Desperately want to buy your son or daughter a book for Christmas? Worried that they don’t read enough? Your heart sinks when you see them glued to video games, iPads or smartphones? Watch their eyes melting, brain cells rotting, as they become hypnotised by the pixelated screens. Shocked by the degenerating standards of English in text-message conversations?
You read Wuthering Heights and the Cather in the Rye when you were their age, and those books changed your life, equipped you for adulthood, and helped you resolve your own existential conflicts? Now you worry your adolescent son or daughter won’t have this experience?
You are convinced books are indispensable for cognitive development? Kids who read acquire imaginative and intellectual attributes that kids who don’t won’t. Whether it be empathising with others, absorbing narratives, sustaining a logical argument, or the attention span to read and absorb a deep text, if your kids don’t read they won’t succeed academically. They will be held back and they won’t realise their dreams.
If you have all, or any one, of these worries, you are not alone, many parents do. However, there is help. Below is a list of tips and methods to encourage teenagers to read.
Read for Pleasure: One way to ensure a teenager will never read is to give him/her a classic or an educational tome. If teenagers don’t like reading, it’s probably because they see it as a chore; they equate reading with school, education and the curriculum, and not something enjoyable and pleasurable in its own right.
Encourage them to read books related to their own area of interests, related to the hobbies, pastimes and interests they are passionate about. If your son or daughter is a tech whizz, buy them a Steve Jobs’ biography, if he/she is a sports-mad extrovert, buy them the autobiography of their favourite sports star, and so forth.
Recommend Books Based on Films: Encouraging teenagers to read may be challenging, but encouraging them to watch movies shouldn’t be too taxing. Hollywood and the film industry are heavily reliant on literary adaptations, and book-conscious parents should exploit this. So, if they liked the film, loved the film even, buy them a present of the book.
Don’t be too disapproving of teenage literary choices. Movie franchises can be a pathway to reading. You may be right to dismiss Twilight as a third-rate teenage vampire trilogy, but if adolescents read Twilight now there is a better chance they will read better and more substantial literature later in life.
Don’t Impose Your Own Tastes on Teenagers: Be conscious of the generation gap. Giving teenagers the books you liked as a girl or lad can be a disaster. The Famous Five and the Hardy Boys were very popular when I was a younging, but are they likely to appeal to adolescents today? I would say probably not.
As I said above, if you want to give adolescents a life-long aversion to reading force them to read something they find boring and tedious, chain them to some long, complicated piece of literature, or dry and dated classic. Teenagers must read for pleasure’s sake, not because it soothes the educational anxieties of pushy parents.
Comic and Graphic Novels: Comic books and graphic novels are a great way to encourage kids to read, especially male teenagers who often have an allergic reaction to the written word. However, snobbish and superior attitudes towards comics are common: it’s not really reading; it’s little better than brain-cell burning video games. This is untrue and there is proof. Some years back, Time magazine was tasked with compiling the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923, a task that fell to their two in-house literary critics, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchman graphic novel, a farce about washed-out superheroes, was included on this list. Even more recently, graphic novelist Nick Drnaso's novel Sabrina became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Graphic novels are literature, and they are currently one of the most exciting and evolving branches of literature. So, if you have a comic-book loving teenager, and you would love him or her to read literary fiction, then graphic novels could be a great bridge.
Use Modern Technologies: Modern technologies are not invariably bad. Teens often have a reverential attitude to modern gizmos and gadgets. David Denby goes somewhere towards describing this in his excellent article Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore for the New Yorker magazine. He remarks: ‘Reading frustrates their smartphone sense of being everywhere at once. Suddenly they are stuck on that page, anchored, moored, and many are glum about it.’
This is probably true, but I think it can be combated by amalgamating reading with the transcending power of modern technology. Buy your teenager a kindle and tell them they can download free e-books from the Open Library (openibrary.org), Project Gutterburg and the BBC. Most public libraries have e-reader options.
Books are fantastic cultural experiences, rewards in their own right, but they are also indispensable for healthy cognitive development. They wire and circuit child and teenage brains, give them skills and attributes they are unlike to acquire elsewhere. American psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her bestseller Reclaiming Conversation, writes: ‘literary fiction significantly improves emphatic capacity, as measured by (teenagers’) ability to infer emotional states from people’s faces.’
Don’t get me wrong, video games help harness cognitive abilities too. They help with problem-solving, they foster competitiveness, and the plots are often more imaginative, and the characters more authentic, than the reactionary cultural commentators would have you believe. However, there is no doubt reading harnesses some unique abilities, and if teenagers don’t read they may not develop them.
As I said above, you have any tips and methods, or any experiences to share, please tell us about them and comment on below.