Expert Tips for Keeping Busy Kids Connected to Books

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Photo credit: Sam Bloomberg-Rissman/Getty Images

Our lives can easily fill up with, well … life. When everything on our to-do lists feels both urgent and important, pleasure reading can seem a luxury. For many children and teens, as their lives get busier with new obligations and increasing distractions, the idea of curling up with a book can appear to be the stuff of fantasy, something that only kids in stories do. I asked a few experts how they keep busy kids connected to books.

Make time and space for kids to read.

“Give them time to read in class,” says educator and parent Jim Davis, who makes sure that his classroom library is well-stocked, and makes a point of getting to know his students so that he can make relevant recommendations.”

In her middle school classroom, Abrams allocates the first ten minutes of class to independent choice reading — for herself as well as her students. She’s also practical about reading expectations in her own home: “where test prep work has been abundant at school and love of reading often takes a backseat … Sometimes all we can do is one picture book read-aloud.”

Acknowledging that busy children will need support and flexibility can help. “For students with required reading assignments while their schedule is busy, they need to have a schedule for getting their reading completed,” she points out. “Parents can ask them how much time they have to complete the reading and help them with understanding how to manage the time … Reading ‘lights out’ leniency with middle and high school students will help students feel comfortable reading, even if it’s a little late. In fact, encouraging or continuing the bedtime story routine is healthy, definitely more so than screens.”

Educator LaKeisha Love Mason adds that young people who are naturally competitive can use that tendency to boost reading habits. She explains, “Busy students enjoy competition. As an athlete and/or performer they already run on scores, points, and parameters. Keep that competitive energy as your friend by utilizing it to drive them to read independently, regardless of their schedules.”

Use limited time well.

It can help to be realistic about the time you have and make the most of it. High school ELA teacher Gena Brown is also mom to a busy eighth grader and enjoys connecting over literature in their time together. She says, “I read with him. I love our book discussions on the way to school or practice.” Author Katey Howes also multitasks: “At home, we listen to audiobooks and bookish podcasts together while making dinner or doing yard work. My kids read a lot in the car.”

Children’s author Angele McQuade adds, “Audiobooks (even/especially shorter childhood faves) can help keep that love of story alive during carpools, errands, chores, exercise, meals, falling asleep, and can be enjoyed in the company of family and friends.”

“Poetry is magical for this,” says author Kate Messner in regards to incorporating reading into busy schedules. “No matter how busy kids are, there’s always time to share a poem.”

Take the pressure off kids.

It’s important to provide kids with time and space for books, and it’s also important to let their own interests shape their reading experience. When it comes to reading, middle school educator and NerdCamp NJ coordinator Oona Marie Abrams’s motto is “Nothing without joy!”

Cornelius Minor, Lead Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, reminds us that reading should not always be considered a solely academic task. He says, “I emphasize the functional or social value of reading over the academic value — short fiction and nonfiction during downtime, a return to reading aloud, audiobooks, magazines and periodicals on a topic of interest, self-help (how to make a team, apply to college, etc.).” Educator Alissa Elliott is also flexible about reading materials in her classroom: “I keep a diverse reading list in a Google Doc shared with the class and update it with poems, short stories, long-form articles, reviews, sports reporting, and cultural and political commentary on a wide range of topics, and offer in-class time to choose, read, and use as mentor texts.”

Author and educator Stephanie Jones is realistic about growing challenges as her child gets older. She told me that reading encouragement tactics worked for her daughter until about age 16. “Now it’s tougher,” she says, and she gives her child the freedom to move on from a book if she’s not engaged.

Walk the walk, and talk the talk.

High school librarian Jamie Gregory points out that modeling is vital. “Read with them!” says Gregory. “I love that I’m a former high school English teacher turned school librarian, so I can discuss with him what he’s reading. Pay attention to what they enjoy reading and help them find more of that. YOU have to read. Be the role model.”

Alison Johnson adds that it’s important to encourage discussion, “Talk about what you are reading. Make sure books are visible where you work, play, and rest.”

All children are readers. Respect for their choices, thoughts, and ideas about reading matters, and can make the difference between nurturing a young person who embraces the joy of literacy and one who sees reading as yet another chore. Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller always points back to the basics — access, time, choice, and community are key, she says. This means “consistent, engaging, relevant text access; daily time to read at school and home; support for their choices; and peers and mentors to share and discuss books.”