Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

It’s not uncommon for kids to have trouble focusing on reading. In a day of endless entertainment (and distractions), analog reading can be at a disadvantage for capturing their attention—at least until you get them hooked.

Some kids may also experience issues if they’re dealing with an undiagnosed developmental challenge. If you think this could be the case, check out Maya’s framework for assessing your child’s development and knowing when to seek help.

Often, children just need a little help getting started and staying engaged in reading. Take a look at these eight tips that can get your child into books, from your earliest days reading aloud to them through learning to read on their own and continuing to read as they grow older.

In this article, we’ll answer questions like How can you get your child to read more? How can you help your child love reading? How can you get your child to read independently? and Should you use technology to help your child read? 

Make a Reading Routine

Thoughtful routines help children (and all of us) build healthy habits, from bedtime and mealtimes to exercise and beyond. And reading is no different. Parents can establish a regular reading time in order to build and cement the reading habit.

This might mean reading a bedtime story with your child each night. You could curl up and read a picture book with your young child, or read out loud from a chapter book when they’re ready. In order to successfully establish a reading routine, make it a point to do this every night to the best of your ability. If you’re tired, just read a short book or a few pages. It’s the repetitive action that really cements the reading habit, not killing yourself to stretch out the amount of time.

But bedtime story time is not the only option. If you have a more flexible schedule, you might read with your child every morning, after lunch, or while you enjoy a cup of afternoon tea. You might take a weekly trip to the library for fresh reads, and then enjoy the books together afterward. The point is to find something that works for you and your child and then turn it into a reading routine. Keep it fun and focus on the closeness and interaction with your child, and soon it can become a part of your day that you both look forward to. 

(For more ideas, check out these summer reading tips for kids from a seasoned early childhood educator.)

Choose Age-Appropriate Books

In order to really accomplish that goal and build good reading habits, it’s crucial for your child to enjoy reading time. You need to hook them to focus on the book and make them want to return to the experience again and again. To really engage your child in books, you need to consider the reading level, the format, the topic, and the overall experience—and choosing age-appropriate books is a major part of all of those elements. 

Books that are written in language they can easily understand will obviously engage kids more than other books. Similarly, a picture book with bright, attractive illustrations will draw in a 1-year-old—or often even a 5-year-old—more than a book with no illustrations. A graphic novel written at the child’s reading level may engage an early independent reader more than a dense chapter book. And what makes a good children’s book is different from what makes an excellent young adult book, so take the time to seek out recommendations and find the best books for your child at each stage.

Follow Their Interests … But Vary the Genre

In the same vein, reading books about topics kids find interesting is a powerful way to engage them. If your child is obsessed with trains or butterflies, they’ll be primed to pick up a picture book about those themes. If your kid is a huge sports or music fan, books about their preferred topic or about their favorite stars may do the trick.

As they get older, helping them define their evolving tastes and find books that fit their interests can be the difference between keeping them avid readers or losing them to other pursuits. Maybe they love fantasy and adventure, or maybe they connect better with books about regular kids facing everyday challenges. Maybe discovering the world of science fiction or murder mysteries will engage your tween with reading in a new way, while teens might get into romance, thrillers, biography, or historical dramas. 

All that said, there’s nothing wrong with stretching your child sometimes. You may hook them at first by reading about their favorite topic and choosing age-appropriate books with simple vocabulary. But once you have them on board, you can also stretch them by reading books about topics you find interesting and sharing your enthusiasm, or by reading a book with more complicated language and stopping to explain words and context when necessary.

All along the way, expose them to the widest variety possible of books, including diverse styles of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and rhyming books, books with diverse characters and by diverse authors, and of course books about a wide range of topics. To help, check out our curated lists of children’s books for specific themes.

Bring Your Enthusiasm & Read with Conviction

The overall experience can be part of what engages a child in reading time and gets them to buy in long enough to get hooked on the story. Just being close to you and receiving your undivided attention may be the best part of story time for them. You can also create settings that make reading time special: A tea party that includes a shared picture book. A trip to a coffee shop with a stack of books to thumb through. A summertime picnic with older kids in which you all sprawl on a blanket with your own novels.

Find books you love reading to your child. Seek out your own childhood favorites to share, or look until you find new favorites to discover together. Get cozy, comfy, and close. Read with inflection and really try to get into the story. Experiment with using different voices or accents for different characters, if that feels right to you. If you bring enthusiasm, love, and attention to reading with your child, they’ll learn to value reading time.

It’s incredibly valuable to keep reading to kids long after they are capable of reading to themselves. You’ll read different sorts of books to them than they read alone, and you’ll bring explanations, interaction, and your relationship to the shared reading experience. 

Nevertheless, you’ll want to start transitioning them to reading independently as soon as they’re ready, in addition to enjoying your read-alouds. One way you can do that is to motivate them by letting them catch you reading to yourself—books, magazines, newspapers—anything they can identify as reading (as opposed to generic screen time). But it will take some more hands-on support, as well. The tips below deal especially with supporting kids to read on their own. 

Give Your Child the Skills to Read

Nothing will kill the urge to read like encountering too much frustration when they try. If your child lacks the skills to read with enough ease, they’ll likely turn away from the pursuit. But the good news is that any parent can easily prepare their child for reading just in the time they already spend with their child. 

Interacting with your child from birth onwards is key to setting them up for success as readers. Talk to them, listen to them, and respond to what they say (in whatever language you’re most comfortable in; it doesn’t have to be English). Read or recite nursery rhymes with them and play with words, sounds, and rhymes. Point out the words in books you read aloud. Teach them the ABCs, including the sounds the letters make, and how to write them. 

All of this will help them learn to read more easily and read better once they start. And the easier and more satisfying the experience, the more they’ll be inclined to keep it up. 

Be Patient & Supportive

Patience is arguably the most powerful tool in a parent’s arsenal (if the most easily overlooked, especially by new parents). When your child is small, patience in reading time looks mostly like tolerating their wiggles and interruptions—which are actually a valuable part of the story time experience—and letting it drop when they’ve had enough. 

When they start to learn to read on their own, though, is when patience becomes especially vital. Bringing your patience and supportive attitude to helping your emergent reader is mission-critical for getting them to stick with it and power through the hard parts. When they make the same mistake for the 1000th time, stomp off in frustration, or throw the book in anger, you can make the choice to take a deep breath and not respond until (and unless) you have something kind and helpful to say. 

Parents are only human, too, and you won’t be perfect. But recommitting again and again to being as patient and supportive as you can will pay big dividends all along your journey raising a reader. 

Tip: If your child is getting frustrated reading themselves, you can offer to alternate reading sentences, pages, or even words to give them a break. They’ll also get a lot out of just reading along in their heads as you read out loud, maybe pointing to the words as you go.

Set Reading Goals & Rewards

Setting goals and incentives may also motivate your child to read more, to push past challenges, and to choose reading in the face of other distractions and demands on their time.

Many libraries and school districts have summer reading programs that allow children, teens, and even adults to win prizes for their summer reading. You can also set up a reading incentive program with your child. Once they have a stack of tempting books, involve them in the process of choosing goals and rewards that will inspire them to read.

They may want to aim to read a certain number of books or pages in a given timeframe, or they may want to read at a set frequency or for a certain amount of time each day or week. Help them brainstorm realistic goals, and then talk to them about reading rewards they might like to earn. 

Keep in mind that these don’t have to be material or financial. Maybe they’d like to earn the right to choose dinner one night, to watch or choose a family movie, or to earn special time together, like playing their favorite game (that you hate) or going somewhere they love.

You can even up the fun factor by playing reading bingo with various reading challenges. Make your own card, or just download our printable Reading Challenge Bingo card. Get it free inside the VIP Vault.

Use Technology to Your Benefit

Kids today are digital natives. You can turn that to your benefit by building some reading into their technology time.

But a word of warning: It’s probably better to think in terms of adding reading to their screen time than in terms of adding screens to their reading time. There’s some evidence that reading on a screen is not the same as reading on paper, and many parents want their children to experience ways to entertain themselves without screens, too. So do be sure to introduce your child to abundant physical books and make sure they always have access to new ones, from your library, a little free library, or used or new bookstores. Similarly, limiting screen time is one of the most parent-proven ways to spur kids to turn to books for entertainment.

That said, there are many ways to add reading to screen time, from word games to e-books. Even small kids can play ABC games on tablets or phones. Later, they can graduate to word and spelling games. Seek out educational technology and games that have educational benefits, and put those in the mix of their digital entertainment. Older kids can play Wordle, individual or social scrabble-type games, and other word games that support reading skills. 

In terms of e-books, they’re a great option when traveling, or anytime you want your child to read but can’t necessarily cart around a bunch of books. They’re also good for kids who get into a series and tear through the books so quickly that you can’t keep up, even with frequent library visits. 

Numerous online bookstores offer a huge variety of e-books at reasonable prices, but you can also save money by using your local library—most have lots of e-books available to check out with simple apps you can access from your phone.

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