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How To Get Teens To Read: Making Space for the Joy of Reading

When my kids were born, I was determined to make reading a priority. We bought books of all sorts: nonfiction, fantasy, rhyming books, and poetry. I savored the moments when, as toddlers, they pointed—googly-eyed and drooling—to their favorite illustrations and smiled. They were befriending characters, rejoicing in the recognition of familiar faces.

Losing the Joy for Reading in Middle School

I didn’t need quantitative research to tell me they were learning, growing, thinking. From kindergarten through fourth grade, we read aloud as a family each night. I still have the list of books we completed together: Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, all the books by Roald Dahl and Kate DiCamillo.

But as they headed toward middle school, our reading lives changed.

While my 12-year-old daughter, Maddie, reads regularly, my 14-year-old son, Nathan, only reads if it’s required for school—or, on the rare occasion when I’ve found him a “perfect” book.

As an English teacher, I know some students are everyday readers and others are not. I realize that each of us finds our reading path at different points in our lives. But, because I’m now a reader—I was a sporadic reader as a kid—and I model it consistently, I expected both of my children to follow suit. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Force Doesn’t Work

I found myself fighting (and failing) to help my son become a reader. My own mother hated the television and referred to it as the idiot box. She did her best to encourage reading over viewing. Maybe I could blame Nathan’s disinterest on the idiot box—as all parents know, these now come in every shape and size.

But it was more than that, and I started to realize that my insistence on his reading had become counterproductive. By instituting forced reading times and badgering him to pick up a book, I was essentially making reading—which should be one of life’s great joys—a chore.

I realized I needed to back off and let him rediscover the art of reading for pleasure. But how?

Appeal to Their Interests

My son is a sports addict, so I tried a subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids—but each issue was given a cursory glance and set aside. Recently, as I was reading an article online about our hometown team’s chances of being selected in the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, I forwarded it to him. To my surprise, he read it in its entirety, and we had a long talk about why he disagreed with the author’s analysis. Later that week, he emailed me a link to another article with a different perspective on the same topic. Since then, we’ve been sharing articles with one another.

He wasn’t reading novels, but he was reading.

Excited about this new discovery, I looked through my own collection and found For the Love of the Game by Michael Jordan. I resisted shoving it into Nathan’s hands, telling him he’d love it. Instead, I left it on his nightstand with a note: This guy was my favorite athlete when I was your age.

The next night, as I was headed to bed, I noticed that his light was still on.

“Dad, this book is awesome,” he called to me. “Read this page.”

A door had been opened. I took advantage and have been leaving other sports-related nonfiction titles on his nightstand; some he abandons, some he reads. And that’s okay. He’s reading more often now—maybe not what, or as much as, I’d like—but that’s my problem, not his.

I’d like him to rediscover the joy of reading, but I now realize I can’t force it. That joy was there when he was a toddler, when he was smiling with Goodnight Moon and giggling with Frog and Toad. During those years, there was no pressure from me; I did not take away his toys and replace them with books. I simply put the books by his side, on the floor next to his bulldozers and matchbox cars, and sometimes, he chose a book over a toy.

So, now, as he ventures through his teenage years, I will not take away his devices, schedule reading time, or badger him to pick up a book; rather, I will give him plenty of invitations. Some of these may be handwritten, others might be verbal, but many will be unspoken. I’ll leave it to the stories—the magic inside the pages—to do the convincing.

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, Your Teen for Parents, and is a regular columnist for State College Magazine. His book is titled The Power of Teaching Vulnerably: How Risk-Taking Transforms Student Engagement.

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