When you visit your grandchildren, do you find they spend more time with their Xboxes than with a book? It wouldn’t be surprising: The percentage of American kids ages 9 to 13 who say they read for fun almost daily has plunged, according to a 2019-2020 survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. About 42 percent of 9-year-olds said they did so, for instance, compared to 53 percent in 2012. Those children who do read for fun tend to score higher on reading tests, among other benefits, notes Katherine Schaeffer, a research analyst at Pew Research Center, in her analysis of the survey.
The adults in their lives can play a big role in helping kids become — or stay — excited about reading, says Beth Gaskill, a former elementary school teacher and literacy coach, and founder of Chicago-based Big City Readers, a research-based education company aimed to help grownups and their young kids (up to about age 12) learn to love reading.
While it’s important to read to young children, grandparents also can discuss books with their grandchildren from afar, as we noted in this story on how to start a grandchild book club.
“You don’t have to be living close by to have a meaningful connection,” says Gaskill. She offers the following tips for choosing books for younger children.
Babies and toddlers
Look for books that have clear visual images and messages. Avoid overcomplicated books with busy or overdone illustrations. You want them to use their imagination and not be overwhelmed by a book with too much elaborate imagery. Example: Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton
Choose books that have rhyming patterns — these provide reading lessons while being fun for kids to follow along. You can easily pause when reading and let kids fill in the rhyming word at the end of each sentence. Children are smart, and they love to come up with the word when you pause. Example: Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle
When reading to babies, pick books with fun sounds (like animal noises) so they can join in with their own noises. Infants “coo” their words or sentences, and these types of books help them learn sound recognition and a reading skill called “phonological awareness.” Example: Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
Look for books with a fun twist ending the kids won’t see coming. Kids also like to have language patterns to follow or, even better, a “pattern interrupt” in the storytelling and language. Examples: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Hats Are Not for Cats! by Jacqueline K. Rayner
Let children see you reading your own books and enjoying them. There’s no prize for who learns to read first, but having a love of reading does set kids up for success.
Book gift ideas:
My First I Can Read series
Step Into Reading series
The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds
Kids are really developing their reading skills at this age. Emphasize fun while learning. Play silly word games, such as switching the first letter in the words for what you’re having for dinner, like “mepperoni mizza.”
Book gift ideas:
Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne
Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo
Who Would Win? series by Jerry Pallotta
Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott
We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi
Keep reading to your grandkids, even at this age (if they’re willing to listen). Choose books that are slightly above their independent reading level to help build their language skills and vocabulary.
Set a timer for 20 minutes for everyone to read, and then have each person share what they’ve read. But “never use reading as a punishment,” says Gaskill.
Don’t be afraid to quit a book in the middle. You can come back to it, but let your grandkids know they’re allowed to not like every book. You don’t want children to see reading as a chore.
Book gift ideas:
Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (“He’s a middle-school dyslexic, and it becomes his superpower,” says Gaskill. “He decodes messages because letters jump off the page.”)
Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner
Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (for 12 and up)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
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