What Really Gets Kids Reading?

Children are increasingly setting aside books to spend time with tablets and cell phones. Still, fanfare over the Hunger Games and the Divergent series as well as the continued popularity of the Harry Potter franchise suggests that many kids remain eager readers. Research backs this up.

Elementary school children have made gains in reading proficiency in recent years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yet, average reading scores on the SAT have been gradually declining for the past decade. Some argue that this is caused by an increase in students taking the SAT, but national assessments also show a decline in reading proficiency for high school students. Early gains are not being carried through high school.

Scholastic conducts an annual survey of families to determine what gets kids to start reading and stick with it, and the company recently released its 2014 Kids and Family Reading Report. Their data suggest how families and teachers can improve reading proficiency in children and foster a love of books that lasts into adulthood.

Image via Flickr by Tom Pierce


Reading Decreases as Internet Use Grows

The survey found that the percentage of children ages 6 to 8 who read books for fun most days of the week had remained about the same between 2010 and 2014. The percentage had declined a few points for pre-teens, and for kids ages 15 to 17, only 14 percent reported frequently reading for fun, versus 24 percent in 2010.

Not surprisingly, older children were much more likely to report that they spent time texting their friends or going online, with 70 percent of the teen group saying that they frequently used a cell phone and 53 percent saying that they frequently used social media sites. Any adult who has set aside a book to check email and somehow ended up on Facebook can understand that.

Teachers Can Provide Vital Intervention

The survey offered plenty of ideas about how teachers could encourage reading. At every age, most children said that their favorite books were those that they had chosen themselves. And 73 percent of children said that they would read more if they could find more books that they liked. Parents of infrequent readers were the most likely to say that they had a hard time finding books for their child. This suggests that a teacher could provide the bridge to reading by helping a child find books of interest.

Children were more likely to view reading positively when they had time to read a book of their choice at school, according to the Scholastic survey. Among children who were frequent readers, 78 percent said they had a chance to do free reading at school, versus only 24 percent of infrequent readers.

The opportunity for free reading declined for children as they grew older. Among children ages 6 to 8, 50 percent said that they had time at school to read a book of their choice. Yet, among children ages 12 to 14, the number declined to 25 percent, and among those ages 15 to 17, only 14 percent said they had free reading time at school. So, as children grow older and spend more time with digital devices at home, they are also getting less free reading time at school.

Parents Foster Reading Success

Parents play a primary role in getting children to love reading. Some of the biggest predictors of a child becoming a frequent reader were:

  • The child believed that reading for fun was important.
  • The parents were frequent readers themselves.
  • The parents read books aloud to the child both before and after the child entered kindergarten.

For teens, some additional predictors of frequent reading were:

  • The parents had at least 150 books in the home.
  • The parents helped the child find books.
  • The child read ebooks.

That interest in reading had a big effect on the numbers of books that children reported reading, especially as they reached the teen years. For children ages 6 to 11, frequent readers went through an average of 43 books per year versus 21 books for infrequent readers. For children ages 12 to 17, frequent readers went through an average of 39 books per year versus about 5 books for infrequent readers.

eReading Offers Answers to Some Challenges

Though devices currently seem to be pulling teens away from books, they have the potential to make reading more accessible to students. Two high schools in Illinois have provided tablets to every student, and now those students can check out books from the digital school library 24 hours a day, according to an article in The Digital Shift. This could benefit both students who have few books at home and those who have a hard time selecting books. Students like that they can choose multiple books without adding extra weight to their backpacks.

Some librarians have found that reluctant readers are more willing to read a book on a tablet, according to The Digital Shift article. A thick book that might intimidate them becomes appealing on a screen. Also, remedial readers avoid embarrassment because other students can’t see what they are reading.

5 Tips on Using eBooks to Engage Students

  1. OverDrive allows any student with a library card to borrow e-books from the local library. It also offers book recommendations based on the user’s interest in other books and television shows, which could provide a great way to help reluctant readers find books they’ll be intrinsically motivated to consume.
  2. It can be a challenge to find engaging nonfiction for young students. How about having them read an e-magazine? National Geographic’s Young Explorer even comes with a teacher’s guide.
  3. The Library of Congress offers a wealth of primary source materials that can be downloaded onto iPads. Supplement the reading of ebooks with related historical photos, maps, and documents.
  4. For students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Bookshare offers hundreds of thousands of books with accessibility options. Students can listen to a book while reading it or have words highlighted as they read.
  5. With Amazon’s Whispercast, teachers and librarians can manage the reading files of all of their students. You can send books to a specific group, making differentiation doable. It works on the Kindle reader and any tablet that has the Kindle app.

In Short

While teachers can’t control a child’s home life or screen time, we now know that the classroom offers a great place to overcome barriers to reading. Giving children access to interesting books and the time to read those books goes a long way toward changing habits outside the class.


  1. Lesley Grove

    March 8, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    I never knew there were so many ways technology could be used to motivate students to read!

  2. Steve

    March 10, 2015 at 1:01 am

    It’s great that we can manipulate the internet more, OverDrive is a great iniative. I recently read this article:


    An inspirational story of the impact of parents on their child’s life through reading!