How to Get Students to Read for Fun

A young person looks at a bookshelf full of books
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Daniel T. Willingham ends every email he sends with two lines describing both what he is currently reading and his thoughts on the book he last read. 

These brief details are part of his signature and one of many ways the psychology professor at the University of Virginia, and author of Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, promotes leisure reading to his students and others. 

Encouraging leisure reading by students, both over the summer and all year-round, is something Willingham and other literacy experts are passionate about. 

Differentiate Between Leisure Reading and Reading For School 

Kids tend to like reading early on in their school lives but sometimes start disliking it around the time they get to middle school. This might be because they grow to associate reading entirely with school and assignments. “Make sure that your child understands the difference between leisure reading and academic reading,” Willingham says. “This is something I think gets complicated in kids’ heads.” 

The reading kids do in early elementary school naturally follows good leisure reading practices. “No one really cares what the content is. If you don't like a book, the teacher’s fine with it if you just drop it,” Willingham says. “As kids move through school, choice goes out the window, and they're told what they're supposed to read, and they start being asked to do more and more challenging things with texts.” 

Reminding them that reading can and should be fun can help them build lifelong reading habits. 

Let Kids Read What They Like  

“Kids don't like to be told what to do,” says Melissa Jacobs, director of The New York City Department of Education School Library System. “They like to have choice in what their activity is. And so forcing a list of titles on them and saying, ‘You must read this, by this date,’ I think, is going to have the exact opposite effect on our kids that we want.” 

Instead of being told what to read over the summer, kids should be able to explore and decide for themselves about content and whether they want to read graphic novels, comics, magazines, or books. The key is providing exposure to reading materials that engage their individual identities. 

Parents and teachers may have to fight their instincts to try and steer their children’s readings, says Virginia Clinton-Lisell, a professor in educational psychology at the University of North Dakota who specializes in language and reading comprehension. “My older daughter loves graphic novels,” she says. “This is my area of expertise and I know that reading is reading and graphic novels are actually much more complex and rich than people give them a credit for, but there's still a part of me that's like, ‘But she shouldn't be reading books with pictures at this age.’” 

In addition to letting kids choose what they read, it’s also good to remind them that it is okay to stop reading something they don’t enjoy, Willingham says.

You Don’t Need Huge Blocks of Time to Read and Reading Begets Reading

A common mistake kids make is thinking that they need a long swath of time to read. “They’ll be told, ‘You should read 30 minutes a night,’” Willingham says. “And you can see why they would think that means 30 consecutive minutes. But people who read a lot read in little bits of found time, such as when they're online waiting at a bank or something.”

Finding those little pockets for reading opportunities seems to be habit-forming. This is part of the Matthew Effect in reading, which is based upon a bible quote talking about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. “The more you read, the better you read, the better you read, the more you read. So you see a compounding effect,” says Clinton-Lisell. Research has also found correlations between households with lots of books on shelves and children’s interest in reading, but only when parents also regularly read these books.

Let Students Read Ebooks 

In addition to choosing what they read, kids should be able to choose to read via the medium that works for them – whether that’s print, ebooks, or even listening to audiobooks. Willingham advises parents to encourage kids to download Kindle or another reading app on their phone. “Over 90 percent of middle school, and high school kids have phones now. So why shouldn't you have a book with you all the time,” Willingham says. 

Clinton-Lisell’s research has found readers were more efficient when reading from printed materials. However, she still advocates for children reading via the method they prefer. “Despite my own research showing a benefit of paper, I honestly think that it's more important to read a lot, whether that’s paper or screens,” she says. “Go with what works for you.” 

In New York City, Jacobs has seen interest in ebooks and audiobooks increase over the past two years among students, so making these formats available to all students can help build inclusivity and equity around reading access. 

Audiobooks Count, Too 

The same principles for instilling a love of reading hold true for audiobooks, which Willingham says are “a great way for parents to try and get an on-ramp onto reading for a child who hasn't been interested in reading.” 

Clinton-Lisell recently conducted a large analysis that found comprehension was similar when people listen to a book versus if they read one. “Those kids who struggle with the decoding or are finding it frustrating are maybe kids who have a hard time just sitting still and reading,” she says. “Playing an audiobook is a great option. Play audiobooks when you're driving, or maybe have an audiobook playing while your child is doing Legos or whatever else.” 

Listening to audiobooks or listening along with text may also help readers who are second language learners. In general, listening to an audiobook offers many of the same benefits as traditional reading and promotes comprehension skills and vocabulary. 

Help Students Eliminate Digital Distractions 

A potential drawback of screen reading is the possibility of a child, or any reader, being distracted by non-book activities on their device, from texts to social media. And, unfortunately for many, reading still isn’t as enticing as digital pursuits. “Leisure reading is watermelon and pretty much any screen-based entertainment is a chocolate bar, even among kids who really like reading,” Willingham says. 

One way Willingham says parents might overcome this is by asking children to think about whether they actually enjoy checking social media as frequently as they do. “This is a distinction between wanting something and enjoying something,” Willingham says. “I think a lot of times we want to get on social media, but then once we're on social media, we don't enjoy it that much.” 

By helping kids recognize this, it could encourage them to use their phone to read more. 

Make Sure Every Kid Has a Library Card 

Providing all children with choice in the type of reading they explore and the way they consume it is vital, and libraries play a key role in providing this access. “Reach out to the school library and reach out to your public librarian before summer kicks off,” Jacobs says. “Make sure that students leave school with a library card because that library card really can open up the doors – whether physical doors or virtual doors – to a wealth of literature.” 

She adds, “It doesn't matter what type of community you live in. There are public libraries all over the world, and they're there for community and they're there for learning. And it really is equity and access that turns kids into readers.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.