Let them read!

Written by contributor Jena Borah of Yarns of the Heart

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Did you know the best way to help your kids become better readers is to let them read what they want? Research supports it, my reading professors echoed it, and in fact, The Illinois Reading Council Journal published two articles on the topic this quarter.

The secret to this simple teaching method is intrinsic motivation. If students want to read the material, they spend more time and try harder, figuring out ways to understand. As a result, they invent comprehension strategies that are personally meaningful and the information is more likely to stick with them.

One of the articles that caught my eye this month is “The Effect of Time Spent Reading During Intervention Block,” by Jennifer Lawler and Linda Wedwick. In it they reviewed past studies as well as described their own and concluded that allowing students time to “just read” led to increased reading levels. Another article by Melissa Stinnett called “Adolescent Reading Within Online Games” described students reading several grade levels above their normal levels simply because they were motivated to learn more about online games.

I love finding information like this. It’s hard to accept that kids can learn and grow without direct instruction from adults, but educators continue to offer evidence that it’s true. 

I taught my kids this way, and it was a lot of fun. We enjoyed exploring the library, looking for whatever interested them. I didn’t limit them to books at their reading level (though we did hang out in the children’s section the most). Once they settled into a section of books, I’d leave them alone, then help them carry their treasures home. 

As parents and teachers, we think we have to micromanage our kids’ brains. But really, if they are allowed just a little time every day to find a book that interests them, sit down and read it, the things they accomplish will astound us.

When Peter (my oldest) left the ACT exam, he said, “I think I got a few wrong, but it was pretty easy. Those reading passages were so interesting! I wish there were more of them.”

He was a seasoned veteran of dealing with difficult, above-grade-level texts, and he knew just what to do with them because he had done it many, many times before.

That skill led to a high score that got him a full ride scholarship to college, graduating with honors, and a job that has him deciphering complicated legal issues–and he continues to fearlessly tackle whatever interests him.

How do you feel about giving your kids time to “just read”?

About Jena Borah

Jena Borah homeschooled her three children all the way to college. She blogs about her homeschooling years and her interest-led philosophy at Yarns of the Heart.


  1. OH I needed this! THANK YOU!! My almost five year old is beginning to read. You know why? Because I laid out some Thomas the Train readers. He LOVES Thomas –so he started to read it! 🙂

    I am interested to know how you encouraged to find books at the library. I don’t seem to know how to direct him very well to find books he loves. Maybe I should take him without the younger two so we can really sit and find books and I’m not chasing toddlers…
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau’s latest post: When Reality Collides With the Ideal

    • Hi Johanna,

      Great idea to set out Thomas the Train! You really have to steer him to different topics until you hit on something. Just sit down in front of the bookshelves and start pulling out picture books. Start in the train section (transportation). Ask your librarian where to find them. Picture books are usually really inviting, so he’s sure to find things that interest him, no matter where you start.
      Jena’s latest post: Overcoming the Fall Slump

  2. We don’t have tv in our home, so my children often spend 2 or 3 hours “just reading” during the day. I tried to monitor their reading in the beginning, but they read so much! Now I just try to help them find good books during a library trip or suggest classics they might enjoy. My 15 year old’s score of 32 on the reading portion of the ACT seems to indicate that “just reading” makes readers. Thanks for your article.
    Jen@anothergranolamom’s latest post: Following Good Advice: Teaching Kids to Write Nonfiction

  3. Thanks, I, too, needed to read this.
    Maggie S.’s latest post: Honey, That’s Not a Bird

  4. I really enjoyed this article! Thank you and sharing on my fb wall and page!

  5. Yes, yes, and yes!!!

    It is so important to give kids a choice in what they read. I’m not saying there’s never required reading, but kids need the ability to explore and discover and decide what they enjoy. Isn’t this the way we grown-ups read all the time?
    Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Follow Me to the Nerdy Book Club

  6. I agree! I think a lot of Christian homeschooling are so terrified of “twattle/twittle/tweeting/whatever the term is,” that we constantly shove our required reading at them, and become horrified if they want to pick up a Captain Underpants. It’s not all glorious literature, all the time, and it doesn’t have to be. When I finally gave up with swimming lessons with my middler, and quit forcing it, she cheerfully taught herself. My oldest is a FEROCIOUS reader: she reads 5 large novels a week. What really got her hooked on reading? The Warrior series. Yeah. Warrior cats or some such odd thing…whatever floats her boat! Sure, there’s been one or two I’ve said no to (picked from the teen library), but for the most part, I let them bring home whatever they want. Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover – and that includes us mommies!
    melyssa’s latest post: Five

  7. How timely! My children read specific books that are scheduled as part of their curriculum. Yesterday my son (3rd grade) suggested that he read what interested him because he really doesn’t like his readers. I wasn’t’ so sure. If he just picks what he wants it won’t correlate with the curriculum (LOL). What if it doesn’t increase his reading level? What if he chooses books himself that are twaddle? I’m been so wishy-washy with changing things the last couple of years, that I’m afraid that letting him choose would make things too easy and he would be behind. (My kids state test at the end of this school year). I’m so thrilled that you wrote this post. I know it’s something God had planned for me today♥

  8. I know what kind of books interest my oldest and he is constantly asking me to request more books for him from the library…but, the other kids totally surprise me by what they bring home from the library! Thanks for this!

  9. We love books here, too…we read everything, but I try to steer them to the classics
    priest’s wife’s latest post: From Simple Turnip to Glorious Lebanese Delicacy- ’31 days’- day 24

  10. Interesting. We went through a basic phonics program with my son last spring and since then we’ve just let him read whatever he can find (we haven’t started formal schooling yet). Sometimes he reads to us and we’ve been wondering how he can read so much better than he could at the end of the phonics book. I guess our experience backs up that research.

  11. My first-grade son does not enjoy reading his grade-level readers to me, but just last week he asked me to take turns reading from a Star Wars comic book he checked out from the library. I had previously refused to read those aloud to him, mostly because they annoy me and they do fall into the “twaddle” category. Then I realized that he was working hard to read way above his ability level without any of the frustration he experiences during reading practice. I guess I need to get off my high horse, accept that I don’t get to decide what is intrinsically motivating to him, and allow Luke Skywalker to help him become a great reader.

  12. We don’t watch much TV, therefore we have readers. Even my 5 year old who can’t read much, loves to sit with a book and make up her own stories for it, including chapter books with few pictures. While I do sensor some of the books we bring home from the library I don’t worry about most of them. I try to make sure they aren’t checking out books that are above their maturity level or that go against what we are teaching them. There is a time and place for those books, which isn’t right now, unless we are reading it together and can discuss it. I read to my kids a lot. They all enjoy it, even the older ones enjoy listening to me read short picture books to the younger ones and the younger ones enjoy listening to me read books to the older kids.
    Suanna’s latest post: Bountiful Baskets #’s 7 and 8

  13. Encouraging children to read begins with parents and educators introducing interesting books and reading-related activities at an early age. But even if children are not exposed to books early on, adults can create an interest in reading by engaging children in stimulating activities that encourage a long-lasting relationship with books. Games, technology and field trips provide fun incentives that ultimately inspire children to continue reading.
    Yvonne’s latest post: yeast infection guide

  14. This is soooo true! I was a public school teacher for 17 years, and a language arts lead, and study after study shows that reading anything improves reading level. I love great literature, and my kids love listening to great books, but what do they choose to read on their own? Graphic novels. Stacks and stacks of them. It doesn’t matter what they read, just That they read!

    • wait, I guess I don’t know what graphic novels are? haha I thought they were just pictures without words. Kinda like comics, but without the word bubbles. Since your kids like them so much, would you mind clarifying what are they exactly? Thanks!

      Lana Wilkens’s latest post: November = No-Spend Month

      • Great question! Graphic novels are basically comic books, but without the endless storyline. I just bought a graphic novel version of a Scott Westerfeld book (The Uglies series). These are good for struggling older readers because they are so visual. You can even get classics like Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein in a graphic novel version. Reading teaching is becoming more aware of the need for visual literacy–how to interpret visual media–and graphic novels help in that area too. Interesting stuff!
        Jena’s latest post: Overcoming the Fall Slump

    • It’s great to hear from a public school teacher! Don’t you wish we could provide more freedom to read in the schools?
      Jena’s latest post: Overcoming the Fall Slump

  15. Great article! I love reading veteran homeschool mom advice! 🙂

  16. I have always stocked my girls’ playroom with tons of books. When they were tiny we had lots of board books so they couldn’t destroy them (at least not as quickly) and anytime they brought one to us we would stop what we were doing and read to them. At very small ages they were picking up books and sitting down to “read” them. They learned to hold the book properly, turn the pages as they read, and that reading is FUN! Now, at 4 years old, they are beginning to learn how to sound out words and some sight words. They are so interested in learning to read because of the exposure they have always had to books. I love watching them sit and pour over their favorite books, reciting the stories over and over again!

  17. Is this more for when they have already learned phonics and all that stuff? I’m assuming you’re meaning to encourage us to not get so set on them reading certain readers, but just books that interest them right?

    I too have a 5 year old who is interested and has learned all but maybe 7-8 sounds and I’m wondering if I should wait until then to start letting him “just read” or if I should let him venture out beyond the lesson book to real books yet. 🙂 Thanks,

    Lana Wilkens’s latest post: November = No-Spend Month

    • Hi Lana,

      Even kids who don’t have a firm grasp on phonics like to look at books and do what they can. But yes, I’m talking more about kids who are independent enough to have an opinion about what they like to read. Of course we parents can steer them to topics and authors we feel comfortable with, but the older they get, the more freedom they appreciate.
      Jena’s latest post: Overcoming the Fall Slump

  18. Elizabeth Kane says:

    Great points, Jena. I think saying which books are relevant to a child and which books aren’t can end up hurting them in the end. It’s like telling them, “Your interests aren’t good enough.” Reading for pleasure shouldn’t take a back seat to their curriculum – it should be a priority. After all, once someone stops handing you over a syllabus to follow, it’s all up to you to find out what’s worth learning in your life. Parents who raise kids to be self-directed learners get a leg up on everyone else.

  19. Absolutely! I like the way you put that. 🙂
    Jena’s latest post: Overcoming the Fall Slump

  20. We have done this from the very beginning and now my boys’ reading levels are grades above (7th grader – evaluator basically said let him read at whatever level he wants; 3rd grader – 8th grade level). They LOVE to read because I firmly believe they have had the freedom to read what they want (most of the time).
    Karen’s latest post: Spanish Language Podcast: "A mi aire"

  21. My now 11 years old daughter is an excellent reader with a pretty amazing vocabulary. She thinks correcting bad grammar is fun. (This is the first year we’ve done much with grammar, she gets it all from reading and listening to well-crafted sentences.)

    It wasn’t always so with her reading. She was a rather late bloomer, reading-wise. What really spurred her on to decode it all for herself was that I wasn’t available to read what she wanted to know on Webkinz. I’ll take it however I can get it.

    Presently my 8 years old son is reading at least a novel a day. He’s a little driven. Current interests are How to Train Your Dragon series and the Chillers stuff by Rand. Bless his little self, he also plows through whatever I assign him with gusto and retention. He taught himself to read while his Mom was in a hypo-thyroid stupor for a couple months.

    I take little credit for my kids’ abilities. God sent them to me smart and I just haven’t wrecked them, yet.

  22. They never stop reading!
    I love it, they love it.
    My younger one was a late starter, 8 or 9 when he firt read a book, but he’s way above grade level now, in no time at all.
    What is mentioned above about gaming is absolutely true to, it helped both of them with numbers and literacy, and still does,
    Alyson’s latest post: The Ultimate Family Adventure Travel Story: Somewhere Different

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