How to trick your kids into reading

Are you being driven to despair by your child’s stubborn refusal to pick up a book? Try one of these strategies to help them find joy in the printed word

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 3:13pm

In my time as a literacy specialist there is one recurring parental struggle that I’ve seen more than any other: how can I get my kid to read for pleasure?

That simple goal can feel like an uphill battle nowadays when books must compete with increasingly captivating video games, spectacular superhero movies, and expertly marketed toy fads. It seems like the humble print book hardly has a chance, but we know the value of reading, so, let’s get tricky and start scheming.

None of the following are sure-fire ways to get your kids reading. Rather, they are a series of increasingly zany ideas to fling at the wall to see what sticks. They’ve come from my own experiences as a literacy specialist and as a non-reader until the age of about 15. My refusal to pick up a book drove my academic parents insane. So, if anything here doesn’t work, move on and try something else.

The most important way to encourage a love of books and literacy is to read to your child. I cannot stress this enough, and there is a growing body of research that backs me up. This is a strategy that is key in the younger years. We’re going focus on older kids here, dividing our strategies up into three broad types: finding the right book, incentives, and other tricky moves.

Finding the right book

When trying to encourage reading your first step might be to bring your kid to a library or book store and allow them to pick out whatever they want. For some kids, having that control will already make reading seem more exciting than assigned reading tasks. In the unlikely event that this strategy alone works, congratulations! For almost everyone else, let’s move on to directing your kid towards specific books that might entice them.

Start simple, find books that reflect their interests, be it anything from horse riding to space travel. Pets and dinosaurs are classic topics for the younger set. Don’t be afraid to look for something about Minecraft or Fortnight, to parlay whatever their current obsession is into some quality reading time. I’m not sure why a kid who hates reading would suddenly sit and read eagerly about fidget spinners, but I’ve seen it happen.

With fiction there are a slew of great kid’s authors churning out more books than could ever be read. Humorous ones are often the easiest entry point – think Dear Dumb Diary or Bookmarks Are People Too! For the more visual thinkers, comics and graphic novels are often a great foot in the door, and award-winning books like El Deafo and the Dogman series are an excellent place to start.

How to help your children fall in love with books

Beyond topic selection, there are books that have structures that appeal to different types of learners or thinkers. You’d be surprised how many kids will flip through an illustrated encyclopaedia for hours despite never wanting to read anything else. Other kids latch onto list-based books, such as The Top 10 of Everything or the kid’s Guinness Book of World Records. Fiction also has some unique structures, I’ve seen parents have a lot of success with choose-your-own-adventure books, which give the kids some control over the direction of the narrative and are therefore very engaging.

Finally, there are books accompanying movies and cartoons might capture their attention simply by association. Lots of kids now watch Harry Potter long before reading the books, and there are opportunities there for parents to utilise, which brings us to incentives.

Bribes – no wait, incentives

Incentives, broadly speaking, fit into two categories: positive and negative reinforcement. If a kid is given sweets for reading a book that is a positive reinforcement, whereas if a kid does not have to do dishes for reading a book, that is negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcements are usually easier to think of, but they aren’t necessarily more effective.

A very basic positive reinforcement is to provide a reward for reading, giving allowance money or extra dessert for every book read. Or, you might allow your child to watch the new Star Wars film when he reads one of the tie-in books, of which there are astonishing number. Anything that creates an easy to understand relationship between the act of reading and the reward received.

If you want to get devious, make sure that the rewards have an element of chance. Each book read could allow them to spin a wheel where some rewards are better than other. Unpredictable and variable rewards are much stronger in shaping human behaviour. Another unorthodox tactic I’ve seen work is using punishment of the parents as a reward, for example if your kid reads a certain number of books in a time span then the next family outing they get to choose what you wear, dressing you up like a fool.

Also, never underestimate how much of a reward your praise is to a child, give them a triple helping when they complete a book, tell friends and family about their reading successes so that they too can chime in. That reading is its own reward is something they can realise when they are adults, but for now, adding extra rewards is your best bet.

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With negative reinforcements you can present clear trade-offs between reading and getting out of something perceived as worse. If the kid reads for an hour they get a reprieve from some chore such as setting the table, or extra maths work.

Other tricky moves

Incentives are not the only way to shape behaviour. You should also think about your kid’s natural tendencies and motivations. Are they competitive? Perhaps turn reading into a competition. Are they shy about struggling with reading? Turn reading into a hilarious pantomime or game, to make it less stressful and serious.

Consider, also, that kids model their behaviour largely after their parents and their peers. How often does your child see you reading for pleasure? Perhaps the reason they prefer television to books is at least partially down to them emulating your choice of media. Leading by example is a good start, so take the time to read where they can see you doing it. As for their peers, if your kid has a friend over, perhaps ask the friend what books they’ve read and throw a little praise at their way, then buy your kid the same book.

If none of these tricks seem to be having any effect, and you find that encouraging reading only seems to make your kid hate reading more, then there’s always the forbidden fruit approach. Find a book with an enticing cover, or on a topic that you know interests your kid, place it somewhere conspicuous. If they ever reach for it or ask about it tell them that it’s not for them and they are not allowed to read it. Then, once their confusion turns to curiosity, leave the room on another task while they sneakily read the illicit book thinking that they’re getting away with something you’ve forbade them from doing.

This tactic worked like a charm for one reluctant reader I knew. His mother put a motorcycle magazine in plain view but told him not to touch it, as it was only for dad. His mum wasn’t quite sure whether to be delighted or disgruntled when he sneaked away with the magazine and devoured it in short order.

At the end of the day there is no magic solution to making a kid fall in love with reading, but I sincerely hope that one of these tricks helps your little reader on their journey.