All About the Books

How can parents and educators turn the page on kids who are reading less and computing more?

By Mary Tamer, on March 3, 2015 12:21 PM
All About the Books: How can parents and educators turn the page on kids who are reading less and computing more? #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

In a world full of distraction — Minecraft, anyone? — should we be worried about how many books kids are reading these days?

According to a biannual reading poll from Scholastic, the answer is a resounding yes.

As reported by the Boston Globe on February 16, Scholastic’s 2014 poll of more than 2,500 parents and children “found that the number of kids ages 6–17 who frequently read books for fun (5–7 days a week) is lower than it was four years ago — down to 31 percent from 37 percent. While more than half (53 percent) of kids ages 6–8 are frequent readers, that figure falls to just 14 percent for kids ages 15–17.”

As role models, parents aren’t doing much better. The percentage of parents with children ages 6–17 who read frequently is also down, from 28 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2014.

In addition to Scholastic’s own suggested remedies, Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members Joe Blatt, Nonie Lesaux, and Catherine Snow compiled a comprehensive distillation of literacy research into a short guidebook titled Encouraging Your Child to Read. Here are their age-appropriate suggestions:

Your Baby (birth–18 months)

What to know:

  • Babies learn language while being held and cared for by adults who repeat words to them; tell them stories; laugh and smile with them; and respond to their noises, smiles, and burps.
  • When you read to your baby, she’s learning. Plus, she begins to connect reading with what she loves most — being with you!

How to help:

  • Talk to your baby! Repeat nursery rhymes, sing songs, play peek-a-boo, and respond to her needs with soothing words.
  • Take advantage of everyday moments to talk about the world around you. Tell her stories while she is being changed, in the bath, in her stroller, or being held. She needs to hear your voice and learn about things that she sees.
  • Read board books with faces, animals, and objects that you can talk about with your baby, then add lift-the-flap books when reading with your 1-year-old.
  • When talking to your child, use the language(s) that are most comfortable for you, so that she hears lots of different words and ideas.


  • Uses her voice to express her feelings (laughing, crying)
  • Imitates speech by saying things like “na-na, da-da”
  • Understands several simple phrases
  • At 1 year, can say one or more words
  • Looks at books

Your Toddler (18 months–3 years)

What to know:

  • Children become “readers” before they learn to read. Enjoying books together now will help them enjoy books later.
  • When children have lots of opportunities to talk and listen, they are building important language skills.

How to help:

  • Listen to your child talk and encourage her to say more. Ask her questions, show interest in what she says, and help her learn new words and ideas.
  • When you are with your child, limit distractions like phone calls and television. Instead, talk, read, and play together. Consider borrowing books from the library.
  • Make books a part of the daily routine. Special reading time might be before bed, during a meal, or while you are riding the bus.
  • Give your child paper and crayons so she can “write.” Ask her to explain what is happening in her picture or story. Help her think of more ideas to add.


  • At 2 years, can say 250–350 words
  • At 3 years, can say 800–1000 words
  • Says common rhymes, imitates the tone and sounds of adults speaking, and asks to be read to
  • Enjoys listening to predictable, familiar books and joins in when it is time to say a repeated phrase in the story

Your Toddler/Preschooler (3–5 years)

What to know:

  • Learning lots of words from birth helps to make preschoolers readers for life.
  • Children become “writers” before they learn to write. Children’s scribbles, pictures, and attempts at writing alphabet letters are all important beginnings to strong literacy skills.

How to help:

  • When reading together, encourage your child to talk. Have her “pretend read” the parts she has memorized. Ask her questions and encourage her to say more. Eventually, she might tell more of the story than you do!
  • Point out words on signs and talk about the letters and sounds. Ask your child to find letters she knows on menus or street signs.
  • Link the books you read to people, places, and things your child knows or sees when you’re out.
  • Play with words and sounds by singing, reading, and making up rhymes together. Call attention to words that have similar sounds (“Dad and dance both start with the same sound, d-d-d-d dad, d-d-d-d dance!”)
  • Have your child tell you stories, and write down what she says. Ask questions that will help her complete the story. Then, read the story you wrote together.


  • Comfortably uses sentences, plays with words, and learns from conversations and books that are read aloud
  • Recognizes familiar letters and words such as her name — and attempts to write them
  • Identifies words that rhyme or have the same beginning sound
  • Holds a book right-side-up, turns the pages, and understands that pages are read from left to right and from top to bottom

Your Early Elementary Student (grades K–2)

What to know:

  • Positive reading experiences encourage more reading. The more children read, the better they will read.
  • Early readers can build their confidence and abilities by rereading books they are very familiar with. Repetition is good!
  • Reading and talking about nonfiction — not just storybooks — helps younger children learn information and skills that they need for academic success in upper grades.

How to help:

  • Read and reread your child’s favorite books — electronic or print — and, eventually, she will be able to read them to you.
  • Listen to your child read and tell you stories. Then, have a conversation about them.
  • Play board games and card games and talk about what’s happening as you play.
  • Limit and monitor your child’s computer and television time. During screen time, help choose programs that will both interest her and build knowledge. Ask what she has learned, and find books on these subjects at the local library.
  • Expose your child to new things and information by taking her to a museum, the zoo, or a different neighborhood. Encourage her to talk about what she sees.


  • At 5 years, can say 3000–5000 words, speaks using complex and compound sentences, and starts to match letters with sounds.
  • At 6 years, starts to read words on the page and make predictions while reading, using knowledge, pictures, and text.
  • At 7 years, starts to read words automatically, and expands knowledge by listening to and reading books

Your Upper Elementary Student (grades 3–5)

What to know:

  • The words we use in conversation are different from the words we see in books. Students need to understand this academic language in order to succeed in school.
  • Starting in grade 4, children are expected to “read to learn” — to gain information from books independently.
  • Children need encouragement, praise, and patience, especially when they are struggling in school.

How to help:

  • Hang maps or other word-filled posters. Hang her schoolwork to show how proud you are and emphasize the importance of working hard at school.
  • Challenge your child by reading aloud books or stories from the newspaper — electronic or print — that she cannot read on her own and by introducing her to new ideas and topics.
  • Keep what your child enjoys reading around the house. Many children enjoy kid-friendly magazines that you can find at your library or order by mail.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher. Learn about classroom work and how you can help at home.


  • At 8 years, reads chapter books and is now learning an estimated 3,000 words per year
  • At 9 years, can read aloud and silently, and understand what is read
  • At 10 years, begins to identify the themes in a text

Your Young Teen (grades 6-9)

What to know:

  • Many children lose interest in reading during middle school. Finding reading material every day that captures their interest can help them continue to build knowledge and skills.
  • Vocabulary growth is critical throughout middle school to prepare for understanding high school textbooks.
  • Many children need extra support as reading requirements increase during these years.

How to help:

  • Talk with your child about what is in the news, or what is happening at your workplace or at her school. Like many teens, she values privacy, but appreciates knowing that you are there for her.
  • Put word games, trivia challenges, or light reading materials around the home where she will see them and hopefully pick them up to read.
  • Encourage good study habits, like setting goals, completing assignments on time, and asking for help from a teacher when needed. Establish a space at home for homework.
  • Get your child involved in activities she enjoys such as sports, volunteering, music, or book clubs. These activities help her explore interests and keep her connected to school.
  • If your older teen has trouble with comprehension, read it yourself and discuss it with her, then encourage her to try again.


  • Chooses things to read that she wants to talk and write about
  • Understands how authors think
  • Can compare points of view and ideas from different books on the same topic
  • Learns new information while reading, to develop her ideas and knowledge
  • Can experience success when reading about subjects that are familiar and interesting to her, even when she struggles with school reading

Supporting Your Child’s Success

  • Talk to your child about what you are reading. It is key to show your child that you enjoy reading and think that learning is important.
  • Visit the library and borrow books for yourself as well as for your child. Talk to your child about what you are reading. It is key to show your child that you enjoy reading and think that learning is important.
  • Scatter books, magazines, newspapers, and comics in everyday places — the car, her bedroom, or the breakfast table.
  • View websites together with your child, share e-books, even listen to audiobooks. This all counts as reading — every little bit helps!
  • Listen and talk to your child. She is never too young or old to learn from conversation. Talk about things that interest her and encourage her to ask questions.
  • Have conversations with teens about current events and happenings in your community.
  • Stay involved throughout your child’s years in school. Attend parent-teacher conferences and chaperone field trips. Or arrange another time when you can meet with teachers or talk by phone. Show your child that her education is important to you.
  • Remember, reading is social. Talking about what kids and adults are reading is part of academic success!


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Faculty in this article

Joseph Blatt

Joe Blatt is interested in the impact of media and technology on the healthy development of children and young people. From Muppets to movies, music videos to maintaining an online social presence, how does digital experience affect identity, socialization, informal learning, and civic behavior?

Nonie K. Lesaux

Nonie Lesaux's research is driven by the goal of increasing the literacy-learning opportunities for today's linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse students. Bridging developmental and intervention research, her work generates evidence and strategies for policymakers and practitioners.

Catherine Snow

Catherine Snow is developing approaches to literacy instruction that incorporate attention to engaging tasks, content-focused reading and writing, and the extensive use of discussion in classrooms. She conceptualizes innovative curriculum as a support teachers in implementing these new practices.