a hardcover children’s book in 2017 was $17.65. Adult hardcover fiction and non-fiction books averaged $25.97 and $28.16, respectively. Paperback books typically sell for 50% to 60% less than the hardcover price.
Electronic or digital books, which are readable on a variety of devices including Kindles, smartphones, and tablets, have substantially lower retail prices than print books. Books printed before 1923 are now in the public domain and are free to download. That includes such classics as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
Finally, most books can be borrowed, in physical and digital form, from your local library. It’s not hard at all to keep yourself, and your family, stocked in reading material for little to no cost.
3. Too Tired
Those who wait to read until late in the evening might find themselves falling asleep after a few pages. In such cases, changing the time you read to early morning or during a lunch hour might be helpful. That said, falling asleep while reading can be a pleasant way to end the day – much more relaxing than scrolling through your smartphone.
4. Would Rather Watch Movies or TV
According to Nielsen, the average American spends more than four hours a day watching television. This not only takes up time that could be spent on other activities but also has a number of negative effects on our mental and physical health. As neuroscientist Dr. R. Douglas Fields writes in Scientific American, “The lack of physical activity and intellectual pursuits has obvious physical and cognitive consequences. TV may or may not rot the brain, but sitting perched in front of the screen for so long does seem to waste it.”
If you’re one of the people who spend a considerable amount of time in front of the screen, consider setting aside some of that time for a good book instead.
5. Just Not That Interested
While some people might find it difficult to read for one of the above reasons, the cause might also be that they simply don’t like to read or they haven’t found materials that interest them. As a consequence, they fall into daily habits that don’t include reading for pleasure.
With the plethora of materials available, there is something for everyone. At 70 years of age, I still scan picture books on diverse subjects and read graphic novels. If you have yet to find something that interests you, keep looking; you might be surprised at what ends up interesting you.
Financial Benefits of Reading for Pleasure
Dr. Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, told Fast Company that “reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding.” This new perspective promotes a greater ability to cope with stressful situations and relate to others — invaluable skills to have in a modern society.
Bill Gates, one of history’s most successful businessmen, reads about 50 books a year, mostly non-fiction that explains how the world works. He told The New York Times, “Reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett also believe that daily reading has been the foundation of their success. It’s not surprising that business magazines like Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Inc. regularly feature articles about the advantages of regular reading for those seeking financial success.
Former President Harry S. Truman noted in his Post-Presidential Papers that “readers of good books, particularly books of biography and history, are preparing themselves for leadership. Not all readers become leaders. But all leaders must be readers.”
Other Benefits of Reading for Pleasure
The benefits of reading extend beyond financial success and personal competitive advantage. A review of multiple research studies, conducted by BOP Consulting for the Reading Agency of Great Britain, outlined many of these benefits. Other research, including the report “Developing Early Literacy” by the National Institute of Literacy, delve further into how these benefits apply to young children.
The positive effects of reading include, but are not limited to:
1. Abstract Thinking
Reading encourages the ability to think about things that are not present, what many call “imagination” and researchers call “abstract thinking” or “symbolic thought.” Children learn that words substitute for objects that are not physically visible, similar to learning how to count without using their fingers.
As they mature, children utilize symbols, metaphors, and analogies to better understand and communicate concepts. Abstract thinking is crucial to learning, especially in the fields of mathematics, science, and philosophy.
2. Empathy & Emotional Intelligence
In her essay “Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature,” author Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
Research shows that reading fiction activates neural pathways that allow us to better understand another’s emotions — a key element of the social skills critical to success, especially in a globalized economy, according to Harvard Business Review.
3. Greater Perspective
Good books teach us about ourselves and the world around us, chronicle ancient histories, and inspire us to challenge the unknown. As Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrophysicist, and author, explains in his award-winning TV series “Cosmos,” “books break the shackles of time, [they are] proof that humans can work magic.”
Books like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Winnie the Pooh” feed the imaginations of young children, while “The Outsiders” reflects the angst of every teenager. Through reading, we realize we are not alone and learn about people, places, and things beyond our scope of experience. Oprah Winfrey, in her 2004 speech accepting the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Award, credited reading for her adult success: “Books allowed me to see a world beyond the front porch of my grandmother’s shotgun house and gave me the power to see possibilities beyond what was allowed at the time.”
4. Stress Reduction
Children experience stress just as adults do, whether it’s from family conditions (separation, divorce, financial problems), school (fitting in, making grades, bullying), or media reports (violence, environmental issues). Many kids are unable to cope, resulting in depression, withdrawal, aggression, and, tragically, even suicide.
According to a study by the University of Sussex reported in The Telegraph, reading for even six minutes can be enough to lower stress levels by two-thirds. Reading out loud to a child also reinforces family support and distracts them from their own concerns and anxieties as effectively as reading by themselves does.
5. Expanded Vocabulary
Vocabulary is the key to successful communication. Research shows that the size of one’s vocabulary can be linked to academic and financial success as an adult. The vocabularies of young children are often limited to what they hear from the speech of those around them and can also be directly linked to the socioeconomic class of their parents, according to research reported in The Atlantic.
However, regularly reading to children and encouraging them to read on their own can make a big difference in their early and future achievement. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, writes in his book “The Power of Reading” that “when children read for pleasure, when they get ‘hooked on books,’ they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called ‘language skills’ many people are so concerned about.”
Teaching children to love reading and books should begin at an early age since the motivation to read decreases with age, especially if their attitudes toward reading become less positive, according to a report by England’s National Literary Trust. This report went on to say that “if children do not enjoy reading when they are young, then they are unlikely to do so when they get older.”
Parental Involvement Is Critical
A child’s love of reading starts in the laps of their parents and grandparents. Research indicates that reading aloud is the most critical activity for teaching children the skills essential for reading success. An Australian study in 2013 found that reading to young children six to seven days a week puts them almost a year ahead of those who are not read to regularly.
There is a clear difference between talking with a child and reading to them. Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” points out that talking is full of jargon, colloquialisms, and truncated sentences, while “the language in books is very rich, and in books, there are complete sentences. In books, newspapers, and magazines, the language is more complicated, more sophisticated. A child who hears more sophisticated words has a giant advantage over a child who hasn’t heard those words.”
Parental Time Constraints
In 2017, one-quarter of all households with children under the age of 18 had parents who both worked, according to the BLS. Balancing the needs of a family with the demands of a career is a huge challenge for many parents, especially those who live apart from other family members.
In many cases, the TV or video games stand in for parents’ absence. While these can be valuable as occasional educational devices, the adverse effects of too much viewing — lack of exercise, passivity, aggression, desensitization to violence — are well-documented.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under the age of 18 months avoid TV entirely, while children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years should be limited to one hour per day of viewing with a parent present. Children over the age of 5 should be limited in their exposure to TV, with their time allocated instead for sleep, physical activity, play, and study.
For those parents who have difficulty weaning their kids off of television, consider one of these ways to limit kids’ screen time.
Quality of Time vs. Quantity of Time
Today’s parents are busy and stretched thin. Fortunately, research has shown that the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time spent.
Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, told The Washington Post, “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes… Nada. Zippo.” Parents who are worried about meeting the needs of their children in an increasingly time-challenged world should take heart from Milkie’s advice: “The amount of time doesn’t matter, but these little pieces of time do. Just don’t worry so much about time.”
How to Teach Your Child to Love Reading
Reading experts agree, and multiple studies confirm, that kids who are introduced to books by parents reading aloud to them have significant lifetime advantages over children whose parents don’t make this effort.
Promoting a love of reading and books in your children isn’t difficult, but it does require persistence, participation, and patience. Each child’s journey into literacy is unique, but parents who implement the following six practices are most likely to produce independent, capable children prepared to live in a diverse, ever-changing world.
1. Read to Them Daily
According to a study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, even infants get enormous benefit from being read to by parents. Establish a habit of reading to your child each day, making it a special sharing time. Many parents choose bedtime, using the story as a signal that the day is over and it’s time to sleep.
Make your reading interesting by varying the tones of your speech, even using different voices (but never anything scary or loud). Be prepared to read the same story over and over. Make comments about the pictures in the books — for example, “Did you see the butterfly’s pretty wings?” Point out specific words to help your child understand them. My four-year-old grandson learned to recognize the names of various dinosaur species and spell words like “omnivore,” “carnivore,” and “herbivore” from his mother’s reading of his favorite picture books.
Stop reading when your child’s attention wanders or they begin to fall asleep. Always tell your child how much you enjoyed the shared reading time together. If daycare is necessary, choose a center, nursery school, or preschool where the teachers read aloud at least 30 minutes per day.
2. Teach Them the Alphabet
Learning the letters of the alphabet is the first step to reading. Most children can begin learning around age 2, often by repeating the alphabet song. Other tools to encourage learning the alphabet and simple words include:
- Flashcards that link individual letters with familiar objects (e.g., “A” for Apple, “B” for Bear)
- Alphabet picture books with each page devoted to a single letter and picture (search for different books so kids can learn to associate different images with the same letter)
- Three-dimensional plastic pieces in the shapes of letters or wooden blocks that can be manipulated and provide a tactile sensation
- Word walls with letters, simple words, and pictures of everyday objects kids recognize
- Puzzles in which they can arrange letters in sequence or spell simple words
Show your child how to print or draw alphabet letters, then how to print simple things like their own names or words like “mom” and “dad.” Play games in which they find alphabet letters in a picture or link a letter to a particular image on a word wall. Ask them to use sentences with the word to help them understand its meaning (don’t worry about grammar; they’ll learn that when they’re older).
Ann Glass, a reading specialist, has a video entitled “How to Teach the Alphabet” that parents might find useful.
3. Transition from Picture to Illustrated to Chapter Books
Young children are most comfortable with picture books. While listening to the words you read to them, they can enjoy the pictures and begin to interpret the meaning of these words. Pictures make reading more entertaining and keep kids’ attention. Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a children’s book writer and illustrator, notes that picture books have a variety of advantages for young children, including:
- Introducing them to the concept of reading
- Strengthening visual thinking skills
- Teachings them how to be better listeners
- Developing critical thinking skills
- Building vocabulary
Many parents attempt to push their children to chapter books at the age of 4 or 5. Unfortunately, the pressure to progress can easily diminish a child’s love of reading and hamper later advancement, according to Deborah Pope of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.
Illustrated textbooks offer a natural transition from picture books to text-only chapter books. The illustrations help children understand the storyline and decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words. Steve Floyd of August House, an award-winning children’s book publisher, notes that illustrated stories are more intriguing to beginning readers than text alone and “more effective at motivating kids to read independently.” Graphic novels and comic books (appropriately selected for age and content) can “turn your child into a ‘super’ reader,” according to Scholastic.
Kids are often excited to read chapter books because they see them as a sign of growing up. However, each child develops the necessary skills at their own pace. Make “soft” transitions from one type of book to the next, gradually phasing in the next level as your child is comfortable. Expect some retreats in which your child returns to the previous phase when necessary.
Never force younger children to stick with a book that doesn’t interest them, and never berate your children for a slow transition from one type of book to the next. Remember that some literature is more demanding than others, even for adults.
4. Keep Books on Diverse Subjects Readily Available
As young children hear a story read aloud or look through a picture book, their curiosity is awakened. Beginning readers are like sponges, eagerly absorbing words and stories from the world around them. Having a variety of books on hand that cover different subjects feeds their inquisitiveness and reinforces a love of books and learning.
The books you make available to your child may be new, used, hand-me-downs, or borrowed. They can be hardcover, paperback, or cloth and can contain everything from fairy tales to histories. The only requirements are that books are appropriate for the age and skill of the reader, are understandable, and are engaging.
Former President John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, “I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… The more one reads, the more one sees we have to read.” Having books that are easy for your child to pick up and start reading can help encourage a similar love for the written word in them.
5. Get Involved in Their Reading
According to recent research, infants and children whose parents read aloud to and play with them on a daily basis have enhanced social-emotional competencies, lower hyperactivity, and reduced disruptive behavior for years afterward. Head researcher Dr. Alan Mendelsohn notes in The New York Times that a parent’s involvement in their children’s reading and playing “has really large impacts on their children’s behavior. All families need to know when they read, when they play with their children, they’re helping them learn to control their behavior.”
Participating in your child’s reading can be as simple as asking questions about the story being read or complimenting their attempts to learn the relationship of alphabet letters with words and pictures. Keeping a record of their achievements demonstrates approval and interest in their reading. For example, setting a target for them to read a specific number of books over the summer, keeping a visual record of their progress, and rewarding them at the end of the period is a powerful incentive.
As your kids grow older and reading aloud is replaced by solo reading, regularly ask them about what they’re reading and what they think of the plot, the characters (i.e., likable or not, hero or villain), and whether they would recommend the book to their friends. Take them regularly to a library where they can have their own borrowing privileges and select their own books, a sign to them that they’re maturing and no longer a “little kid.”
6. Be a Role Model
Young children learn best by copying their parents. Infants and toddlers watch and imitate the actions of the grownups around them. A baby of two or three months will stick their tongue out if an adult sticks their tongue out at them, and if they see a smile, they will try to return it. Research has proven that children as young as 14 to 24 months old copy what they see on TV, one of the many reasons the AAP recommends limiting TV viewing for infants and young children.
Your home is your child’s first classroom. Set a good example by putting aside part of the evening for reading, each person with their own material, before turning on the television. Maria Russo, a children’s book editor with The New York Times, recalls her parents reading books all the time when she lived at home. Now a parent with three children of her own, she says that she and her husband “are always reading at least one book at any given moment.” Russo believes that families who read and enjoy books instill in their children the same interest and habits. She and Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, collaborated to produce a helpful guideline for raising readers.
Literature has shaped civilizations, brought down tyrannies, and inspired mankind to extraordinary achievements. It is a chronicle of the past and a prophecy for the future. Reading counters ignorance, stereotypes, and preconceived notions about people and places.
A 2013 study by Emory University found that the benefits of reading last throughout one’s life. As head researcher David Lewis reported, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world.”
All parents share the hope that their children will lead happy and successful lives. Loving to read can play a major role in realizing this hope. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is reputed to have written, “Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” As the acclaimed children’s book author wrote in “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!,” “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
Do you read for pleasure? Do you hope your kids enjoy books? What advice would you give other parents with young children about instilling a love for reading and books?