Using Psychological Strategies to Help Your Child Read More

by John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D. and Nicola Schutte, Ph.D.

Introduction

In mid 1998, when our daughter, Christine, turned six years old, she struggled to read books. We knew six-years-olds who read easily, but Christine did not, and we felt worried.

Christine kept trying, and we continued to do everything we could think of to facilitate her reading. Christine gradually read more and more. Before her seventh birthday, she started reading over 100 books a month. She continued to read at that rate month after month, during both the school year and the summer, even though she progressively tackled longer books. She read over a thousand books in 1999.  At the start of the year 2000, we stopped counting the books she read, as she moved up to 100-300 page books, reading about one per day.  Christine later turned to teen and adult books, reading daily.

Would you like to help your child read more? Maturation, biological reading potential, and a number of parenting strategies helped Christine develop into an eager, competent reader. We can't offer anything to help your child mature faster or add biological ability, but we can describe the strategies my wife and I used to facilitate Christine's reading. Many of these strategies are specific applications of principles we teach in a Behaviour Modification class for university students. See Martin & Pear (2003) and Bandura (1986) for more information about principles of learning.

If you use all these strategies, will your children read a hundred books a month?  Some children will, and some won't, depending on age, biological ability, types of books selected, etc. However, without these strategies virtually no children will read that much. The primary mission of parents is to help their children develop to their full potential, and these strategies as a group can help parents do that.

After listing the strategies we used, we will include Christine's child-to-child suggestions for increasing reading, answers to questions you might have about increasing your child's reading, a bibliography, and author information.

Parenting Strategies Used to Help Christine Enjoy Reading and Read a Great Deal

(With the Principle of Learning Theory Involved)

We:

  1. Read to her often starting when she was an infant. (Modelling & classical conditioning by pairing reading and pleasant interaction with parent)
  2. Read to her every night when she went to bed, even on vacation. (Modelling & classical conditioning)
  3. Read often in front of her and made positive remarks about what read. (Modelling & vicarious reinforcement)
  4. Read different books to her each day when she was young, averaging over 20 new books a week. (Modelling)
  5. Posted the letters of the alphabet in her bedroom. (Instruction)
  6. Encouraged her to read more books in one year than either parent ever had. (Goal setting)
  7. Had a small party whenever she read 10 books and then later whenever she read 100 books. (Reinforcement/rewarding and weaning off artificial elements of reinforcement
  8. Praised her for reading and pointed out benefits she will experience as a result of reading a great deal, e.g., learning a great deal, doing well in school, having many career options, and leading many lives through the stories. (Reinforcement/reward)
  9. Recorded the name of every book she read and kept a count. (Feedback on progress)
  10. Encouraged her to watch Sesame Street. (Instruction)
  11. Set a limit of 1 and ½ hours of TV per day, with only one hour allowed on a school day. (Eliminating reinforcement for competing, less desirable behaviours)
  12. Each year went one week with "No TV." (Eliminating reinforcement for competing, less desirable behaviours)
  13. Rarely watched TV ourselves. (Modelling)
  14. Took her to the library two times or so every week to check out books and to attend library events for children. (Choosing environments with positive models)
  15. Entered her each year in a summer reading program for kids. (Reinforcement/reward)
  16. Provided her with a new book to read when we took a road trip of over 10 minutes. (Prompting and maximizing opportunities for reading to occur)
  17. Took new books along for her to read when flew somewhere. (Prompting & maximizing opportunities for reading to occur)
  18. Continued to read to her at times even after she started reading herself. At that point we read books to her that were too difficult for her to read herself. (Instruction, classical conditioning, modelling)
  19. Encouraged her to read just about everything written that encountered, including road signs, newspaper cartoons, and letters. (Prompting)
  20. Encouraged her to read to her younger brother. (Prompting)
  21. Told her that reading well would help her enjoy many choices for a career. (Stating a rule of what behaviour leads to what consequences in ordinary life)
  22. Told her that we spend much of our work day reading. (Symbolic modelling)
  23. Bought or borrowed age-appropriate computer games intended to facilitate reading. (Instruction & reinforcement/reward)
  24. Corrected her mis-reading and mis-pronunciations when she read to us, but only for important words. (Prompting & avoiding punishing)
  25. Chose books for her to read that had fewer than five words per page that she could not read correctly. (Behaviour trapping, i.e., increasing a behaviour that is naturally reinforced by the joy of successfully reading)
  26. Showed her how to find books in the library that interest her and that are within her reading ability. (Instruction & weaning of assistance)
  27. Helped her obtain a library card of her own as soon as she could print her first name. (Reinforcement & weaning of assistance)
  28. Bought her many books. (Prompting)
  29. Showed interest in the books she read, for instance by asking her about the moral of the story. (Reinforcement/reward)
  30. Subscribed to age-appropriate magazines for her, such as Sesame Street and Barney . (Prompting)

Child-to-Child Suggestions for Increasing Reading

Hi!

  1. Make a goal and increase it
  2. Bring books in the car, and a flashlight
  3. Put books in the bathroom, in the dining room and in other rooms
  4. Make a limit on a school day of an hour of TV
  5. Get books that are just right for you.

Bye. Christine.

Important Questions and Answers About Increasing a Child's Reading

1. What is a reasonable goal for number of books read by a child in a week or month?

Answer: A good initial goal is slightly more than the child is reading now. So a reasonable goal for a child who hasn't read a book in the past week might be one book per week or one book read at any time. You and your child can gradually increase the goal. Setting a goal that is unrealistically high will not facilitate reading. Christine, my wife, and I never set a goal of 100 books a month until after Christine had read at that level for a few months.

2. Which strategy is most valuable?

Answer: We believe that reading a child many different books a week has the greatest effect.  We read Christine over a thousand different books a year when she was 3-5 years old.  When she turned six, she read over a thousand different books in a year.  Coincidence?  Some parents read the same books over and over to a child.  We think that it is more productive to read different books as much as possible.  Think about whether you as an adult would rather read the same 30 books repeatedly or different books all the time.  Reading different books to children rather than the same ones has many advantages.  It (1) is more interesting for the child and parent, (2) leads to greater child exposure to vocabulary, and (3) leads the child to more total information about how things work socially, how the physical world works, what motivates individuals, and what emotions people experience.  Reading many different books a week to Christine usually involved two or three visits a week to the local library, leaving each time with about 12 books for her.

3. How much time does a parent need to spend to use these strategies?

Answer: Before Christine started reading hundreds of book a year, we spent on average an hour a day taking Christine to the library, finding books for her, listening to her read, reading to her, or talking with her about the books she read. Note that many of the strategies we used take very little time on a daily basis.

4. Which books are best?

Answer: The ones your child likes the most. Try to find authors or types of books your child likes. Ask librarians or booksellers for award-winning, best selling, or highly recommended children's books or see Children's book awards

5. Can a child read too much?

Answer: It's possible, but we have never seen that happen. Reading for 30-90 minutes a day on average will benefit virtually any child. However, other activities also can benefit children, including playing, sleeping, engaging in arts and crafts, etc.

6. Don't rewards actually reduce the motivation to read?

Answer:  A. Kohn wrote a book saying that rewarding desired behavior actually reduces performance.  Common sense and a host of studies tell us otherwise.  At the international level, capitalism has defeated communism across the world because rewards for achievement are powerful incentives for the high productivity characteristic of capitalistic countries. At the individual level, we see how children do something again and again if they receive praise for it.  Research studies have shown that rewards produce increased effort in a wide variety of behaviors.  There is one narrow exception though.  If we start rewarding individuals for a behavior they are already doing at a high rate, we use a tangible reward only (e.g., money), with no praise, and we stop giving the reward, the rate of the behavior tends to go down lower than it was at the start.  See Eisenberger and Cameron (1996) for a review of the relevant research.  One simple way to avoid this problem is to praise positive behavior, whether it is reading or something else.

7. I've tried all these strategies and nothing seems to work with my son. What should I do?

Answer: Read to (or with) him happily every day just for "fun" -- no coaching him.  If he likes sports, read him articles in the sports section of the newspaper or in sports magazines.  Keep in mind that boys tend to develop reading skills more slowly than girls.  Ask him to select his own books.  Ask a children's librarian for books that a boy his age would like and read him some of those.  Encourage him to read where the payoff is immediate, such as a grocery list, a book of jokes he can tell, or a treasure-hunt set of instructions.  Try cartoons, child magazines, and comic books.  Talk with him excitedly about what you have been reading for enjoyment.  Keep using the strategies in the web site -- they may take a while to have effect.  If you are still seeing no progress, try using problem solving strategies (Malouff, 2010).

Bibliography

  • Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Eisenberger, R., & Cameron, J. (1996).  Detrimental effects of reward: reality or myth?  American Psychologist, 51, 1153-1166.
  • Malouff, J. (2010).  Fifty problem solving strategies explained.
  • Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2003). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Simon & Schuster.

Web Sites by the Same Author:

Malouff, J. (2004). Nine ways teachers can help young students overcome shyness

Malouff, J. (2010). Coping with the loss of a loved one

Malouff, J. (2005). Preventing child obesity

Malouff, J. (2010). Fifty problem solving strategies explained

Malouff, J. (2010). Helping children overcome shyness

Malouff, J. et al. (2006). Simple strategies academics can use to help students improve their writing skills

Malouff, J., & Schutte, N. (2004). Using psychological strategies to help your child read more (you are here now)

Author Information