Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I don’t know how to write this post without sounding like an enormous nerd, so I’ve decided to embrace the nerdiness and say it: 

I love reading

When I was a kid, I spent hours every day reading. I toted books along on every errand, usually with a backup book in case I finished the first while away from home. Books taught me things I didn’t know I wanted to learn; they were entertainment and escape, expansion of my horizons and familiar friends. I read aloud to my sisters in the evenings and scoured the library for new titles every week. 

Nerdy. I know. 

But books are an integral part of who I am, and still today I'm always in the middle of one of two (or more) at a time. I read a little slower than I used to and fall asleep more often half a page in (thanks, motherhood), but I still love reading. It's a love I've wanted to pass down to my kids, and something I recently realized I actually accomplished. I had a moment where I suddenly thought, Wait, whoa, my kids are readers and they can't even read yet. This is amazing. 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

And this is the part of the post I admit I don't know how to write this without sounding like I'm tooting my own horn. Honestly, having any kind of parenting win—especially one near to my heart like this one—feels rare and glorious, so like I'm embracing the nerdiness, I'm going to embrace this one. I helped make my kids into readers, you guys, and it feels amazing. Trust me when I say there are plenty of other things I'm horrible at (see above play-room disorganization as Exhibit A) that you can teach me how to do. 

Here's what I've done over the years that (to my utter surprise) has actually worked.

1. Make Books Accessible 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

There are books in every room of our house, and the kids' books are at kid-level. While I move the loud, annoying, or messy toys to the top shelf, I keep the books low where they're ready to be enjoyed any time. My kids take full advantage of this, which means I clean up books every single day—and I love it (mostly, or at least more than cleaning up the loud and annoying toys). 

2. Visit the Library 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

You may already be in on this secret, but in case you're not, lean in close so I can tell you: the library is one of the easiest, least stressful places to take those animalistic, wild-eyed kids of ours. If the many engaging and themed story times aren't your style, there are almost always brightly-colored play areas with free toys, educational games, and books galore. We visit the library usually once a week, which gives us a chance to test drive good books. More on good books later—for now, just get yourself a library card. 

3. Say Yes

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Sometimes when I collapse into the couch at the end of the day, all I remember saying for the past 14 hours is a combination of "don't" and "no." That's how parenthood can feel sometimes. I made myself a promise when Charlie was tiny that I'd try to always say "yes" when she asked to read a book, and for the most part, I've kept that promise. I have to say no to another TV show, no to chocolate, no to wearing princess dress-up clothes to preschool—but I can say yes to books. Encourage reading by showing your kids it's an entertainment option you'll always say yes to. 

4. Lead by Example 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

This one is hard for me even though I love reading. It's easier, frankly, to look at my phone all day when I'm trying to escape my boredom, loneliness, or work. But reading makes me much happier, and I like my kids to see me enjoying it. Even if I'm reading at a snail's pace—or even if it's just a magazine—I'd rather their memories of these years be of me reading than of me glued to a screen. 

5. Set Aside Quiet Reading Time

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I can't guarantee anything in motherhood will be quiet, but I can say this: quiet reading time is a rare gem that's worth cultivating. In Charlie's current routine, we read together while Ada naps in the morning and before bed. Choose one or two parts of the day you'd like to read with your child, and add it to your routine. 

6. Bring Books Along

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I'll admit, I got into a bad habit while I was pregnant with Ada of giving Charlie my iPhone when I needed a break. Long car ride with screaming 20-month-old? Phone. 30-minute wait at the restaurant? Phone. I'm glad I had it as an option when I was pushed to my limit, but it was a hard habit to break—and I ended up having to delete those apps like YouTube Kids that made it too easy to give her a screen. 

Now, I try to turn to books as the go-to distraction when my kids need one. Charlie requests a "pile-a books" for every potty time now (which always cracks me up), and I bring books for both kids along on car rides.  

7. Buy Good Books

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Finally, it's worth mentioning that not all kids' books are created equal. Some will make you tear up and you won't mind reading them again and again, while others will make you want to stab your eyes with a fork. The library is a helpful place to look for genuinely enjoyable books that your kids and you will love. I periodically donate books we haven't liked and scour the thrift stores, Hastings sales, and online retailers for deals on good kid literature. I also do a Christmas countdown every year, unwrapping one book every night in December with our kids, and it's pure magic. Places like Savers and thrift stores often sell kids' books for less than $1.50 each, and you can find vintage and classic books for a steal.

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

As a final note, I'll say this. The love of reading is a gift you can give your kids that will last their lifetime. It hardly matters what age they learn to read—even though that's what the test scores and the achievement goals may tell you to focus on. It matters much more when they learn to love to read. Teach them that.