How to Trick Your Kids Into Reading All Summer Long

Don't bother taking away the iPad or setting minimum page counts. Instead, find sneaky ways to leave your children alone with books—and then see what happens.
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As the school year ends, students’ thoughts turn to summer vacation staples like swimming, camp, and popsicles. Teachers—and most parents—would like them to think about reading, too.  School and district officials offer summer reading lists, hoping that specific recommendations will move students away from video games and toward books. But most will ignore these worthy suggestions, and indeed will read very little. How can parents nudge kids toward books this summer?

The natural strategies most parents would think of first should not be the ones they actually try first. One is to offer rewards for reading. Rewards may get kids reading in the short term, but research shows there’s a danger they will like reading less once the rewards stop. A reward comes bundled with an implicit message: “Your guess that reading is not fun must be right. That’s why they’re paying you.” The same holds for a second strategy, the daily reading target. If reading were fun (as parents claim), they wouldn’t need to set minimum goals. Parents feel no need to say “I want to see you on that swing set for twenty minutes every day, mister. And swing like you mean it.” But if you don’t reward or coerce your child, what would make him freely choose to read?

An alternative is to change your home so that reading is the most appealing activity available when your child is looking for something to do. An easy way to start is to put books in places where your child gets bored. Put a basket of books in the minivan. Put a basket of books in the bathroom. Encourage older kids to put an ebook reader on their phones; any time they are stuck waiting in a line, they will have a book with them.

Bookstores are wonderful, and books make lovely gifts, but you want variety in those book baskets—there’s no telling which volume will catch your child’s imagination—and variety is pricey if you’re buying. Frequent trips to the library not only allow you to fill your bookcases at no cost, they are a great place to linger in cool quiet during the heat of summer. And lingering in a place with a lot of books might lead to reading. If your child doesn’t want to go, tell him you need to go, and say that the most convenient time for you is during a trip to take him somewhere he wants to go.

It’s natural to blame digital devices as the reason kids don’t read, and they do soak up a lot of time. But blanket restrictions on television or texting probably won’t do the trick. A child who doesn’t like reading won’t pick up a book; she’ll ride her bike or go see her friends. Limiting time with digital devices makes sense in places and at times that doing so leaves the child with few options other than reading. For example, limit screen time on car rides. Don’t allow kids to take digital devices to bed with them but silently overlook in-bed reading.

Finally, make sure that your child knows what she’s choosing if she chooses to read. If she only reads for school, she may think that reading means plodding through a “classic” book, start to finish, and that leisure reading differs only because she doesn’t have to write a report when she’s done. But leisure readers know that reading can mean non-fiction, or graphic novels, or manga. Leisure readers feel free to skip around, peek at the conclusion, skim boring parts, or drop a book altogether. If your child doesn’t know these things, tell her.

Reading improves your vocabulary, makes you a better writer, and enlarges your breadth of understanding. It’s too much to hope that kids will take that long view, but parents can make some small adjustments to their homes that might make reading seem a good choice in the moment. 

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Daniel Willingham is a University of Virginia psychology professor who studies the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education. He is the author of the forthcoming Raising Kids Who Read.

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