Today, a shocking 54% of U.S. adults read below a 6th-grade level. According to the National Literacy Trust, only 25.7% of children and young people surveyed said they read every day, and a study conducted by Scholastic found that only 51% of children enjoy reading for fun. Leisure reading among adults is also at an all-time low. What happened? And, more importantly, what can we as teachers do when kids aren’t reading?
There’s no single explanation for these troubling statistics. Several factors are likely to blame, including computer-based reading programs and reading logs. In addition, extra-curricular activities, enrichment programs, and screen time keep many families so busy and preoccupied that many kids (and adults) never get the chance to discover the simple joy of passing a quiet evening with a good book.
As teachers, encouraging a love of reading should be a top priority, because not only does leisure reading increase literacy, but it sets students up for a lifetime of success and pleasure. The benefits of reading are numerous and extend from infancy into adulthood and even to society at large.
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Why kids should be reading
1. Reading increases a child’s vocabulary.
According to a 2019 study, children who are not read to in their first five years have a vocabulary deficit of up to a million words. While teachers might be powerless to control what happens at home, reading to and with children is an important step in bridging the word gap. Not only that, but by promoting a love of reading among middle and high school students and educating them about the value of literature, we are encouraging the next generation of parents to read to their kids.
2. Reading develops the imagination.
Unlike television, movies, and video games, which do the work of creating a fictional world for us, reading enables us to use our imaginations to visualize characters and settings.
3. Reading increases logical thinking skills.
It helps children and teens grasp abstract concepts. Reading helps young people understand things like cause and effect, which leads to better decision-making. It also improves overall academic success—even in math.
4. Reading opens the lines of communication between teenagers and the adults who care for them.
With more than 1 in 20 children and teens suffering from anxiety and depression (and that was before the pandemic!), anything teachers can do to help kids express their feelings is important.
5. Reading is directly linked to a student’s future financial and physical health.
In 2020, the Barbara Bush Foundation conducted a study examining the impact of adult literacy on the economy. British A. Robinson director and CEO of the foundation said of their findings, “[literacy] lies at the core of multigenerational cycles of poverty, poor health, and low educational attainment…” In other words, literate adults are more likely to earn a higher salary and be healthy–regardless of their socioeconomic background.
6. Reading improves the economy.
According to the same study by the Barbara Bush Foundation, low adult literacy rates could be costing the U.S. economy up to 2.2 trillion dollars a year (10% of the GDP.)
7. Reading fiction helps children and teens develop a higher EQ.
EQ takes into account things like empathy and the ability to recognize other people’s perspectives. These types of skills make kids better students, better future employees, and better people.
So, what can we do? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that will guarantee all students will become life-long readers, but there are some things teachers can do to promote a positive attitude toward this all-important habit.
How to get kids into reading
1. Create a culture of reading in your classroom.
More than just setting aside time for independent reading, a culture of reading means creating an environment where students see themselves as readers. It also means allowing students to discuss and share what they are reading with classmates in a casual, non-threatening way. The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller is an excellent resource for creating this type of environment.
2. Model reading.
In a culture-of-reading classroom, students see their teacher as a fellow reader. In these classes, teachers read when their students read and share their own thoughts about what they are reading–what they like, dislike, and the challenges they face.
3. Host book clubs.
There are many methods for creating book clubs in the classroom, and each teacher has to figure out what works best for her students. It can be helpful, however, to keep in mind what inspires adults to form and attend book clubs–great books, camaraderie, community, fun, and snacks are probably better incentives than activities, assessments, or extrinsic rewards.
4. Encourage kids to read what they like.
This is particularly important for low-level and reluctant readers. Forget about reading levels or genre requirements–not permanently but as you get started. Let kids fall in love (or at least in like) with books before challenging them further. Helping students find the right book can be a process of trial and error, but it is worth the headache.
5. Don’t be afraid to challenge them.
Part of helping kids discover what they like to read is challenging them to try new genres–including the classics. The reality is that some books take discipline to read, and that’s okay. Most kids today won’t be drawn to classic literature. But once they push through the antiquated language and the lack of robot overlords, many will not only find they enjoy the great works, they will also gain a sense of pride and accomplishment from having read them. It’s important to introduce young readers to classic literature because if they don’t learn to read and appreciate the classics in school, it’s likely they never will.
6. Teach them that it’s okay not to love every book they read.
True, the goal is to get kids to love reading, but there are some books that we don’t love reading but love having read. Teach them the value of (sometimes) pushing through a tough or even boring read. That is an important part of being a mature and informed reader and citizen.
7. Create a social media space where students can share book recommendations.
Book lovers know that one of the best things about reading a good book is sharing that book with others. Allowing kids to share on a well-moderated social media platform is a fun way to promote book discussions in and out of the classroom.
8. Don’t be afraid to let reading just be reading.
In our assessment-oriented, data-driven culture, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that unless student success can be measured, nothing is happening. But that mindset can be detrimental to reading for pleasure. It really is okay to just let them read.
9. Read to them.
Kids love to be read to–even big kids. Not only does reading out loud model voice and expression, it models a love of good books. Perhaps most important, being read to gives kids some much-needed and pleasant downtime during the hectic school day, and they come to see reading as a healthy way to relax and decompress.
10. Create inviting reading spaces.
A delightful reading corner is a wonderful way to encourage students to enjoy a good book, and it makes reading time a treat.
It’s tragic when students who graduate from high school (able to write an annotated bibliography, balance complex equations, and explain the three branches of government) become adults who never again pick up a book. Helping kids develop a life-long love of reading is often a challenge. It is also one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a lifetime of knowledge, wisdom, and pleasure.