Stop trying to make your kids read

Stop trying to make your kids read… Really.

Many practices in place in school today may lead to short term results for students, but what both the research and common sense tells us is that our schools are producing very few adults who love to read.  In Donalyn Miller’s great book “The Book Whisperer” she cites a 2007 AP study that reported that the average adult in the U.S. read 4 books in a year.  25% of those adults read no books at all.  While those statistics weren’t necessarily  shocking to me, what was shocking was that when teachers were surveyed, the reported levels of reading and enthusiasm for reading were no higher than for the general population.  She cites a 2004 study that surveyed college students studying to be teachers and found that a majority (54%) admitted that they were not enthusiastic about reading.  Let that sink in for a moment.  A majority of those future teachers, who are likely teaching many of our kids now, are not enthusiastic about reading.  If those are the role models in our classrooms, is it any wonder our kids aren’t falling in love with reading?

As we seek to improve reading scores in our testing heavy school environment, we must not forget that students’ enjoyment of reading matters as well.  As another of my reading heroes, Maria Walther challenges in her book, “Month by Month Reading Instruction for the differentiated classroom K-2” “What is the point of teaching a child to read if they will never pick up a book again?”  When I first read that quote, it was a two by four that hit me right between the eyes and has stuck with me.  We need to look carefully at the practices in our schools and the messages they are giving to our kids.  If you were to check the mission statement of almost any school, it would include something about making kids “life long learners.”  As we throw that term around again and again until it has almost no meaning, do we really think about what it means?  What practices will lead to students wanting to learn or read outside of school?  What will our kids do if they have a choice?  If a student will pick up a book when there is no pizza to be earned, book report to write, points or grades to earn, or log to fill out, we will know we have done our job.

What practices inspire long term love of reading?  Which ones focus on control, compliance, and short term results ultimately sending the message that reading is an activity that is inherently not enjoyable?

Here is my quick brainstorm (with much credit to Donalyn and The Book Whisperer, which confirmed and encouraged many of my own beliefs about good reading instruction)

Inspiring readers:

1. Be a reader yourself

We simply can’t give to students what we do not possess.  As you finish a book, talk to students about it.  It will quickly become the most popular book in your classroom library.  We need to be experts on the latest and greatest in literature for our students.  I have started as a 4th/5th principal with many of the books on the Newberry list and on the Bluestem list (3rd-5th reader’s choice award in IL).  My favorites get posted on a bulletin board outside the office and I try to engage students about what they are reading as often as possible.

2. Match students with books/give them choice

I don’t know of a more powerful strategy for guiding readers than putting the right book in their hands.  Imagine if all the money spent on student workbooks tomorrow was applied towards building classroom libraries with the latest and greatest in children’s literature.   We need to shower our kids with great books. Most students who struggle simply don’t know how to find books they find interesting and readable.  As educators and parents, we must actively seek to put the best books into their hands.  No one will like reading if they have a book that they find to be boring or too difficult.  In Maria’s book, she calls it, “Have I got a book for you!”  She writes a personalized note to a student about why she thinks they will like a book and then places it on their desk.

3. Give students time

If we look closely at what we do during language arts classes, how much time is spent actively engaged in reading?  Much of what we do is focused on building background knowledge or doing extension activities that have little to do with growing as a reader.  It is easier said than done, but we don’t need a research article to know that the more time kids spend reading, the better they will become at it. Our actions speak louder than our words.  If we don’t devote any time to it, we can’t say it is a priority.

Controlling readers/Short term results:

1. Book logs

If we require nightly reading and hold students accountable via a parent signature, kids will read right?  Maybe.  Does it inspire kids to read?  I doubt it.  Is is a reliable indicator of whether students are reading?  I doubt that too.  It is most likely a gauge of who can get their parents to sign something and bring it back to school.

2. Accelerated Reader (A.R.)

Although the main supposed benefit is ease of use and convenience for teachers, I would argue that A.R. is also not a good indicator of what students are reading or their comprehension.  Have you looked over a kid’s shoulder lately when the take one of those tests?  I have.  It will ask kids for inconsequential details of a story that a good reader would filter out.  In addition, it restricts kids’ reading choices to those books that have tests or are at their specific level while putting kids’ focus on accumulating points rather than enjoying reading.  It also funnels precious funds away from getting good reading materials to another company more interested in making a profit than benefiting kids.

3. Reading rewards and incentives

Although I appreciate those companies who provide incentives for students to read in the spirit that they are offered, I worry about the underlying message that those rewards send.  Whether it be a free pizza, amusement park tickets, etc, we may be sending the message that reading isn’t fun or enjoyable in and of itself.  A teacher in my building was approached at the beginning of the year by a 4th grader who basically wanted to know how he was going to be paid to read this year…  How did we get there with that kid?  How likely do you think he is to read once he is no longer being “paid?”

Q: But Joey, how will we know if our kids are reading without a program like A.R. or keeping a reading log?

A: How does a basketball coach know which kids spend hours at home practicing dribbling and shooting?  They can see the result on the court.  A teacher worth their salt knows if their kids read.  They don’t need an expensive computer program or signed log to know which kids are readers.  They talk to their kids about what they are reading.  They see how they are progressing in their skills as a reader.

I was blessed to be raised by two readers.  I can remember many Saturday mornings going with my mom to our local library where she and I checked out books and I spent some time reading.  At the time, she was mostly reading crime and mystery.  The first books I can remember really loving were the “choose your own adventure” books (they totally need a comeback).  I then got into fantasy reading the Lord of the Rings series and everything I could get by Terry Brooks.  My Dad spent a lot of time reading Louis L’Amour or anything else set in the old west.  We were a family of readers.

How can we create a family of readers at school or in our home that will inspire kids to be readers when all the carrots and sticks are taken away?  How are you inspiring kids to love reading in your classroom or home?  As always, please share a great idea with me!


45 thoughts on “Stop trying to make your kids read

  1. Pingback: Stop trying to make your kids read | Principal Joey | Learning Curve

  2. @JustinAion

    I COMPLETELY sympathize with this. I am a prolific reader, but school almost killed it for me. I wanted to read thousands of books, just not the ones I was REQUIRED to read. I didn’t care about the stories, the discussions, the authors or the meanings. I want my books to be entertaining and fun, to take me to places beyond my life. I don’t want them to help me understand the plight of sub-Saharan people, or colonial slaves, or holocaust victims, or villagers in Vietnam. All of those things are important, but I don’t find them entertaining and I don’t want to read about them.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for the comment Justin. It is a sad statement to think that schools may not only be not inspiring kids to read, but also turning kids off who came to us as passionate readers. We need to change this in our schools!

  3. Beverly Schulz

    I’m a retired children’s librarian. To me AR was the worst thing for kids who loved to read and a chore for the rest. I can’t tell you how many times a kid had a book in hand and their parent or caregiver snatched it away because it wasn’t their level, or not on their school list, or not enough points… For goodness sake, let kid’s read something they like and come back for more. We also gave out reading logs every summer and kids would read tons of little picture books to win a prize for the number of books read. We changed the SLP to amount of time spent reading. 100 minutes per week got their name on the list, and they could read chapter books or picture books as long as they read! They had so much more liberty and loved bringing in their logs!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for sharing that idea! I think incentives and rewards can be a positive part of the culture but I think we need to be cautious in what message they might unintentionally send. I really appreciate your feedback!

    2. JoEllen Shea

      OMG Beverly, a woman after my own heart. I despise AR and I am a teacher as well as a Reading Specialist. AR takes the joy out of reading as well as the notion that a multiple choice ten question quiz based on their level. I don’t utilize AR in my classroom and once I explain my reasoning to parents, they get it. Delve into a book, enjoy, share and discuss, now that’s reading.

  4. Kim Green (@kgreenaz)

    I love the fact that you get this. But not every kid is going to be a reader, unfortunately. And perhaps the formula for those who will love to read is desire + time = a good chance to love to read. My 10yo introvert reads about 2+ hrs/day. Once in a while I send him to his room and the ultimate punishment is that he doesn’t get to take his books with him. He liked to read when I was choosing books for him, but when the librarian set him loose on Percy Jackson, the game was over. He took off. And my 12yo son is right-brained and was slow to reading. Now he reads for an hour or so per day and absolutely loves it.

    I home educate them so they have the time. But I struggled with wanting them to read only historical fiction, science-based fiction and non-fiction and the classics. I refused to let them read “twaddle” like Percy Jackson. We have always had 30 mins of silent sustained reading but now it’s the two hours between when they get up and I get up. I had to stop imposing what I wanted on them. Can you imagine if some one picked your books for you now? Let alone what you can wear and where you have to be every second of the day? Nope, the more freedom I’ve given my three boys, the more they accomplish academically. It’s a balance between what I see as important to learn and what they want to learn about. And as they are growing up they gain more responsibility for their lessons. Nope, being told what to read about isn’t the way to go but since that’s the current practice of socialized education, I’ll just keep going my own way. I hope someone can discover a way to reach more kids because the trend doesn’t look good academically for the US at all.

    Best wishes and jolly good article!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks so much for the kind words and encouragement. It’s always cool to hear from those who are raising readers at home. I have 4 kids and am interested in this topic as much as a parent as an educator. Percy Jackson is definitely on my list to read next!

  5. Pingback: Becoming a Lover of Reading | Random Teacher Thoughts

  6. donnastewart297

    Joey: Couldn’t agree more! When children come to us with their backpack void of wonderful reading experiences, and were not blessed as you or I were by being raised by readers, then we need to duplicate the emotional experience that leads to a love of reading as well. Teachers also need to teach themselves to read aloud well, so that they can transport a child to that place we go when lost in story. We can’t snuggle up with them, but we can certainly encourage them to put their head down on their desk and be transported with us! We are so busy in our classrooms covering what needs to be done, that we have moved away from those long read alouds after lunch (the perfect time). Don’t you think?

    1. Anonymous

      Thanks for your thoughts. So true! We communicate our priorities through the time that we spend. I think our schools would improve so much if we could get away from the thinking that says covering more content equals more learning.

      1. Anonymous

        As a classroom teacher, I read for 15 min after lunch- every day- no matter what. I can’t tell you how much difference that made for my students. If they weren’t reading on their own, at least I could ensure they were experiencing literature every day. I may have been breaking the rules and sacrificing content, but it was certainly worth it!

    2. Andrea Hernandez

      I completely agree with you about reading aloud. In fact, I devote a LOT of time to read aloud with both my 4th and 5th grade classes, and that time is probably having the biggest impact of anything I am doing in my quest to create a true community of readers.
      Some of the reasons I think that read aloud is so powerful in my classroom are:
      •I give the students choice. I keep an ongoing list of recommended middle grade books that I am interested in reading. I choose about 5 of those and have the students privately vote via Google form. This way, each student can choose the one they really want, and no one knows who voted for what. This creates a feeling of ownership and excitement before we even begin reading.
      •I am an avid, lifelong reader. Not only do I read very fluently, but I know where, when and how to stop and teach. I do not pre-plan my read aloud “lessons.” However, I use read-aloud to teach almost everything, from literary devices to vocabulary to reading strategies. I am able to do this because of the confidence I possess from being a real reader.
      •The more we read together, the more shared history we have as a reading community. We naturally make text-to-text connections, and no one is left out.

      A few other notes-
      •I recently read the first book in a series. Several of the kids begged me to read the whole series, but I made it clear that I read aloud to give them a taste of many different books. I then ordered the entire series for our classroom library, and there is now a huge waiting list 🙂
      •I teach both 4th and 5th LA (separately). I read aloud different books to each class. The kids know that I read books that are new to me also, and that I want to enjoy the story with them so I purposely do not pre-read the books or read the same book to each class. I do make a point of telling each class a little about the read aloud I’m currently reading with the other class, which creates a desire to read that one, too. On the last day before break, I finished reading Holes with 4th. I had been telling 5th how good it was. As soon as I finished it, I brought the book to 5th grade and asked who wanted it for the break. It was grabbed up in a second!
      •There are always a few kids who can’t wait to find out what happens and finish the book on their own (or, as in the case of Holes) watch the movie. They are so excited that they know what happens. We have a no-spoilers rule, although sometimes they break it. I sort of love to know that they are so excited that they spend lunch talking about the book!

      I have much more to say on this subject…I think I will write a post about read aloud!

      1. donnastewart297

        Wonderful post, Andrea. So many great ideas. I would say that you have struck on the “emotional experience” that I mentioned. We have to hit that feeling of sharing something wonderful together that many students may not have had the opportunity to experience. I have managed to also pull some parents into our reading community, when I purposely read Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel to a Grade 3/4 class near the end of the school year, made sure they had all been sent home information and forms for the local library and followed up with suggestions to parents to purchase the next in the series for the summer holidays.. and they did!

      2. jsagel Post author

        Thanks so much for your thoughts Andrea. Would love to read that post! Your classroom sounds like the sort of place I’d love to have one of my kids in. I appreciate the kind words and encouragement!

  7. Kelly Kazeck

    Completely agree! I teach pre-k and we make reading seem like it is the coolest most fun thing anyone would want to do! We hold books in high regard in our classroom and set aside time each day for them to choose what they want to read. We also invite “Book Buddies” in our room (4th & 5th graders) who come and read to us, one on one, once a month. We post a picture of the cover of each story we read as a class on our “What we are reading Wall.” We also have created a super fun cozy reading area in our classroom. This month it will be inside a tent! I love the Book Whisperer! We have to find a way to help our students find joy in reading, I agree 100%, it starts with reevaluating how we are teaching reading and carefully reflecting on the messages we are sending with the various practices we use in trying to encourage reading. Great post thank you!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks so much for your kind words! We also got a couple of class sets of mini flashlights and lots of batteries from the generous people at Rayovax for special reading days. Would be great for inside your tents! Your classroom sounds like an awesome place to be!

  8. Chris Wejr

    I think a quote from Deci and Ryan fits well here… “We cannot motivate others. We can only create the conditions for people to motivate themselves.”

    It is up to us to create a love of stories, story-telling and books AND teach the skills needed for reading.

    Great post.

  9. Pingback: Reading with Children | Education in Iowa

  10. Chris

    If we’re pushing expectations on kids that we don’t adhere to ourselves, I’m not sure that the answer is simply to bring ourselves into conformity with the expectations. Maybe we should step back and examine the expectations. Of course we want kids to learn to read well, but it may not be realistic to expect everyone to be a bibliophile. Is the schools’ constant push to get kids to read more really driven by a conviction that reading books is so satisfying and central to life, or is it basically just a disingenuous way to get kids’ reading scores up?

    I would think that any half-way awake kid would be asking, “If reading books is so enjoyable and fulfilling, why do the adults think they have to constantly harangue us to do it?”

    In any event, I agree that modeling is worth more than any cajoling. But when the school is preaching things that it’s not practicing, I think it should really give some thought to why it’s preaching them.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for your comment Chris. I agree with your challenge to be sincere in our intentions. Although I wouldn’t call myself a bibliophile and know it isn’t realistic for all kids to get to that level of enjoyment, I do believe there is a book out there every kind of kid will love and enjoy. As schools, we haven’t done a good job inspiring this in kids and I have been challenged to be a reader myself. If we as the educators were experts on the best and latest in kids literature, it would go a long way to inspiring our students to read. Your point is well taken. The fact that a kid would ask why they need to be paid to do something enjoyable is my point as well. We should stop those rewards and get the right book in that kid’s hands!

  11. donnastewart297

    The right book, is not necessarily a story. Many children far prefer non-fiction, as do many adults. In the past, we have been slow to recognize this, but this has started to change in the last 15 years. I was one of those parents, after having two kids who loved story, could not at first understand why the third one’s eyes glazed over when I read him fiction. Non-fiction, turned out to be a completely different matter. I don’t care what they read, as long as they are reading for information, to learn and to eventually become fully engaged citizens. We find enjoyment in many forms and genres of the printed word, both on paper and on screen. Why wouldn’t kids?

    1. jsagel Post author

      Another great point. One of the biggest changes in my thinking has been the importance of student choice. For that lover of nonfiction, this would fit well. I go in streaks reading professional books, kids fiction, or adult fiction. Kids would love the same freedom.

  12. Meaghan

    I love this article and couldn’t agree more!
    To share a tactic I’ve tried; my first year teaching was in a tiny school, with a class that spanned 6 grades. Not only was I as overwhelmed as any first year teacher, but I really struggled for time and ideas for shared learning experiences rather than just group tutoring-type instruction. Initially to fill a schedule block that needed to be flexible, we started having weekly reading circles where everyone casually sat in a circle and shared what they were reading during their reading time for self-selected books and answered questions from each other (and a few I had on a hidden clipboard). It was a really great way for students to encourage each other, compare different texts and become interested in what other students are doing on top of all the “L.A. L.O.s”. They also held each other accountable as far as pace. They wanted to be able to talk about a new book every week and to finish-up to read what their friend just finished. This time ended up being far more valuable than their assigned reading programs where I tested benchmarks etc. because of the amount of enthusiasm it started. The proof is in which books you find left behind and forgotten about at the end of the day- or worse- hidden in nooks and crannies in the classroom and which books kids ask to borrow from their friends when they’re done reading them!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Cool to hear this work first hand. So many things I would do differently now in my own classroom and it is only my third year as a principal! Thanks for your comment and enthusiasm!

  13. Sarae

    When my older daughter was 4, I sat down with “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” with her and we got maybe 2 minutes into the first lesson before she refused to do any more. I figured that since I was an early and prolific reader, she must be too, right? She also refused to do any more reading for the next 2 years, until the end of her Kindergarten year. Then she would read for her teacher, but not for me at home. I backed off and did not say a word about reading again, but I was quietly sad that she wasn’t interested in reading for pleasure. When she was 10 she discovered Harry Potter and read all 7 books in 6 weeks over the summer. Now she always has her nose in a book and she loves reading. I feel like I dodged a bullet there – I could easily have accidentally turned her off reading forever.
    I left her younger sister completely alone about reading, we read to her every night at bedtime but never asked her to read. She learned to read at 4. Now in first grade, she reads 2-3 grade levels ahead and loves books. So my anecdotal evidence is – leave them alone until they are proficient readers, and then give them good, engaging stories to read.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story. I have 4 kids (9, 7, 4, 2) who are some of the worst sleepers ever and read with me and then before they go to sleep every day. So far, 2 are avid readers. So far, so good. So glad it worked out for you too!

  14. Becky B. Nelson

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m a devotee of Donalyn Miller and her reading philosophy and strategies. We teachers and school librarians can advocate for these principles that we know (and research justifies) are best for our students and for creating life-long readers, but for a principal to summarize these best practices so succinctly gives us a great piece that our principals and Central Office administrators will read and consider. I teach a class on children’s literature to future teachers and will use your blog and have them reflect upon it. I actually have students who admit that they don’t like to read! Really?? Why would one go into education, particularly elementary, with that attitude? My elementary school’s intermediate teachers are using many of Donalyn’s reading strategies this year,
    and I’m starting to see students help others choose titles and share book recommendations!! It works!!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thank you! It is so encouraging that you would find enough value in what I wrote to share it with your classes. You really made my day!

  15. mgraybosch

    As a novelist, it infuriates me that American public schools seem hellbent on ruining reading for as many kids as possible. Every kid that gets turned off reading because of their experiences in school is a kid who probably won’t buy my books when they’re adults.

    That said, Principal Joey, I’d like to thank you for this post. While it looks like you’re swimming against a tide represented by the Common Core standards and an ever-increasing appetite for control over student outcomes, small acts of resistance likes yours add up.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I think we need to continue to have this conversation about how we can close the gap between what we know (through common sense and the research) and what we do most days in our classrooms. All the best to you!

      1. mgraybosch

        I think we do as well, Principal Joey, but I often suspect that the system is working as designed. I don’t like to think that John Taylor Gatto is right. I’d rather think he’s just being paranoid, but his explanation for why American schools work the way they do is too plausible to dismiss out of hand.

  16. Pingback: How to help your kids learn to love reading | Between The Gates

  17. Brittany

    You make some great points, children have to develop a love for reading on their own. Children should not be limited on what they can read but they should be encouraged to read about things that interest them.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment. As I think more and more, giving students a choice whether it be reading or something else is a key to differentiated instruction and student motivation.

  18. Pingback: Interesting Reads for Parents | To learn, to teach, to live--my life's lessons

  19. thecraftyangel

    I am an avid reader, my husband enjoys it (but doesn’t always have time). Our daughter loves reading (thank you summer American Girl reading program at our library when she was younger!). Though as a Neuroscience major in college she doesn’t have as much time to read (but she just grabbed a copy of Macbeth off our shelves so I’m secretly busting buttons).

    My son, 12, is a whole nother matter. We both DESPISE A.R. and hopefully next year’s IEP will give him alternatives. He’s dyslexic (and has other challenges as well as being highly gifted). When he begged to read Harry Potter and then ROARED thru them like a wildfire, we were ecstatic. But….he’s stuck again.

    We had asked his grandparents for an EREADER (emphasis on what we truly asked for and wanted). Some studies suggested they may help kids with dyslexia since they can make notes in an e-book, change text size, have smaller chunks, etc.

    They got him one of the biggest and best tablets. Yes he can read books on it but it’s more of a toy that distracts him from reading *facepalm*

    So I get lots of emails for free/reduced books. Some of them are nonfiction and if I think he’ll like them, I mention it. He loves his Reptile magazine. He loved reading the “original” Star Wars trilogy. I love all types of genres (I’m 44 and love YA books). So my thoughts are–if it interests him–even if it’s “not on reading level” (PLEASE….the boy tests beyond college). He adores the Wimpy Kid series and the Origami Yoda series.He’s ready to start the Hunger Games and Divergent (don’t even get me started about the school-wide “Divergent” campaign that you know is pushed by the publisher–nothing against the book but since they tied it in with the movie premiere……yeah.)

    With today’s passing of Maya Angelou, my only requirement of him this summer is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I hope it will reach him the way it did me. I’ll stock up his “toy” with as many free classics as I can. He loves animals so we’re trying that route right now.

    GREAT article, thank you so so so much!!!!

  20. Hadley Webb

    Wow! I most certainly agree with this post. After reading this I thought back to my school years and how reading, even then, was nothing but a way to eat lunch in the class room or to get a toy in the treasure chest. As a result, I rarely read after graduating. It took me until my junior year of college to begin picking up books and reading them for the fun of it. I think that if I had be introduced to reading in the way that principle Joey recommends then reading wouldve been interesting to me at a much earlier age.

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks a lot for commenting and I’m glad it resonated with you. It’s definitely hard changing the culture around schools, but whenever I hear a comment like yours, it reminds me how important it is to continue down this road.


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