Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Any parent who wants to raise a lifelong reader knows the importance of developing literacy skills, such as teaching your child the ABCs. But skills alone don’t keep kids reading in their free time and outside the classroom. 

So what will motivate kids to read and keep reading? In this article, we’ll look at motivations for reading, and ways to instill them in your child. In particular, we’ll look at how to build what’s called intrinsic motivation. This means, for example, reading for personal reasons—like because it’s fun—as opposed to external motivations, like getting good grades. Intrinsic motivation tends to be much more powerful. In fact, one study showed children who are intrinsically motivated to read spend 300 percent more time doing it than those who aren’t. 

And the end result of that motivation and all the reading it leads to? Not just better verbal skills and reading achievement, but many more benefits, including increased knowledge in various subjects, mathematical abilities, and mental wellbeing. So let’s take a look at five ideas for motivating kids to read.  

Get Kids' Reading Motivation Going!


Make Reading Fun

This is a big one. Even when kids believe they can read well, that doesn’t mean they’ll be motivated to read, especially if they’re not sold on the point of it. But making reading enjoyable, and therefore something kids will want to do, is one area parents can help out with easily. Use reading as an opportunity to connect, soothe, and share laughter. 

Depending on what sparks your child’s enthusiasm, you can set the mood for fun in different ways, from creating a cool reading den, to making story time an opportunity for incorporating games or activities, like this awesome pirate treasure map idea. On the flipside, try to avoid circumstances that might detract from the fun factor. For example, don’t put emphasis on finishing a book if your child isn’t enjoying it, and, if a book is too long for their attention span or too much of a stretch for their reading and comprehension skills, set it aside for another time. 

As always, giving kids choice in what they read and allowing them to follow their own interests goes a long way towards increasing enjoyment and fostering deeper engagement. Sign them up for a library card, so they’re free to explore and pick out books that interest them. Magazines, books based on TV shows, and digital texts are all good too, as these tips for getting kids to read more attest. (And your library should have digital books for checkout, too, as well as physical books.)


Share The Book Love

We’re social creatures. In fact, psychologists view relating to others as one of three universal psychological needs—alongside competence and autonomy—that motivate human behavior. So it makes sense that enhancing the social aspect of reading can encourage kids’ motivation to read. 

Reading together, talking about what you’ve read, and sharing books with others are powerful ways to harness the social connection that reading can bring. While in the classroom this might look like group activities based on a text, there are lots of ways parents can encourage a love of sharing books and reading at home. 

Most basic and powerful are simply reading together and allowing lots of room for discussing books. But there are plenty of creative ways to make reading social, too. Think simple book swaps with other families (something my daughter loves to do with her friends as part of a playdate), using a favorite story as a jumping-off point for imaginative play (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been a go-to), visiting or building a Little Free Library, and doing book-related crafts and literacy activities together or with friends. 


Boost Kids’ Confidence in Their Reading Abilities

When children believe they’re doing well with their reading, they’re more likely to want to read and more likely to rise to new reading challenges. So, fostering their confidence in this area by teaching them the skills they need and helping them to master them—through playful methods —is a powerful way to fire up a love of books.

For a preschooler, that might mean giving them access to texts that make them feel successful in early reading skills, like recognizing letters or spotting simple words. Or helping them develop their abilities without even realizing it, through light-hearted spelling games and engaging activities. For older children, board games can be one great way to practice reading and building vocabulary beyond books, while high-quality literacy apps can be fun, motivating and rewarding when it comes to rising to new challenges.

And if your child shows a deep love for or interest in a topic, reading and learning around that interest—from simpler picture books to videos or exhibitions—can give them the confidence to tackle more complex texts on the same subject. What’s more, the background knowledge they have gained will help them with their reading comprehension, which will in turn boost their sense of self-efficacy and motivation.


Honor the Value of Reading

As kids grow older, how much they value reading, and how useful and important they judge it, becomes increasingly relevant. And the good news is that parents can encourage kids to value books from early on. Just think of the powerful message that giving a book as a gift can send. 

Allowing room for reflection during or after reading a book is another practice to build into family reading, and doesn’t have to be a didactic or structured activity. A thoughtful, open-ended question gives your child the space to come to their own conclusions, so let them surprise you with their insights and recognize the value of any takeaways on their own terms. 

And if your child gravitates towards books on certain topics—like dinosaurs or space—give them free rein to follow their own interests. That way self-directed learning will become second nature, as will appreciating the role of books in expanding their knowledge and horizons. All of this will help them get, and recognize, value from reading.


Encourage Independent Engagement With Books

When a child is really motivated to read, they become an engaged reader who seeks books out on their own and interacts with them independently—sometimes called “self-selected” or “self-directed reading.” And independent readers, in turn, tend to spend more time reading, becoming better readers in the process, fueling the positive cycle. Independent reading thus helps create a positive feedback loop, building confidence and fostering a love of reading. 

Giving kids access to interesting, balanced, and varied reading materials is the aim here. Long before they can read themselves, small children can enjoy books independently, from simply looking at the pictures to narrating wordless picture books or following along to an audio story with a hard copy book. They can also interact with books during shared reading—just provide lots of opportunity to discuss, or encourage them to “read” very familiar books from memory (something my daughter loved doing from around 15 months).