Get your teen back into reading (and get to know them better in the process!)

April 13 |

It's National Library Week, and we're celebrating on Offbeat Mama!

Girl Holding Book Looking Out Window free creative commons
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, used with Creative Commons license.

So, apparently something happens when kids hit thirteen: they no longer like reading. I can't verify this as fact because I happen to be quite the book nerd — always have been, probably always will be. But alas, the stats are there. In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report on reading that found, among other things, "Teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time when compared with other age groups and with Americans of the past" and "reading is declining as an activity among teenagers."

But why?

I think the easy answer is to blame all those gadgets we have nowadays, but I'm not sure it's the right one. Another answer that appears obvious is blaming the parents: if you don't see your parents read, they say, then you probably won't either. There may be some truth to that, but for every kid that doesn't read because she never saw her parents doing so, there are kids like I was who read voraciously despite having very few memories of her parents reading. You could also blame schools: I definitely remember visiting the library with a class once a week in elementary and middle school, but trips like these seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Truthfully, I think the real answer is a combination of these factors and many more. Sure, most electronics that begin with a lowercase "i" can be a distraction to many of us, including teens, but these in and of themselves shouldn't be a hindrance to reading. In fact, the Internet has spawned quite a few online book clubs for teens, like Spinebreakers, Teen Book Lovers, and Random Buzzers. The American Library Association (ALA) has even instituted Teen Reading Week!

Not every parent has the availability to take his or her child to the library for story time once or twice a week, and many may not realize that reading to children from very young ages can potentially make a huge difference in a child's development. If you were never read to as a child, you're probably less likely to read to your own children.

So what to do? If I'm recalling my teen years correctly, a lot of teens can to be… self-focused, to phrase it gently. Luckily, the quality of Young Adult (YA) reads is light-years ahead of what it once was. I don't want to over-generalize, but many teens like to read books about, well, other teens. The particular genre of book can vary — for every kid who digs The Catcher in the Rye, there's another who would like something like The Hunger Games. If you're feeling at a loss when it comes to YA fiction, the ALA compiles an annual list of the best books in the genre. Pay close attention — young adult fiction is so well-written these days that many adults are flocking to the shelves right along with their teen-aged counter-parts. [Aside from Ariel: I read a LOT of young adult fiction.]

On the flip-side, plenty of teens want to go above and beyond their age level. My favorite book when I was sixteen was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their times dropping acid and gallivanting around the country on a painted bus (note: I was most definitely not dropping acid while in high school, which makes this book selection all the more fabulous, if you ask me). Similarly, one of my closest friends devoted the better part of her teen years devouring everything Jack Kerouac's ever written.

My suggestion: use literature as a way to get to know your teen better. You can make a thing of it: grab a coffee (teenagers can have that, right?), have a chat, and visit your library or local book store and peruse the offerings. You never, ever know what you might find, or what kind of revisited (or newly-formed) reading habits can develop.

Related post: Finding a friendship with your teen

  1. I'd say that at a certain age reading becomes uncool. I remember when all of my friends would say they didn't have a favorite book on their myspace profile because reading was stupid or whatever. I would usually comment that they were stupid/lame/whatever, because I always knew reading was cool! But then again, I was a nerd. : )

    Even though I already loved to read, my mom was still really involved! We went to Borders a few times a month to keep me sustained. And my mom always read what I was reading, then we would talk about it. Not in a super organized way however, it was just casual, just two pals sharing books. Good stuff!

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  2. i put my son to bed at an early bedtime and tell him that he has two choices… he can either stay up to read or go to bed. i gave him a reading lamp hooked to his bed. i buy him lots of interesting books and he reads 500 page books like it is nothing. i read to him four stories at bedtime since birth. he got bored with my reading stories, so i started having him read to himself around fourth grade. when ever he asks me why he can't stay up later, i say you are when you are reading. he usually reads for 30 min to 45 min every night!

  3. I always was a voracious reader as well. I've found now that I'm out of college and on my own I don't read books as much (I do, however, read a lot more news and informative postings). I have no clue how I can't seem to fit a book in there! But I also have no recollection of my parents reading. My dad always had his book in the bathroom to peruse but that was it.

  4. One of my favorite things about my teenage nieces is that we can talk about books together. I would add– encourage your teens to write! YA fiction is a great jumping point for fan fiction or for kids to write their own fantasy. Writing and reading have this sweet little relationship, doing one encourages the other… and kids have such fantastic ideas.

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  5. This this this:

    http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/rah-intro.html

    is amazing. For all ages.

    Good tips for teens too. So many ideas to share reading with all types of families.

    Read aloud to them as they wash the dishes is one of my favorite suggestions.

    Reading aloud at every age is such a great bonding experience. And keeps the interest in personal reading alive.

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  6. Growing up, my parents weren't the *biggest* source of reading encouragement in our lives. My mother is from a third-world country and isn't a confident reader (although she does read, when I was in elementary we both got hooked on the "Little House on the Prairie" books!), and my father didn't have very much interest. He did, however, take us book shopping on a regular basis.

    It was my grandparents who took the time to read to us, to buy books and encourage us to read on our own. They were both elementary-school teachers and saw many, many students whose families didn't support or encourage literacy.

    I'm so grateful for them!!

  7. I think another factor may be time. Teenagers are (in general) a LOT busier than I remember being at that age. School, clubs, homework, jobs, taking care of younger siblings, sometimes their schedules are as busy as I remember mine being in college, when my reading went down to nil except for coursework.

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  8. I think you're so right that the young adult genre has come a LONG way in the past 20 years. It is SO important to take your kids to libraries and expose them to books. It's also important that they see you reading and really revering literature. I think it is totally possible to raise a teenager that loves to read!

  9. Had to laugh…. I did not enjoy Catcher in the Rye, but am reading the Hunger Games trilogy now and am loving it! (thought it was funny, those were the first two books mentioned and pitted against each other – sort of)

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  10. My dad read "The monster at the end of this book" in the Grover voice about seven times a day, among other books. Later on he read or helped me read any book I asked, adding funny accents when he thought appropriate.

    Then mom started taking me to the library, I had my own card at 6. which she kept on her until I was 10. (I lost a lot of things between those years)Before I had my own card, I was allowed to fill one book bag per trip. Then it was one book bag I could actually carry. (Ever see a five year old raid the Arther books when given her own bag? It's apparently quite funny.)

    Needless to say I read a large amount still, making time whenever I can. And I plan on reading as much as I can to any kids I may have or watch over because I know that it helps them get involved too. Funny accents and all.

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  11. I teach and the big thing I want to emphasize with parents are these lovely facts:
    a) Reading blogs, magazines and newspapers is in fact, still reading.
    b) Graphic novels are freaking awesome, and do great things for teaching kids about context and inference, as you have both pictures and words telling a story.
    c) Contemporary Lit, while sometimes controversial, is not evil. I think most parents would rather have their teens explore sex, drugs, running away, etc through reading rather than actually doing it. Chances are, if they are reading the book, they are already thinking about it. The book isn't going to give them extra ideas.
    d) On the same note, Classics aren't evil either. Handing your kid Jane Eyre and saying, "Read the first 3 chapters and you will get out of dish duty this week" will not turn your child off of reading. They may just discover that the Oldies really are Goodies.
    e) Even though I just said let your kid read all the contemporary and classic books they want, feel free to censor their reading, or at least give it a read before they do. Your sensitive 16 year old may not be able to handle the death in Hunger Games, but your adventurous 12 year old may be all for it.

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  12. I was a reader with an insatiable appetite for books (I mean, I was often reading three or more at once, and my mum took us to the library often) until I hit about 15, and I blame school 100% for squashing my love of reading. Reading in high school was never about READING, or becoming involved in the story. It was about picking it apart and stopping every page to analyse every little bit, and that was horrid for someone like me. It was never that reading wasn't 'cool' – I just had no passion left. I finally got back into it about two years after I finished school, and now I'm really hoping that the combined obsessions of me and my partner will instil the same kind of appreciation for books and reading in our son. Hopefully enough so that he won't be turned off during high school like I was…

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  13. I stopped reading books for fun when I was about 13, and didn't really start again until I got glasses, after college.
    So perhaps, if you have a teen who suddenly stops reading for fun, consider an eye exam.

    (I always thought things would look blurry if I needed glasses, but apparently it just made it hard to keep my place in big blocks of text. I could still read graphic novels and kids books, but grown up literature was just a pile of words.)

  14. Let your kids read whatever they want! I've always been a voracious reader, but I had to literally sneak books out of the library (don't worry, I always returned them!) at my school because they were from the "grade 4 and 5 only" section and I was in third grade. Don't ask me why the librarian was trying to prevent kids from reading above their level, but there you have it.

    My partner loved reading as a kid until his teacher took away his Goosebumps and handed him Black Beauty. That killed his appetite for reading until we met in university and I started encouraging him to read again. Heartbreaking.

  15. I totally agree with the reading/writing connection that rodrigues made, the time constraint point that Nikki made, and the theatricality aspect of reading that Audra mentioned.

    My dad used to read to my little brother and I on a nightly basis growing up. He tried his best (and succeeded at) making it exciting by doing different voices and making a production out of it. He also was just silly in general, and would sometimes throw in "naughty words" (ie, we read the Bobsey Twins books and he would often emphasize that the father's name was Dick or even just call him Penis. When you're seven and five year old kids, this is *so freaking funny*). And while my brother was not confident in his reading skills when he was younger, he *loved* it when I read Harry Potter books to him because I would use a British accent and vary my voice from character to character.

    I used to be a very very very avid reader, reading lots of books often and over and over and reading above my age level. When I hit high school, that started to stop. Part of it was being overwhelmed with schoolwork. And while I didn't work throughout most of high school and the only extracurricular activity I was involved in was theater, it was still tough to find time to read and get all that work done. Also, I always have had and still have a very active imagination, and I would start to read something and then get lost in a fantasy about the characters in the book or something completely different. Sometimes I write these things down and make stories, but often I don't. So while I'm not reading books very often like I used to, I do read other things (like SaraL said, blogs, magazines, and newspapers are still reading). And most importantly, I use the skills I learned from reading in day to day life. I have developed an active imagination, a love for knowledge, and am able to articulate myself well.

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