The University of Iowa

Positive Reading Reinforcement

Librarian with two children reading

Encouraging children to read a given book that may be above their current grade level, especially if it is about a topic of interest for them, can foster reading among those who may be reluctant.


Andrew Frisbie

Collection Development Librarian, North Liberty Community Library

Posted on: May 31, 2016

The single most common question I receive in the library is, “what should I read next?” Sometimes the person really is asking as a pretense to talk about the books they’ve read before: they’d really like something that combines the action of the Hunger Games with the world building of Harry Potter and the romance of Twilight. I work at a library and love talking about books, so sometimes I get to hear people’s personal takes on books as they decide nothing will compare to what they’ve read before.

The harder cases are the reluctant readers. Engaging reluctant readers, particularly boys, may depend on having positive role models. To develop enthusiasm for and a habit of reading, parents and teachers need to model being a reader, read to their children or students, and encourage reading for different purposes.

Although I don’t remember my parents reading more than the newspaper when I was a kid, I do remember their reactions to my book choices. I grew up on Roald Dahl’s candy-coated fantasies and turned to R.L. Stine when he took over the publishing world in the early 1990s. Given that fantasy/horror background and the few book options available for adolescents at the time, I moved on to Stephen King. I had seen part of a miniseries based on one of his books, and I wanted to read the novel. The adult fiction stacks in my hometown library were behind the circulation desk where you had to walk past the staff to get to them. The children’s librarian thought it would be okay for me to check out an adult book if I had a note from my parents.

I remember being nervous asking my mom if I could check out this grown-up book. When she said yes, I felt so liberated. I would be reading a real book! But, it really was too much for my fifth-grade mind. It took me an hour to get through one page. I wasn’t used to that much print per page, and the subject was heavy. I told my mom about some of what I read, and I remember her response, “Well, it’s an adult book.”

This vote of confidence in my emerging maturity—my parents telling me that I was ready for these kinds of books—is what made me a reader. Everything was opened up to me. I struggled with some of the books because I just didn’t have the vocabulary, but I caught up quickly. I was always a little sad that I didn’t have someone to talk to about what I was reading. As a purveyor of Internet memes, one of my current favorites beautifully describes this sadness as, “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn’t just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback” (anonymous).

As I got older, my book selections began to be described as “Psycho books.” Rather than a vote of confidence, my parents’ reactions elevated my sadness about books. I didn’t want to feel ashamed of what I liked to read. This contributed to my current personal view of readers’ choices: everything is awesome. If you have an interest in it, then read away. Encourage the readers in your circle to seek out books that make them happy and keep them wanting to read more. I have lots of parents who don’t like that their kids are still reading introductory readers, but it’s what those children like. They will move on when they are ready.

I realize this philosophy isn’t for everyone as there are controversial themes or mature content that parents don’t want their sixth grader reading. Not all parents are like mine, willing to put any book into my hands. But I also know that when I tried to read an adult book too soon, it was too much and I knew it. Most kids know their limits and the limits that their parents have as well.

I also believe that positive reinforcement about what kids are reading is really important. I know active interest and participation in an unfamiliar topic can be a challenge. I don’t read manga and, despite having had plenty of teens explain the minutiae of Naruto to me, I could not repeat it back to anyone now. But I do know Star Wars and superheroes, and the many long-winded arguments I’ve had with kids over the best super powers have led to those teens walking out my library doors with books in their hands.

Lots of kids assume I’ve read every book in the library. As much as I wish that were true, I don’t have the time to read everything, but I do try to know the general outline of many series. I also know what questions to ask young readers to get them talking about the books: “How do the powers work in this series?” or “Why does she love the merman?” With younger children, it is common to build narrative skill by asking them to retell the story. Doing this with teens is just as important. Engaging them in the story, probing why they like this set of characters or world gets them talking and makes it easier to find other titles for them to read. Showing interest in what my teen readers are interested in makes it more likely that they’ll approach me in the future.

I really do advocate flexibility and openness in the reading choices that kids make. If they want to read something that may be objectionable to a parent, I try to assuage fears by talking about the merits of the book and reminding the parent that reading is important. Having your kids interested in what they’re reading is imperative to making them lifelong readers. But when necessary, I’ll try to offer more suitable alternatives. Being positive and interested in what your kids are reading will engage them even more. You may learn more than you ever wanted to about the dynamics of fictional vampire clans, but remember that your children are reading and enjoying it so much that they want to talk to you about it. Help them learn to love reading and to engage with others who love it equally.