How to transform your teenager from a reluctant reader to avid bookworm in five steps

Is there anything a parent can do?

There is plenty, according to Margaret Merga from Curtin University, but it is important to understand why children turn away from reading for fun in the first place.

It is a phenomenon Dr Merga called “expired expectation”.

“When I spoke to teenagers they often spoke about a point where they acquired the skill to read independently and there was a withdrawal of expectation that they would continue to do that for pleasure or for fun beyond that,” she said.

It was something both parents and teachers did.

“If we really want out teenagers to continue to read, we really need to be careful not to transmit the idea to them that once they know how to read it’s not something they need to do anymore,” she said.

According to Dr Merga, there are five steps parents can take to encourage their teenagers to read:

Unidentified child reading in a library
PHOTO: Dr Merga says making time and space for kids to read for pleasure is important. (Flickr: Enokson)

Step 1: Keep reading aloud to your kids

At the same time that parents and teachers withdrew their expectation, parents tended to stop reading aloud, Dr Merga discovered in recent research.

“Interestingly, in talking to a lot of children and teenagers, reading aloud at home with mum and dad often ended a lot sooner than they wanted it to and it was something that they missed,” she said.

“They missed it from that social perspective — that shared, one-on-one time — that enjoying of a book together.

“And they also missed it on a skill level perspective.”

So keep reading to your child until they tell you to stop.

Step 2: Choose books they like

Find ways to connect their reading to what they do in other leisure pursuits.

“You can get an idea of what genres might appeal to your young people by looking at what they value in their lives,” Dr Merga said.

Books by author Meg Cabot on a library shelf.
PHOTO: Meg Cabot has appealed to many teen readers. (ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)

For example, if a young person is into playing fantasy games on their electronic device, then suggest they read the Deltora Quest which follows a fantasy story line.

Like adults, however, children’s tastes would change as they get older, she said.

“A lot of us have attitudes to reading that change over time, so it’s a matter of keeping abreast of what our young people like to read,” she said.

Step 3: Limit access to electronics

In research published late last year, Dr Merga looked at whether or not electronic devices that young people had influenced their reading frequency.

“We actually found the more devices young people had in their possession and had regular access to, the less likely they were to be reading books for pleasure.”

Even e-books.

While there are some people who preferred to read an e-book because they could get quicker and easier access to books, most young people preferred print books when reading for pleasure because they liked the tactile variations, Dr Merga said.

And there are fewer distractions.

“Some of the children we interviewed talked about the distraction, saying how easy it was going from reading an e-book on an iPad, you’re still getting notifications while you’re reading, so having your Pavlovian responses to those,” she said.

“A lot of adults can relate to that as well.”

Step 4: Make time and space to read

If you want your teenager to read, give them time and space to do so.

Video still: Close up of fingers holding a reading book Aug 2012 Generic
PHOTO: Think about what interests your teenager and help steer them towards books that reflect this. (ABC News)

We often under-estimated their commitments — school work, extra-curricular activities, work and a social life — and they did not always have time to read for pleasure, Dr Merga said.

“I think as parents, it’s important that we encourage them to apportion some time to reading, that we make them aware that the literacy benefits are really strong and will give them an advantage,” she said.

“Give them access to the books they like and ensure they’re in the home.

“Give them space to read.”

Step 5: Be a role model

Make sure your children see you reading.

Often we waited until the kids had gone to bed and then we read for pleasure, Dr Merga said, but make sure you read when they can see you.

“One child I spoke to in upper primary said their dad expected them to read but they never saw him do it,” she said.

“I think we need to avoid seeming hypocritical if we want our children to read into adulthood.”

So where can you start with some great reads to tickle your teens interest?

Ann-Maree Dyer is a librarian who specialises in children’s literature.


See her top five books to get your teen started back on the path to reading-for-fun: