Why Kids Don’t Like to Read

This post was originally published on my blog, 10/31/2011:

Of course, this is a gross generalization but it’s meant as such. There are always kids that love to read but why are we seeing a decline in reading levels nationwide? Why are kids turning away from books?

A huge part of this argument really revolves around culture. Think back to the days of the Dime Novels. Admittedly pulp fiction (with little cultural value), they still entranced readers of all ages. Reading was truly a way to “escape” from the harshness of reality. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, movies, video games, and other media have replaced our need to find escape (and because they provide immense stimulation of multiple senses, kids naturally gravitate to those media rather than books). It seems that if you want your kid to enjoy a good story, it needs to be an iPad app or a game on Facebook. Perhaps things are just changing. Perhaps the concept of the “story” will forever be different, no longer just relegated to the confines of printed (or e-ink) pages.

Before I venture a reason (and solution) to why kid’s don’t like to read, it would be best to understand more about the way reading works in our heads. In short, the psychology of reading is about participation. We imagine ourselves in the story (which is why stories fail when we can’t connect with a character). The effort required to participate depends upon a variety of factors. One is the maturation of the reader’s imagination (the imagination is a psychological construct that needs training in 99% of people; you have to work at it; one way to do this is for kids and parents to read the same book which promotes discussion and, hence, imaginative exploration). Another is stimulation. Have you ever read a book while listening to music? The music can sometimes stimulate higher levels of imaginative thinking because more of your brain is working on the same experience (hence why video games are so popular with kids).

Why is the psychology of reading important? Because it directly relates to storytelling. Books, video games, movies…these are really just different ways to tell stories with different levels of participation required and different levels of stimulation. Let’s pretend that we need to feed our imagination. It requires a level of stimulation everyday. For some that’s daydreaming. For others, that’s full-blown storytelling. But we will naturally gravitate to fulfilling that need with the path of least resistance. So if watching a movie/TV or playing a video game is an easier way for us to experience a story (and consequently feed our imagination), we will naturally favor it over books.

That’s the present state of where we are at with kids and reading.

Books, unfortunately, are competing with other methods of story telling that have less resistance to meeting our needs for imaginative stimulation. There probably won’t be any way to fix this going forward. I’ve written before about the birth of a “tweener” book format (because of the tablet world; stories that are not told in traditional narration). So maybe this is where things are ultimately going.

Okay, so that’s the bad news.  What’s the good news?

I do think there are ways to stimulate kids to want to read books versus taking the easy path to meeting imaginative stimulation needs (i.e., the path of least resistance). Below are a few:

  • Read the same books as your kids. I know that this can be painful sometimes but how long does it take to read a 90-page chapter book? 30 minutes? By reading the same book (and letting your kid see you reading that book) you immediately create a relationship between reading that goes BEYOND just the need to feed the imagination. It’s a relationship between you and child. That positive relationship in the child’s mind attributes more positive feelings/emotions to the act of reading.
  • Discuss the story. Most younger-age books today are written with discussion guides/reading aids. Ultimately, these are intended to help teachers utilize the book in the classroom but they work great for stimulating discussion between parent and child. Again, the goal here is to create positive feelings around reading. So if your child realizes that they get time to discuss a book with you, they will definitely want to read more (especially as it relates to the point above).
  • Joint reading time. That’s right, carve out some time to read with your kids. Maybe it’s reading to them, but maybe it’s just being in the same room reading quietly. Remember that kids are looking to you as an example. If they see you taking time out of your busy day to read a little bit, they will try to emulate that. Back to the whole “positive feelings associated with the activity.”

There’s a definite trend in my suggestions: positive association. As I said before, books are competing with many other story modalities (movies and video games) to which kids can easily associate positive emotions (video games are by far more complicated and deal with achievement which I have written about before). It’s much easier to talk about a movie with friends than a book because it’s far more likely that they have all seen the same movie (aka the marketing machine) than have read the same book. I would argue that kids have gravitated to games/movies to fulfill the needs of imaginative stimulation because they aren’t getting the same positive association from their parents regarding reading. We want to feel good. It’s human nature. So if parents are so busy that they can’t spend time with kids enjoying stories, then those kids will naturally drift to where they get those positive feelings: friends. And when you are a kid, friends are all about video games and movies.

In short, promoting reading has to start with positive association. That is the only way that kids will begin to favor the written word over other, more stimulating modalities like video games and movies…ways to tell stories that require much less effort to get what we need, imaginative stimulation.

Check out Gertrude’s Broken Wand, the first book in the Marmalade series, a great book to read with kids!