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How To Get Your Kids To Read This Summer

LA Johnson

You sneak them into backpacks and let them commingle with the video games (hoping some of the latter's appeal will rub off). You lay them around the kids' beds like stepping stones through the Slough of Despond and, for good measure, Vitamix them to an imperceptible pulp for the occasional smoothie.

Books are everywhere in your house, and yet ... they're not being consumed. Because it's summer, and kids have so many other things they'd rather do.

As the parent of a 4- and 7-year-old, I've been thinking a lot about the summer slide, and a timely story from The New York Times reminded me of just how delicate a balance it is, encouraging your kids to read during these wildly distracting months — enticing them at every opportunity — without jumping the shark.

I explored this balance last year, in a lively chat with Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book, Raising Kids Who Read. Now seemed like a good time to call him up again and pick up where we left off. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

I want to start by talking about incentives parents can use to encourage their kids to read. You argue that paying kids to read is not a great idea. Why?

Some people say, "This should be off the table," or "This is terrible." I wouldn't go that far, just because I'm always a little uncomfortable pretending that psychologists have the absolute answer to anything. My recommendation is, maybe don't try it first.

Money has the potential to change a child's attribution about why he would read and why he has read in the past. When you offer kids rewards, there's the potential for them to think, "The reason I read is because I'm offered a reward." Therefore, what's going to happen when you eventually stop the reward? The child is going to figure, "There's not really any point to reading. I wasn't reading because I liked it. I was only reading to access the reward."

So, you don't recommend using money as an incentive, but what if nothing else works?

Think about the situation where rewards really make sense — when you think your child would like reading more than they realize but they're just not really giving it a chance. You want the child to conclude, "Dad is a sucker because he offered me rewards for these books, and that's why I started. But, actually, the book is awesome. So Dad is a sucker to think he has to offer me a reward to read it." That's your fondest hope.

The truth is, if you're talking about a tween or older, they probably have a pretty firm attitude about reading and a pretty firm self-concept regarding reading. And so the odds that you're going to change it by getting them to read a few books is pretty remote.

What if we set aside talk of money and offer, say, screen time or some other incentive in exchange for time spent reading?

I think it's the same effect as money, and, again, you would expect the same thing. What you've communicated is, "I recognize that reading is not something that you would choose to do. So I'm withholding something I know you like in order for you to gain access to it." You are, in a way, inviting the child to game the system if she can — by choosing books that aren't what you had in mind.

She asks, "Can I do magazines?" And the next thing you know, she's reading a magazine that looks like a catalog. Then you end up in one of these horrible debates we get in with our children about what counts for reading.

Comics and graphic novels are a gateway drug for many young readers. Do you worry that this sort of reading raises expectations in kids that great books have to have a lot of pictures?

No, I don't worry about that at all. Though that lack of worry is not data-based. Because graphics novels have only become super-common in the last five or 10 years. I think, in general, I'm a big fan of graphic novels if they can be a gateway drug — just to reach kids who think that print is not worth their time. Here is something that is print that they think is worth their time. I think getting to other reading material will come. I'd be fine even if graphic novels were the mainstay of my child's reading diet.

I struggle with this sometimes. My son loves reading Captain Underpants because his 7-year-old brain enjoys the fart jokes and the snarky kid heroes. Is the fact that he's reading more important than what he's reading?

I would encourage parents to bear in mind that what their kids are getting from Captain Underpants is probably not a great sense of narrative in the western tradition. But what they are getting is a great sense of themselves as readers.

I've got girls, and the equivalent in our household are these fairy stories. They crank them out by the dozens. There have got to be hundreds of these little books, and every one of them is exactly the same. It's like, there's a fairy, and then there's some sort of icicle monster, and goblins — I mean, it's the same story over and over and over again. And my youngest absolutely adores them.

What I feel she's getting from this is that she will read these things, and she will spend lots and lots of time reading.

It's about self-concept ...

Exactly, which I think is such an important part of motivation. Attitudes are not enough. You have to see yourself as a reader. You can have an attitude that reading is a good thing to do and that reading makes you smart. And that's the thing, I think most kids know that. But they don't read.

It's the same as someone who knows broccoli is really healthy, but sorry, I just don't like it. Another example is: I have a really good attitude towards exercise. I never do it, but my attitude towards exercise is wonderful! And so talking about kids' reading attitudes is important, but it's only part of the picture. I think self-concept really matters. You have to see yourself as a reader.

You told me last year that "You have to make reading the most appealing thing a child can do. It's not enough that the child like reading. If they like reading but there's something else available that they like more, they're going to choose that." But how, during the summer months, do you make reading the most appealing thing?

My recommendation is, if you really want your child to choose reading, there are two strategies you can use. One is, you can look at environments that are already impoverished environments, where there's not much to do, and put books there — like the car, like the bathroom. My wife's a teacher, and she tells parents all the time: Put books in your child's bathroom. And it's amazing how much kids will read when there are books in the bathroom.

The other thing you can do — and I hate to put it this way — is impoverish the environment your child is in. And that means restricting other things they can do. It's not really coercing reading. Restricting screen time is an obvious version of that.

The other thing I recommend, when you're talking about little kids, is when they give up their nap, it's very smart to institute quiet time. So it's like, "No, you don't have to sleep. You're too old for a nap. But you're gonna go in your room and have a half-hour of quiet time."

And that's a time when a child who is too young to read could well be looking at picture books. And I know families where quiet time goes through grade school.

Getting back to the summer, another way you could implement this strategy — and you really need to do this at the beginning of the summer — is to say, "Okay, here's the summer. This is great. You're out of school. But the weekdays are not gonna be a free-for-all. There's still gonna be some structure." We've done this in our house at various times.

So you think about the categories of things you'd like to happen. Maybe one of the categories is contributing to the house — basically, household chores. Or, once a week we're going to have some kind of an adventure. We're going to go in the car and we're all gonna go someplace we've never been before.

And then one of those categories you're thinking about could easily be fulfilled by reading. So, in the middle of the afternoon, when it's hot, if we're not at the pool, that's when we're gonna do some sort of quiet, indoor activity — maybe it's reading, maybe it's games. This is a way of doing a soft restriction of children's activity as a way of encouraging reading.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.