Understanding teenage reading motivation
To better engage students with reading, it's helpful to understand the benefits, motivations and types of reading they engage with. Everyone needs a reason to read. Are students reading because they:
- have to, for instance, answer an assignment
- want to, for pleasure and relaxation, they are curious and interested in the subject/theme, to relax or to escape from the everyday
- need to, where reading is like breathing for them?
Right book, right hands, right time, right reason
Understanding what motivates teens to read will help you put the right book in the right hands at the right time for the right reason. Peer validation of reading choices should not be underestimated either — if you can tap into the current ‘cool’ books, you can add to students’ reading mileage with ease.
It’s important to note that, understanding your own reading ‘profile’ — your reading habits and preferences, reading plans and motivations — helps a lot as you help students to find the books and reading that will fuel their passion.
‘The potency of relevance’
All of us read with ‘me’ in the background – how does what we read relate to our ‘self’? Gibb and Guthrie (2008) call this the ‘potency of relevance’ and emphasise the need for teens to be able to make real-world connections with what they read. This is true no matter which delivery mechanism they use to read.
School staff as readers
What do teens read?
Books they've chosen themselves!
Scholastic’s 2016 'Australian Kids and Family Reading Reportfound that 92% of 15 to 17-year-olds and 90% of 12 to 14-year-olds most enjoy books they've chosen for themselves. They are also much more likely to finish reading them. The same report also found around 70% of teens would read more if they could find more books they liked.
In terms of preferences 12 to 17-year-olds want to read books that (in order of priority):
- will make them laugh 54%
- let them use their imagination 47%
- have a mystery or problem to solve 42%
- have characters they wish they could be like 38%
- tell a made-up story (fiction) 36%
- teach them something new 35%
- let them forget about real life for a while 35%
- tell a true story (non-fiction)
- are a little scary 28%
- are about things they experience in my life 24%
- have characters who are in love 18%
- have a character that looks like them 14%
Australian Kids and Family Reading Report — Scholastic, Australia.
Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about the importance of 'windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors'. These are books that open windows to:
- other people's lives and experiences, or
- that reflect teens across cultures, religions, demographics, gender identities, disabilities, illness, backgrounds, and more.
Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (pdf, 763KB)
What is young adult fiction
Young adult (YA) fiction ranges across themes and styles. The definition of YA (also known as youth or juvenile fiction) differs across organisations, but generally, covers the ages 13–18.
It's a growing segment of literature. Nielsen reported that children’s share of the print market is almost 50% with YA fiction forming a large chunk of that.
'Adult' authors writing young adult fiction
A number of well-known ‘adult’ authors are now writing for this age, such as:
- John Grisham
- Jodi Picoult
- Kevin Brooks, and
- even children’s fiction writer Julia Donaldson.
These and other writers have produced some exemplary pieces of literature to address the gap that used to exist between child and adult fiction.
Storylines in young adult fiction
Many storylines in YA fiction deal with social and personal issues teenagers identify with and have main characters in their teens. The settings though vary wildly from the present 'real' world to the dystopian domains of 'The Hunger Games' to the supernatural and historical. As a result, there are books for the discerning, the mature and even the most reluctant of teen readers.
Keep your finger on the teenage reading pulse
Given the value teenagers place on relationships, culture and peers, an understanding of the genre is critical if you want to engage them in reading. The trick is to provide easy access to an array of enticing material to students. To keep your finger on the teenage reading pulse by:
- knowing your students
- listening to their recommendations
- reading yourself
- immersing yourself in the world of teen reads.
Genres and forms for young adult and young fiction — including sources for book titles
Strategies for the school or classroom library
Include teens in collection development
Teens value the opinion of their peers above nearly anything else. Danah Boyd (2008) suggests teens go to social media as a first ‘mode of delivery’ choice so they can talk to each other without adults involved.
With this in mind, include students when you're developing your school and classroom libraries. For example you could:
- surveying their interests
- taking current themes into account — vampires this year, future worlds the next
- using media-derived material such as movie tie-ins.
Library also social space for teens
To get teens reading libraries should be social spaces with reading material available in a range of formats. Along with traditional library resources such as books and magazines look at providing:
- a range of relevant, diverse, and appealing books, including both fiction and non-fiction
- sophisticated picture books
- graphic novels
- computer and internet access
- video games
- mix and mash equipment — such as video/audio/image editing stations
Provide opportunities to promote and share what students are reading through social media, podcasts, Youtube and social book sharing sites like Goodreads. A popular activity is creating book trailers or having a book trailer competition, which you could display on your website or blog.
Access and time
Schools need to provide the resources and opportunities for students to engage with reading such as:
- generous opening hours for libraries
- a mix of quiet, comfortable spaces with busy, social hubs that allow for different types of reading engagement
- reading time scheduled into students' busy days — even short sessions for personal, leisure reading will encourage the habit of reading
- reader-friendly library policies, such as liberal borrower limits.
Discussion, group activities, and responses
Stephen Abram notes that 'Reading is a social act...'. This is particularly true for teens, many who spend a great deal of time chatting with friends on social media. Social activities to consider include the following:
- Readers’ responses to things they have read students also need opportunities to participate in reader response. Examples include comments on blogs, competitions, on social media sites such as Goodreads. Goodreads also allows you to catalogue and keep track of books, review and read reviews, be part of a community of others discussing and rating books, access suggestions for reading, and more.
- Publish a chapter at a time and get reader feedback before writing the next chapter using online sites such as Wattpad.
- Fan-fiction sites are increasingly popular and provide a place for readers to write new derivative work based on favourite books. These works are then read and discussed by a community of readers. Sometimes novels are written and read on mobile devices in a serialised progression, with some later published as printed books.
- Bookclubs — physical and virtual — provide opportunities for readers to share ideas on books and reading.
- Many publishers have developed sites especially for teens and tweens, which have become flourishing communities where teens can read and contribute reviews, enter competitions, and connect with a worldwide community of readers.
Read more about bookclubs
Reading role models for teens
Role models are a key reference for adolescents because they provide a window into the future. Adolescents read more when they see adults such as parents and teachers reading. It's particularly powerful for boys to see adult males engaged in reading, for example:
- ‘Dads and Lads’ sessions help endorse the value of reading
- getting reading champions (the captain of the First XV?) to inspire others, or
- enlisting reading mentors to support other students.
All help consolidate a reading culture in the school.
Creating a reading culture in teens' lives
Here are some other ideas you might like to try in your school:
- Don't do it alone! Pull in others who love to read, use a whole school approach
- Employ all of the digital and social media tools possible.
- Read alouds are vital at all stages of a child’s life — from birth right through their teens.
- Displays are an important way of luring teens towards books. Pinterest has some great collections of displays to inspire.
- Know your stock — read books, read reviews; discuss and share books yourself.
- Putting the right resource in the right hands at the right time — teachers and library staff not only have to know their stock but also know their students.
Young adult library displays on Pinterest
Teachers creating readers
Always remember to record what your actions were for any library initiative, for example, summer reading and monitor the outcomes. This creates evidence of practice, which you can then report on — and probably some good stories as well, to go into your report for the principal and Board of Trustees.
In a report on teenage reading in your school consider:
- what was the initial level of library use
- what do the school's reading scores show, and
- do your teenage students feel well served or poorly served by the kinds of reading resources you offer?
- what actions you took
- who else was involved in the planning and implementation
- what changes took place over a given time period
- what the results were.
Find out more
Find inspiration from the resources below.
Research, articles and reports
A nation addicted to smartphones — United Kingdom Office of Communications (Ofcom), communications regulator in the UK.
All about adolescent literacy: how parents can encourage teens to read — a list of tips to encourage teens to read see: from Reading is Fundamental.
PISA low-performing students: why they fall behind and how to help them to succeed — OECD (2015) report
Teens today don’t read books anymore — Jessica E Moyer, a study of differences in interest and comprehension based on reading modalities: Part 1, Introduction and methodology (2010). Evidence-based research into how teens interact with text. It’s not just about books anymore
Teens, social media and technology overview (pdf, 887KB) — 2015 Pew report, the first in a series of reports examining teenagers’ use of technology
The online reading habits of New Zealand Intermediate school students and the significance of web-based fiction — M Harnett (2013), Thesis, Master of Science Communication, University of Otago
Why can’t we read anymore or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains? — this piece by Hugh McGuire is an entertaining great read on the lure of the digital
Why youth (heart) social network sites: the role of networked publics in teenage social life (pdf, 1.28MB) — Danah Boyd, University of California, Berkeley, School of Information
YA Lit 2.0: How YA Authors and Publishers Are Using Web 2.0 Tools to Reach Teen Readers — Buffy Hamilton’s conference presentation gives a succinct account in Slideshare format on reaching young adult readers
'You've changed my life': teenagers, reading and libraries — Anne Harding
Gibb, Robert L. & Guthrie, John T. (2008). Interest in reading: potency of relevance. In Guthrie, John T, ed. Engaging adolescents in reading. Corwin Press.
Guthrie, John T, ed. (2008). Engaging adolescents in reading. Corwin Press.
Irvin, Judith, et al. (2010).Taking the lead on adolescent literacy: action steps for schoolwide success. Corwin/International Reading Association.
Krashen, Stephen. (2004). The power of reading: insights from the research. 2nd ed. Heinemann.
La Marca, Susan and Macintyre, Pam. (2006). Knowing readers: unlocking the pleasure of reading. School Library Association of Victoria.
Layne, Stephen. (2009). Igniting a passion for reading: successful strategies for building lifetime readers. Stenhouse.
Miller, Donalyn. (2009). The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child. Jossey-Bass.
Magpies: talking about books for children — the Australian-published children’s literature journal is an invaluable source of reviews, articles and author interviews. Sections on
- older picture books
- independent readers
- extending readers.
Australian librarian teacher network — online discussion group accessed via login
GottaBook — a list-in-progress of twitter hashtags relating to kids/YA literatureTeens changing reading habits
Literacy online community — Te Kete Ipurangi's online mailing list for secondary school English teachers
Schoollib listserv — the School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (SLANZA) has a lively online discussion forum for school librarians, useful for discussion of suggestions for teen services.