Encouraging Teenagers to Read, by Choosing Books From the Non-Y.A. Shelves

CreditJessica Lahey

My sons have always been voracious readers. One started early, the other started late, but once they got going, both were hooked. Then, one day this winter, I looked around my teenager’s room and noticed something was missing. Where books once littered his room, I now find guitar picks, running spikes and dirty socks.

I’ve learned from experience that encouraging my children to engage in anything I want them to do requires a lot of finesse. When I’ve come right out and recommended books I think they will like, those titles are immediately blacklisted from their mental card catalog, because my very endorsement taints them with a mom-approved stink.

My solution is to “seed” my older son’s room with a wide range of books for him to find on his own time and on his own terms. I consulted with my local bookseller, Brenda Leahy, who curates a list of teenage recommendations selected from outside the Young Adult section of the bookstore. Once armed, I scattered the literary bait all over my son’s room.

Once I’d set the trap for my own son, I asked Daniel T. Willingham, author of “Raising Kids Who Read,” for more advice about how to help keep children reading as they get older, and how to entice those who have strayed from books back into the reading life.

Make reading for pleasure a priority at home. Early in elementary school, teachers tend to give children a choice about what they read, but once they hit third grade, students are asked not just to read for pleasure, but to learn. Consequently, teachers begin to dictate what — and when — children read. This shift in purpose and focus can color the entire reading experience until it reaches its lowest point around Grade 10. There will be plenty of required reading assignments at school, so model reading for pleasure at home, particularly as children get older.

Don’t offer rewards for reading. Research shows that while rewards can jump start reading, they ultimately have a detrimental effect on both motivation and attitudes toward reading for pleasure. Schools commonly offer pizza, stickers and ice cream parties in exchange for pages read, but these rewards don’t encourage students to read over the long term. Worse, they teach them to prize rewards over reading and value what has been read over what is being read. Treat reading not as the path to a golden ticket; but as the golden ticket itself.


CreditJessica Lahey

Give children the power of choice over the books they read for pleasure. Have a wide variety of books available and accessible at home and in school, but don’t push your preferences or judge what a child chooses to read. For those who are truly resistant, Dr. Willingham wrote in an email, “Our first job is to get them open to the idea that print is worth their time.”

Ditch the rules! Children need to be able to abandon books they don’t like, peek at the endings, and read books they love over and over again. “Don’t nag, praise, criticize content or otherwise control your child’s reading,” Dr. Willingham writes in his book. Rules are control, and control is the death of intrinsic motivation.

Think outside the Y.A. section of the bookstore. After a year of unsuccessful attempts to entice one eighth-grade boy with the offerings on my independent bookshelf, I finally succeeded with a nonfiction book about baseball, his favorite sport (“The Last Best League” by Jim Collins). If sports are not your kid’s thing, how about science? Try, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson or “What If?” by Randall Munroe. If a child loves animals, try “Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan or “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer. You get the idea. Follow the enthusiasm in order to discover the book, rather than the other way around.

It’s been two weeks since I seeded my son’s room, and I am happy to report that the experiment has been a success at home. He has devoured two books so far this week (both on running: “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein and “14 Minutes” by Alberto Salazar) and when I took the two he rejected (“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher and “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford) to school, they were were snapped up by students as soon as I put them on the shelf. My victory was short-lived, however, as later that day, my students deemed the day’s assigned reading “boring” and “stupid,” thus proving the point about the power of choice, and reminding me that when it comes to teaching and parenting, progress is always two steps forward, one step back.

A full listing of the Dartmouth Bookstore’s “Adult Picks for Teens” is available here.

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