How to help kids build a reading habit

Black and white picture of a boy curled up in a soft chair reading a large book

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A habit is a behavior that we do consistently, without consciously thinking about whether to do it, over time. It can be good (saving money, eating vegetables), bad (smoking, staying up too late), or neutral (walking the dog around the block clockwise). Wondering how to build a reading habit for your kids?

At first, even the best and most desirable habits can feel uncomfortable and it’s easy to forget to do them. But if we set the right conditions, they get easier with time! Here are some ways to help your child build a reading habit. 

How to build a reading habit

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, says every habit has a cue, a behavior (that’s what we think of when we say “habit,”) and the reward.

Cues

Cues are things in the environment that prompt you to start a habit. Snacking because you walk by the candy dish, starting the coffee maker because it’s 7am, running home when the street lights come on. Here are some cues for reading to think about in your child’s environment.

Place

Designate a reading spot that is comfy, well-lit, and quiet. Keep needed supplies (a book basket, pencil and sticky notes, a reading log) nearby. Minimize distractions like toys, screens, and people who aren’t reading quietly.

Time 

Pick a time for reading when kids are quiet but not sleepy. Make sure they aren’t hungry or in a rush to get outside with their friends. 

At my house, there’s a quiet period on weekend afternoons that make for great reading time! We fit in reading on other days but on weekends it’s a really nice experience. Other families read while waiting for siblings to finish practice or lessons. That has the advantage of keeping siblings and their distractions away for better focus. I could never read in the car without feeling sick, but some kids are able to read while their parents are driving. 

Reading behavior 

When you say you want your kids to read more, what do you mean? To help kids build a reading habit, you have to make the reading itself as enjoyable as possible. If you start them off with books that are too hard and frustrating (or too easy and boring), they are less likely to stick with it. Some thoughts about keeping reading engaging and appropriately challenging:

Choosing books

Some teachers are firm about expecting kids to read books “at their level,” but when we’re talking about building a habit of reading, there’s a big place for books that make kids happy! If that’s a dense book of sports stats, great! If it’s a comfy favorite picture book, great!

If your kids have finished a favorite book or series and you want to keep the momentum going, try searching online for “books like _” for recommendations. You can also ask your child’s teacher or your children’s librarian for books that are popular with kids that age. 

Fixing errors

Reading isn’t fun when you can’t read the words on the page. If a book has too many words your child can’t decode yet, reading will be slow and frustrating. They will have trouble understanding the story because all their bandwidth will be used up just to figure out the words. 

You can help your child with challenging books by

  • Choose easier books – ok, this one isn’t quite fair but one way to make reading more enjoyable is to choose books at an easier level.
  • Offer to take turns – when you read every other page, they hear your fluent model. Plus it helps them move along through the story, which can improve their comprehension.
  • Get the audiobook – audiobooks are a great resource for letting kids enjoy stories they can’t decode effectively yet. For some readers, it builds confidence to hear a book that’s a little challenging first, and then read it again on their own. 
  • Talking about it with them – ask questions or point out things that’s surprises you or made you laugh. 

Thinking about the story

Some kids race through the pages of a book, trying to get through as many pages as they can. Others flip through a book randomly and don’t get much of the story. Knowing that you’re going to ask them about it later sometimes motivates kids to pat attention to the details. At the same time, don’t interrogate your kids about their reading. Think book club chitchat, not Final Jeopardy! 

For some kids, writing a quick note on their bookmark when they stop reading, or sketching a picture at the end of the chapter to make a little comic strip of the story, can help them remember what they read. 

Make these a small part of your child’s reading time, though. When I was a kid, a journal entry was required at the end of each chapter. I had a hard time writing a succinct summary, so I would get stuck on a book for weeks because I fell behind in my journal. The strategy of having us write about our reading backfired for me! 

Reward

It’s tempting to offer prizes and praise and rewards to get kids to do things they don’t want to do. Mini M&M’s saved my sanity while potty training! But giving kids rewards for reading can backfire, according to some research. 

Reading that lasts

So focus on rewards like learning interesting facts, being entertained, and having cozy quiet time with a parent. Making reading an inherently enjoyable experience is the goal. That’s the best way to help kids build a reading habit that lasts a lifetime!

If your child is struggling with reading, we can help! Contact us today to talk about how we can help your child become a capable, confident reader.

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