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How to Become a Better Reader

When was the last time you got swept up in a great book? Here’s how to rekindle your reading habit and get your kids on the same page.

By Sarah J. Robbins; additional reporting by Julia Edelstein
Girl reading in fieldJulie Morstad

Getting Your (Reading) Groove Back

Here are four expert strategies that make it easy for both kids and adults to launch a steady practice.

Choose books that you’re drawn to. It’s not important that you reach for a challenging book, only that you reach for a book, says literary critic Phyllis Rose, the author of a new memoir about an extreme reading experiment, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES ($26, amazon.com). “If you like detective novels, read a detective novel,” she says. Fan of chick lit? Read that. Don’t feel pressured to read what everyone else is reading. If you’re up for a serious author but a bit out of practice, ease in with a collection of short stories. “You’ll still be drenched in the author’s personality,” says Rose.

As for kids, let them choose their own leisure reading. Offer suggestions at or just above their reading level, but don’t steer your child away from any book he or she has chosen for fun. Also resist the urge to foist heavy classics on kids before they show interest. “You don’t want your kids to ever feel bad about what they’re reading,” says Mary Leonhardt, a former high school English teacher and the author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't: How It Happens and What You Can Do About It ($1, amazon.com). “In fact, sometimes a ‘junky’ series is good, because it gets kids hooked on the habit of reading.”

As Starr LaTronica, the president of the Association for Library Service to Children, in Vestal, New York, explains it, kids can’t become deep readers until they become natural readers. That means that there’s value in just about anything kids read, including graphic novels and comic books. “You have to have well-developed visual literacy to interpret these stories,” says LaTronica. “And some are tremendously sophisticated.”

Fill your shelves with books. Aside from offering easy access to reading material, a generous array of books has a positive impact on kids. Using data on more than 73,000 people in 27 countries, a 2010 study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that people whose parents’ homes contained about 500 books opted for 3.2 additional years of schooling than did those whose childhood homes contained no books. Even owning 20 titles made a difference in a child’s pursuit of education. This rule held true regardless of the parents’ income level or educational background.

Don’t wait for bedtime. “I’m not sure where we all got it in our heads that reading mainly happens before bed, but kids and parents should ideally read throughout the day as well,” says Heather Ruetschlin Schugar, an associate professor of literacy at West Chester University, in Pennsylvania. Keep baskets of children’s books in every room and a couple in the car, so that you’re ready for impromptu reading sessions. While you’re waiting for an older sibling to finish up with baseball practice, read together. As for reading to yourself, remember that your kids need to see you reading, and if you do it only after you crawl into bed, they’ll miss it. “It’s key to show your children how much you enjoy reading, that it’s not a chore,” says LaTronica. “Laughing out loud while you’re reading and reading to your kids builds a common family culture.”

Be willing to abandon ship. Many of us inexplicably feel committed to finishing every book that we start. But nothing can turn a person off reading like getting stuck with a bad book. So do as Rose does and give each new book 50 pages to win your heart. That’s enough to give you a sense of the author’s voice and style and get a taste of the plot. If you’re not absorbed by then, put it away and choose something else. Maybe you’ll be drawn to it later and maybe not. Either way, no judgment.

 
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