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The Do’s and Don’ts for Family Reading

Find out what works for creating a family reading culture at home.

Everyone knows that creating a culture of reading at home is desirable. Families who read together from birth until adulthood are much more likely to create lifelong readers. Sociologists tell us that few families achieve a true culture of reading at home. For the ones that do, the benefits are great. Kids who grow up in a true reading culture in the home reap human, educational, economic, and even social benefits.

Here are ten research- and evidence-based do’s and don’ts for family reading. At the end of this list you’ll find the recently published “Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader” by Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, esteemed Book Review editor of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Dr. Friedman's list will help you align your family reading with both science and expert opinion.


1. Read aloud from birth and engage in interactive book sharing through adulthood.

Starting at birth is important because about 85% of your child’s brain is developed between birth and age three, making this the best time to jumpstart the reading brain. A parent’s language input, talk, and interaction with the child during book sharing are key catalysts for the child’s reading brain. Read-aloud parents not only build vocabulary and background knowledge for comprehension, but they also bond with their child and make book reading intrinsically motivational. Starting early and continuing through adulthood have fundamental impacts on a child’s intellectual and social-emotional development for the rest of his or her life. In other words, reading with your child is a gift that lasts a lifetime. Start by educating yourself for choosing the right books (see list below).

2. Be a cheerleader, not a nagger or assigner.

The purpose of Shared Reading at home is to have fun and explore new worlds. Reading should not be a chore for the child.

Focus on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Think of shared reading as a time to bond with your child by making it interactive and fun. You want kids to read because they enjoy it and, ultimately, so they will practice reading independently and become fluent readers. Avoid setting up a routine for providing tangible rewards for reading. Reading should be entertaining, enlightening, or a relaxing escape (intrinsic motivation), not a task for getting paid, winning a prize, or because you are harping on achievement, such as getting admitted to Harvard (extrinsic motivation). Kids who are only rewarded for achievement become anxious when they fail.

Set up rituals and routines and praise effort. Say: “Good boy!” “Good girl!” “You make me proud for trying!” It’s OK to fail or not to be the best at everything and that holds true for reading. It’s good for kids to take risks as readers, choose their own topics and books, be creative, use their imaginations, and make mistakes as well as make meaning. Kids learn by messing up and trying again. If they don’t like a book, it’s fine to exchange it for something else.

Help your child discover the pleasures of reading. Wendy Griswold reminds us of the pleasures of reading, which I call the four E’s: escape, enjoyment, entertainment, and enlightenment. (Griswold, 2008)

3. Create a home library and model reading in the home.

Research from 42 nations showed that having books in the home enhanced academic scores of children from all economic levels. Beyond that, simply adding one additional book to the existing home library increased the child’s standardized test scores across nations with greater increases at the lower economic levels. (Jacobs, 2014)

Additional modeling “do’s” include having a reading routine yourself and setting reasonable limits for screen time. That being said, you should use common sense. A great deal of learning is now happening both on screens and online so reasonable screen time is acceptable, even for toddlers when it’s interactive with parents.

4. Discuss college at home and make “learning” a family value.

Research shows that discussing college is one of the most effective strategies for parent involvement! So make discussing college a natural part of your family reading get-together even before high school. In many reading families children grow up with the self-image of being a reader along with the expectation of attending college.

In an article on self-image and helping kids see themselves as readers, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham raises the bar for what it means to be a reading family. He writes, “Reading aloud to children and having a lot of books in the house are obvious influences. What else contributes? We can broaden our appeal by focusing not just on being a reading family, but on being a learning family, one that seeks and exploits opportunities to learn new things. Reading an important part of that, though it’s not the only way that the value is expressed.” (Willingham, 2015)

5. Commit to hard work and inconvenience.

Creating a culture of reading in the home takes hard work on the part of the parent. (Friedman, 2015)

In Griswold’s Regionalism and the Reading Class (2008), she disputes the notion that reading is at risk culturally. From a sociological and historical perspective, she says it’s normal for the reading culture to be a small group. Everyone is not going to create a family reading club, and it may be unnatural to expect all families to join the “reading culture,” which is a step in dedication above “the reading class.” That being said, all families should join the reading class and encourage children to read independently for leisure at home.


1. Don’t nag, criticize, or make readers anxious.
2. Don’t punish kids for bad grades. Find ways to help them do better, e.g., books on tape or, in cases of a severe reading disability, consider a tutor.
3. Don’t send your child to her room to read while you watch TV, especially if it’s a program that she would like to watch with you.
4. Don’t be a reading snob! Encourage kids to read from a balanced diet of comics, eBooks, children’s literature, appropriate magazines, newspapers, and the like.
5. Don't put down struggling readers. Encourage struggling readers to read anything! Dyslexic children, who must overcome dyslexia by reorganizing the reading circuitry in their brains, often begin with a thirst for reading something they are intensely interested in, such as comics.

Begin your quest for developing a culture of reading at home with this highly touted reading list for parents. Note that each title is followed by a snippet of Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman’s review:

Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader (Friedman, 2015)

1. Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar

“Using luminous language Tatar examines the stories we love and how readers think about, and remember, them.”

2. Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood by J.A. Appleyard

“This book relies on psychology and literary theory to talk about how we read fiction over our lives…”

3. Regionalism and the Reading Class by Wendy Griswold

“This short book by sociology professor Wendy Griswold is written about the reading class, for the reading class.”

4. Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age—From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between by Jason Boog

“Boog’s view is moderate; he explains, ‘This book also acknowledges that reading and learning—even for small children—is happening more and more on screens and online. Whatever your feelings about that, it’s a truth to be embraced, not shunned’.”

5. I’m Ready!: How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Weitzman

“This speech-language pathologist team combines the theory and research behind literacy and turns it into useful, directed, and doable suggestions for parents.”

6. Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7 by J. Richard Gentry

“Gentry is a former Reading Professor and elementary school-age teacher, so he knows a lot about which he writes.”

7. The Reading Lesson: The Intelligent Reading Program for Young Children by Michael Levin and Charan Langton

“Over 20 lessons this husband-and-wife doctor-master’s of science duo lay out ways parents can help children learn decoding skills (an important distinction because this is not a book about reading comprehension).”

8. Seuss’ ABC

“At the end of the day, no “planned” program can do better than basics like ABC books.”

9. Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Clement Hurd)

“Maria Tatar refers to this book as the mother of all bedtime stories.”

10. Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Boys and girls alike appreciate the frontier story of the Ingalls, and with nine volumes the works will keep you reading together for some time.”

So do read together as a family. Start in babyhood and continue through high school and beyond. Better readers lead to a better life and a better world!


Friedman, Hillary Levey. (2015). Top 10 books for raising a reader. Brain Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. September 26, 2015.

Griswold, Wendy. (2008). Regionalism and the Reading Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacobs, Tom. (2014). Books in the home are strongly linked to academic achievement. Pacific Standard. Santa Barbara, CA: Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy. May 27, 2014.…

Willingham, Dan. (20215). Self-image matters: Helping kids see themselves as readers. In Answer Sheet by Valarie Strauss, The Washington Post, (May 2, 2015).…

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and find out more information about his work on his website.