Parenting advice: How to make teenagers read a book
Parents often receive conflicting messages about teenagers and literacy: on the one hand, they don't read books, but on the other hand, they are constantly reading online.
Educator Howard Eaton was asked, "My teenage son doesn't pick up a book on his own these days. Should I be alarmed? Is there anything I can do about it?"
Here is his feedback:
This is such an important question. Should I be alarmed that my teenage son doesn’t pick up a book on his own these days?
The short answer is, yes.
Based on research over the last 20 years teenagers that don’t read books are less likely to attend college, reduced language skills, experience depression more frequently then non-readers and have lower paying jobs. That is a lot to be alarmed about. Research also notes that reading fiction has significant benefits to the brain including increasing attention span, developing empathy, improving overall social cognition and enhancing reasoning ability. Reading books benefit our teenagers in so many ways.
Okay, yes, there are those who don’t read books and are successful in their careers. Research is talking about statistics and what might be a statistically significant finding. As a result, there will be those teenagers who don’t read books who will go to college/university, not experience depression and will earn a good income. I am sure there those reading this article right now and saying, “That was me as a teenager!” What the research is outlining is that the probability of that happening is less if your teenager is not reading books. So, if we are working with odds, let’s make it in our teenagers favour. Who wouldn’t want a teenager who shows good attention span, is more empathetic, socially astute, with good reasoning ability.
The problem is that many teenagers are not reading books. Sure, they could be reading more text messages, emails, Facebook updates, and Wikipedia facts, but a significant number are not reading books – whether a printed book or one downloaded on a tablet (a Kindle, iPad, or similar reading device). A study from Scotland showed that 33 out of 100 teenagers aged 15 years did not read books. In fact, 20 out of 100 said reading was a waste of time. Surprisingly, Scotland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. A 2007 American study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that 66 out of 100 thirteen year-olds are not daily readers. For those aged seventeen the number of non-readers doubled from 1984 to 2007.
The 2007 NEA study also found that Americans ages 15 to 24 spent on average 120 minutes a day watching TV and 7 minutes reading. The June 2009 Nielsen report on How Teens Use Media found that the typical U.S. teenager now watches three hours and 20 minutes of TV a day. They are also on their computers for 52 minutes a day. With attending school, eating meals, working, completing homework and doing chores, and engagement with media (TV and social media) what time is left for reading books for pleasure?
In Canada the trend is no different. In 2010 Grade 3 and Grade 6 students were asked whether they liked to read during a yearly standardized exam. There answers were compared to findings from 1998/1999 school year. The findings were troubling as only 50% of Grade 3 students liked to read as compared to 76% over 10 years ago. For Grade 6 students the drop was from 65% to 50%. Not surprising was the additional fact that Ontario teacher-librarians at both the elementary and secondary levels were cut back. Schools with elementary teacher-librarians were cut back from 76% to 56% from 1998 to 2010. The statistical percentile match between Grade 3 students lack of interest in reading over the last 10 years and drop in contact with an elementary teacher-librarians over the same time period is not surprising.
The other problem is adults are also reading less or can’t read at all. Are children not looking at their parents for inspiration and guidance? Currently, the estimate in Canada is that 48% have difficulty reading this sentence. That is 12,000,000 adults in Canada. Illiteracy is a significant national concern and impacts children’s interest in reading books. Adults may also be dealing with Dyslexia and/or ADHD that hinders reading ability or even interest in books. I also know that reading fluency can easily dissuade an adult from reading to their child. Slower reading fluency can be caused by difficulties with specific areas of cognitive processing. Thus, the adult can read words, but finds it frustrating to read fluently to their child.
If adults who are illiterate cannot influence their child’s interest in reading, and we continue to cut back elementary and second teacher-librarians who will be there to inspire children and teenagers to be interested in reading books? Also, if media continues to attract the attention of adults during the day (TV, social networking, gaming, email, texting) what time is left to show children how enjoyable and important reading books can be.
The importance of modeling reading to young children and teenagers cannot be understated. Our brain contains mirror neurons and what is referred to as the mirror neuron system. Essentially, neuroscience research is showing that mirror neurons fire in our brain when we observe someone doing an action or when we do the action ourselves. Even just imaging the action can cause the mirror neurons to fire. As children watch us perform actions their mirror neurons replicate what we are doing. If we attach that action to a pleasurable activity such as reading to your child than the dopamine reward system is activated. Dopamine is released in the brain reinforcing the pleasure of that action for our children. Thus, when a parent picks up a book and snuggles up to their child before bedtime this association is reinforced between the mirror neurons and the dopamine reward system.
Research is showing that there is a significant correlation between reading aloud to children and educational advantages. In 1985, a landmark report in the U.S. called “Becoming a Nation of Readers” stated that reading aloud to children is “the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading”. Reading aloud also promotes vocabulary development, listening skills, attention span and other emergent literacy skills. However, if a parent cannot read efficiently how many will even attempt a bedtime story? More importantly, if reading is not modeled to children as a pleasurable activity how many of these children will discover this fact themselves as teenagers?
Given the information above one can easily understand why reading books for pleasure is declining for both adults and teenagers. There is a lot to do to reverse this trend both at the parent and school level. As a society we have to address adult illiteracy and increase funding to schools to promote a love for reading books. More importantly, the competition for the teenager’s time in terms of media usage may be a reality we cannot change. This fact then brings to light how the brain of a teenager will change as a result. We may not be providing enough opportunities for teenagers to further develop empathy, social cognition, attention, language, and reasoning skills.
There are many factors that could be interfering with a teenager’s willingness to read a book. Now to answer your next question: Is there anything I can do about it?
Let’s assume you read to your teenager as a child and show a continued love for reading yourself. Let’s assume your child does not have a reading disability, like Dyslexia, or has an attention disorder (ADHD) that causes frustration when reading. If this is the case, then your teenage son is in a prime position to reading books once again. Though, you now have to lure of social media or just media in general. For example, video gaming and social networking are extremely attractive dopamine reward systems. At this point, setting boundaries for media usage may be important to free up time for the teenager to read books.
Here are some recommendations for encouraging your teenage son to read books. Some of these recommendations may seem impossible. This all depends on your son’s personality and connection to family. Also, he just might be in a stage where he is not interested in reading a book outside of school and may one day develop the habit again. Here are some ideas:
Set a time in your house that reading is the only activity permitted. No exceptions for any family member. You might start with a 30 minute reading time on Saturday and Sunday. If there still young enough, this might work.
Set boundaries on media time per day (TV, video gaming, computer, etc). If there is down time and a book of interest is available, he might just read it.
As a parent, share the findings or ideas from a good book that you are reading with your teenage son. Make it a discussion point at dinner. Read from the book or quote from the book at ask his opinion on this idea or finding.
Encourage your teenage son to read before turning off the lights to sleep. Promote this activity over video gaming just before bedtime. This is where my two teenage boys read the most. Each spend about 60 minutes reading before sleeping.
Play audio books in the car to encourage the love for story-telling.
Take your teenage son to a bookstore and talk to a staff member who might be able to find a few books that might be of interest to him.
If books seem impossible to find, subscribe to a magazine that may be of interest to your teenage son – snowboarding, soccer, and yes, video gaming.
Find out if your teenage son’s English teacher is encouraging reading and has a grade incentive program for reading outside the curriculum. If not, encourage this. You might be surprised that your son is reading books – but just at school. Still, this is a good thing.
In the summer, go on camping trips where media does not exist – bring books instead!
If your teenage son likes sports then see if the local sports teams are doing reading or literacy promotions. Get your teenager tuned into these events by asking him to volunteer for that organization.
Purchase a tablet that can download books – my oldest teenager loves doing this now versus purchasing paper books.
- Join a book club with your teenager or preschooler - in Vancouver, B.C., there is Christianne’s Bookclubs, created in 1996, help families interact around quality literature
- Discuss with your teenage son the benefits of reading on life outcomes and how it changes the brain in positive ways. Try not to be too gloomy.
I hope this gives you some understanding of the issues and ideas to help your teenage son. I hated reading as a child and teenager due to my own Dyslexia. In fact, I don’t think I had a dopamine reward system developed for reading. Rather it was an association based on fear and apprehension. Even when my parents read aloud to me it was frustrating due to my weakness in following oral information. I just couldn’t remember what they were saying to me. I loved picture books.
I did not develop a love for reading until I was about 20 years old. I was a dishwasher at Carlos & Buds Tex Mex Restaurant in Vancouver at the time. There were two English majors hired as front cooks for the restaurant. Yes, not many jobs existed for English majors even then. While washing cheese off nacho plates I would overhear them chatting about the novels they were reading. I would listen in fascination and also in fear as I struggled to understand the vocabulary they were using. At that moment, I decided to read so I could engage in their conversations. I did not want to feel stupid. That was over 27 years ago.
What is the moral of that story? It is never too late to become an avid lover, reader and even writer of books.
Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds -- Kaiser Family Foundation
Reading and depression -- Psychcentral.com
Computer gamers less likely to go to university, research shows -- The Guardian