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The Reader They Don’t Think They Are: Building A Reading Habit in Elementary-Aged Kids

Ashlie Swicker


Ashlie (she/her) is an educator, librarian, and writer. She is committed to diversifying the reading lives of her students and supporting fat acceptance as it intersects with other women’s issues. She's also perpetually striving to learn more about how she can use her many privileges to support marginalized groups. Interests include learning how to roller skate with her local roller derby team, buying more books than she'll ever read, hiking with her husband and sons, and making lists to avoid real work. You can find her on Instagram (@ashlieelizabeth), Twitter (@mygirlsimple) or at her website,

There is a discussion in reading spaces about reading preferences, and it hinges on this: it’s totally okay not to like reading. This makes me nervous. Not because I don’t believe it to be true — of course not everyone will like reading as an adult. But because many people have such a narrow definition of “being a reader” that they might not be giving themselves enough credit. Only recently have librarians and educators understood that many things “count as reading” and begun to shed the gatekeeping negativity around things previously considered as reading adjacent. In this essay I’m going to remind you about audiobooks, comics, gaming manuals, and magazines: Yes, it’s reading. Yes, it counts. And it’s very possible that many people, if exposed to these different avenues from the time they were kids, would have developed a healthier relationship with capital-R Reading.

What is a reader?

A reader is someone who reads. Full stop, no condescending parameters allowed. Hearing a story read by someone else, reading long novels, taking in small paragraphs at a time, choosing books with more pictures than words — all of these a reader makes. Many people have an image of a reader as a person wearing glasses, hunched over a book with three more piled next to them, the titles of “classics” floating around their heads — but it is 2021. There are so many more ways to read than ever before, and all of them are valid.

With young children, it is imperative that adults and educators work extra hard to identify positive reading experiences. Literacy skills develop at different rates. Around school age, children begin separating into groups of learners with different strengths, and kids who struggle with the mechanics of reading can retreat into shame and frustration. This is a time where many kids stop identifying as readers. This is also around the time when many teachers and parents start requiring that students put away comic and picture books and pick only “real” novels to fill their reading logs and D.E.A.R. time. A not-so-gentle reminder: it’s all real. We spend a lot of time teaching young readers about the mechanics of reading without devoting much instruction to pleasure reading. If a young reader picks up a book they don’t enjoy, do they believe they don’t enjoy reading? These suggestions should help in developing a reading habit that allows for lots of different avenues for enjoyment.

Celebrate A Reading Habit With Audiobooks

This is one of my favorite ways to build a reading habit with young people. When you’re enjoying an audiobook, your hands can be doing so many different things. Lots of adults tend to listen to audiobooks while they do chores, drive, or exercise. With kids, the possibilities extend from there. As an elementary librarian, I love to set up building materials and coloring sheets, then play an audiobook for students to listen to while they work. Despite the fact that the reader isn’t manually decoding the phonics and stringing the sentences together, listening to audiobooks builds read-aloud expression and increases vocabulary. More importantly, it allows readers to enjoy a story regardless of their current literacy skills. Check out the audiobooks archive to find so many excellent suggestions.

Celebrate A Reading Habit With Comics And Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are far and away the most largely circulated books in my elementary library. Over the past four years I’ve had to design a completely separate section of our stacks to keep up with the demand. In correlation, I’ve also dealt with many teachers and parents who want to restrict how often kids are checking out graphic novels. It has been eye opening to hear phrases like “below their level” and “too old for pictures.” The adults wielding these phrases mean well, and honestly believe they are pointing the kids in their lives into more appropriate choices. But if a book is not making a child uncomfortable or scared, then there is no such thing as an inappropriate choice. Comics and graphic novels are engaging and exciting and valuable, and if they get kids excited about reading, how can one frown on that?

 Celebrate A Reading Habit With Magazines

Print magazines are definitely less of a thing than they were even a few years ago, but there are still many great kids titles that lead to an exciting moment of reading. With very little commitment, young people can flip through a magazine and browse articles or even little snippets on a page. This helps readers develop a sense for what interests them, and allows them to dip in and out of subject matter without tedious shelf markers and book carts. Magazines are designed to be exciting and eye-catching — display them where the kids can see them and watch them gravitate.

Celebrate A Reading Habit With Gaming Manuals And Encyclopedias 

Video games are huge, and this is sometimes positioned as a detriment to a reading habit. It’s just not the case. Gaming-themed fiction and nonfiction books are huge right now, and not much motivates reluctant readers like something with Minecraft or Fortnite in the title. I really enjoy that there are fiction series at many different literacy levels that draw on video game universes, but the nonfiction manuals and encyclopedias are just as sought after. It reminds me of how there was always a clamor to check out the Guinness Book of World Records when I was in elementary school. It makes sense! Interesting pictures, a subject matter with built-in background knowledge, and short blocks of easily recognizable text. This is another chance to draw in a kid who doesn’t feel like they fit the image of a reader. Don’t pass it by.

It’s okay to not like reading. It is not inherently better to read a book than watch TV, just as it’s not inherently better to eat salad than a sandwich. If young people have been served a variety of interesting and personalized literacy options and they still aren’t drawn to reading as a hobby, that is fine. Preferences are preferences and knowing what you truly enjoy is a powerful thing in this world. When it comes to reading, just don’t forget to keep an open mind and have fun. Make sure you’re giving yourself and the people you influence a fair shake before you write it off completely.

For more help getting kids excited about reading, check out these reading games for kids and tips for promoting children’s literacy at home.