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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 18-year-old teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and growing skills in reading is a great way to do it.
Reading is essential for your teen’s success in school. Reading also plays a critical role in your teen’s
- social and emotional development,
- language competence,
- executive functions like working memory and self-control,1
- connection to you,
- empathy and understanding of others;
- imagination (ability to “see” the story),2 and
- ability to choose healthy behaviors (preventing high-risk behaviors and unhealthy choices).
Researchers have found that social, emotional, and cognitive development cannot be separated. In fact, they directly and indirectly impact one another.3 Teens exercise their responsible decision-making skills and moral development as they reflect on their favorite characters’ choices and the outcomes that result.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the process of learning how to read larger, more complicated texts and extracting meaning from them. They are required, in school, to think abstractly about their reading and to decipher metaphors, symbols, and cultural themes. Your teen will be establishing critical learning habits through reading that will extend throughout their school years. Reading is best learned with parents, grandparents, and other loved ones. In fact, “The single most important activity for building skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children.”4
As children get older and become more competent readers, parents tend to stop reading aloud. However, even high school and college students (and adults) benefit from collaborative reading or reading aloud. In reading together, you are deepening your caring connection (relationship skills). You are imagining together. You are making meaning of words and worlds. You and your teen gain insight into characters’ inner lives (thoughts and feelings) in a way that no other source can allow you access (social awareness). And with that exploration of others’ experiences, you learn more about who you are (self-awareness) and what you value (responsible decision making).
In addition to reading aloud together, there is value in reading on your own together. Older teens can pause and reflect with you about the complexities of what they are reading. Those discussions can deepen your intimacy and their social awareness and understanding of the text, in addition to exploring the feelings and symbolism they may encounter.
Yet, anyone can face challenges when it comes to establishing a daily reading routine. Families today are busier than ever with more demands on their time.
Teens are highly entertained and stimulated by technology. So, it may take a bit more encouragement than past generations to start reading. But once you get into a routine and make it a joyful experience, it can enrich your family life and deepen your intimacy all the while you are promoting valuable skills for school and life success. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to support family reading in cooperative ways.
Becoming intentional about a daily reading routine, looking for ways to incorporate reading into your family times spent together, and considering the quality of the experience of how you read together can all contribute to a teen’s development.
Today, in the short term, reading can create
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment;
- opportunity for dialogue and reflection; and
- a direct and simple way to influence your teen’s positive development.
Tomorrow, in the long term, reading helps your teen
- build skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- build skills in hard work and persistence;
- develop empathy, creative thinking, and responsible decision-making skills; and
- create positive learning habits that contribute directly to school success.
This five-step process helps your family establish a routine for daily reading. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about establishing a routine for daily family reading by asking open-ended questions. Seeking your teen’s input and offering authentic choices in designing a plan to establish a routine for daily reading offers multiple benefits.
In gaining input, your teen
- has the opportunity to think through their routine and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing the routine);
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about a critical aspect of their learning — reading.
- Get curious about the books your teen is reading at school. They may be reading books you remember. Engage them in a discussion about the books they are reading. You could ask questions like:
- “What are you interested in reading these days?”
- “I know there’s a lot you have to read for school. What are you reading for pleasure?”
- Allow choice to add to your teen’s sense of control and motivation to read.
- “How do you want to spend your time after school?”
- “Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time to read?”
- Consider joining a book club with your teen where you both read the same book. There are a variety of book clubs available online or through your local library.
- Approach reading time as a treat, not a chore. If you save it for the enjoyable time after business like homework or getting ready for bed then reading together can be viewed by all as a desirable time to be together.
- Allow your teen to select their own books to read. Have them check out the online review tool from Common Sense Media (or download their app) to learn about a book before selecting it to get a sneak preview.
- Don’t attempt to champion a particular book. If you show preference in a title, your teen might show interest, but if you hold on too tightly to the idea, it might turn them in the other direction.
- Make a family rule to turn screens off one hour before typical bedtime. Research shows that this is important in order to ensure a good night’s sleep. It also offers time for reading if that’s when you want to include it in your routine.
- Create a space. Take some time to determine a consistent space for reading time. Though reading can take place anytime, anywhere, having a designated place ensures there is a well-lit, quiet, and comfortable spot. The goal of your reading space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your teen to fully focus on a story. Setting up a reading nook can be highly motivating to any reader, young or old, and may encourage more of their own time spent on reading.
- Create a family reading rule. Invite discussion at dinner about books that the family is reading. Engage in the topic equally, so your teen is not carrying the burden of the conversation.
Make it fun! Designing a reading spot together can be an enjoyable experience. Allow your teen to pick out their own pillows, bean bag chair, or bookmarks.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
It’s likely that your teen is working hard to read more complicated texts and comprehend fully the layers of meaning in what they are reading. Your teen may still struggle with certain vocabulary words, recalling and putting together the continuity of the story, or understanding metaphor and symbolism. They may also need to tackle research learning from more scholarly works. The roles of reading and how it can support your older teen are changing and evolving. Learning about what developmental milestones your teen is working on can help you know which aspects might be more difficult.
- 15-19-year-olds are trying to figure out their adult identity, understanding how to make important decisions about their life, and building relationships with peers and influential others. This may be a highly emotional time as teens face leaving home for the first time and living on their own. In addition to the pivotal role reading will play throughout their school years, reading can also become a social and emotional support if older teens have the environment that cultivates it. In other words, teens can find solace, a sense of calm, and even understanding in the books they read. They may discover that the problems they face are normal. Stories may even help reframe their problems to offer valuable perspective that, in the larger scheme of world events, their problems aren’t quite so bad. Reading can also offer entry into people’s life choices in ways that spur empathy and also help exercise moral reasoning as older teens grapple with the gray areas of decision making.
- Ask open-ended questions. When your teen invites you to learn more about what they are reading or asks a question, listen with interest. Use any invitation as a learning moment for you to learn about your teen. You can also ask prompting questions such as:
- “I have noticed you reading a lot of historical fiction. What interests you about historical fiction?”
- “What are some of your favorite books?”
- “What interests you about this story or these characters?”
- “What are the characters feeling or thinking?”
- “Why are they making the choices they make? Would you have made different choices”
- “What are you learning about?”
- Share your curiosity and interest in the subject but do not provide an answer or make conclusions since you want your teen to come to their own conclusions.
- Parents do not need to be subject matter experts EVER! Your teen may have questions about what they are reading. If you find that you are struggling to get the right answer, take a step back. Realize that you are stealing a learning opportunity away from them. Instead ask yourself, “How can I provide the guidance and support for them to research and learn the answer to the question or solve the problem themselves (even if they get it wrong)?”
- Model reading. Parents who read have teens who read. Your older teens notice whether you read or not. If reading is one of the activities that parents tend to do in their free time, teens observe that and are much more likely to pick up a book in their free time. If you’ve fallen out of the habit of reading or you read before bed after your teen is asleep, think about ways you can model reading. Perhaps you can discuss books you are reading. Perhaps you spend time at the library together and pick up your own selection while you are there. Consider: “How is reading a regular part of what we do as a family?”
- Research together. Though it’s tempting to do all research online, be sure to include books or articles in your research process. If your teen is doing a science project on animal habitats, internet research can be helpful. But, be sure to also seek out books that can provide helpful background information. This cultivates a habit for them of seeking out the information they require through books.
- Teach the essential “brain break.” Breaks do not represent weakness or a lack of persistence. In fact, human brains work better if they get frequent breaks. Teens need processing time particularly as they are faced with taking in so much new information if they are studying, researching, or reading a longer book. This is a coping strategy that can serve your older teen through college or in dealing with job stress.
- Support your teen’s reading habit! If you have a separate budget for entertainment and education, consider that reading should fall under “education” because of the many and varied benefits. Visit the library frequently or allow purchases when you go to your local bookstore. Let your older teen lead the way on selections and try to hold back judgement on their reading preferences.
- Depending upon your teen’s school, often the task of reading can become highly stressful. If your teen’s school focuses on rigor and loads students down with an extensive amount of reading, teens can begin to view reading as a drag. Remove that burden at home. Focus on joy and connection. Make reading fun.
Research shows that many boys tend to stop reading for pleasure by their own choice around nine or ten.5 Experts suspect this is because boys tend toward nonfiction topics like the natural world or how-to topics like how to build a treehouse. They might also gravitate toward graphic novels or comics. Experts suspect that parents can voice their disapproval of these reading choices and inadvertently discourage reading. Be sure you leave judgment of book choices behind and only encourage their reading. Nonfiction and graphic novels are excellent choices if they interest your young adult. As long as it’s safe content, offer your support and interest.
The “brain break” is a strategy that is often used by emotionally intelligent adults. So, if your teen questions the validity of what you are doing, you can reassure them that this is a form of self-management that skilled adults use to move through difficult problems or work.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your teen to practice vital new skills. With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Reading practice can take the form of reading together, reading individually, or talking about what each person in the family is reading. When teens talk about what they are reading, they are growing vital new brain connections around presentation, summarizing, and synthesizing.
- Use “I’d love to hear…” statements. When a teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “I’d love to hear more about the book you are reading.” This can be used when you are in the after school routine and need that alert to move on to reading time.
- At school your teen will routinely have to provide summaries of books they are reading. Asking your teen about the books they are reading helps them practice this skill. Get curious about their points of view. Ask questions to gather more information. Probe further when they give you short answers. For example, if you ask how your teen likes a book, and your teen responds with “It’s okay,” you can follow up with:
- “What keeps you interested in the book?”
- “Tell me a little bit about the story.”
- “What do you hope happens in the story?”
- “What’s the overall message of the book?”
- “What do you think about the message?”
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you sat down to read without my prompting. Looks like you’re enjoying it. Great!”
- Proactively remind your teen to help them be successful. You may whisper in your teen’s ear, “Remember what time it is? What are you reading today?”
Resist the temptation to nag. Teens are eager to push away and demonstrate their independence. Have confidence that your modeling is enough to promote a positive reading habit.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen several new positive learning habits so that they understand how to perform them. You’ve practiced together, and now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teens fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Promote a learning attitude. Show every confidence that your teen can learn anything with time and practice (because they truly can). Your comments and reflections will matter greatly in how competent they feel to meet any learning challenge especially when it comes to tackling difficult text or moving through research.
- Ask key questions.
- “It looks like you aren’t really enjoying this book. What might help?”
- “How are you feeling about your reading tonight?”
- Coach on communications. You might notice your teen struggling and getting stuck even with your support. You might then say, “Seems like you are unsure which sections you need to read. How can you get this figured out?”
- Stay engaged. It can be highly motivating for a teen when a parent reads their own favorite book alongside keeping them company. Or, host a family reading party. Pop some popcorn, and all sit down with your current read.
Become aware of your own reactions to reading. Be sure that the tone and attitude you bring is one of enjoyment, curiosity, and learning.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You ended your video game when the timer went off and got out your reading for school — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you spend time reading, I will let you have extra screen time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You took a brain break and came back and worked through that challenging section. Great!”
- Notice! It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your teen is choosing to read, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you are almost at the end of your book. You must be enjoying it!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Let’s take a break together when you’re done with your reading, and we can play a quick game.”
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.