Recent research has identified an all-time low in teenagers' reading motivation and engagement (Cole et al., 2022). We know about some of the barriers which teens face when it comes to reading for pleasure, but it is also important to know what helps them feel more motivated to read in their free time.
As part of the Young People's Reading Project, we interviewed 45 teenagers (13–14 year olds) about their reading habits. We asked them to reflect on the things that might encourage them or their peers to read for pleasure more. From these interviews, we identified six factors which teens say motivate them to read more.
Easy access to books from different sources
We know that access to reading materials (in either physical, digital, or audio form) is a necessary foundation for reading for pleasure. But it's not enough for books to simply be available: knowing where to access books, having regular opportunities to borrow, browse, and/or purchase books, and having the skills to make the most of these opportunities is essential.
Visiting the school library regularly, improving their home book collections, and gaining skills for accessing online material (e.g., using social media to find book recommendations) helps teens access reading material more easily.
Books aligned with personal interests and goals
It is not enough for reading material to simply be available, it also has to be relevant, interesting, and meaningful to teenagers' lives. Teenage readers are looking for books which resonate with their own experiences and interests, give them opportunities to learn about themselves and others, and which align with their current and future goals.
Working with teens to curate school book collections which align with the diverse interests and needs of all readers can help reading become more appealing. Involving teenagers in the process of recommending and purchasing books or updating the school library also helps them have more autonomy and ownership over their reading experiences.
During the teenage years, peer relationships, social comparison, a sense of belonging, and acceptance are increasingly important. This means that social factors might play a heightened role in teens willingness to read for pleasure.
For some teens, the social aspects of reading can support their motivation to read for pleasure. For example, some teens valued reading the same books as their friends, sharing recommendations, swapping books with others. Others liked simply 'knowing' that others around them were readers, even if they didn't discuss it explicitly.
Giving teens opportunities to connect with one another about books (e.g., in class, during book clubs) could help challenge the perception that reading is a solitary, independent activity. Some teens also suggested that having reading role models, such as influencers or celebrities, could encourage them to read more.
Supportive school literacy practices
While many of the motivating factors outlined above can take place in school (e.g., schools can provide access to relevant and interesting reading material), teens also mentioned some specific practices taking place in their schools which help them feel more motivated to read for pleasure.
Having regular opportunities to read books they enjoy during class time, extended reading periods, opportunities to take books home, explicit reminders to read regularly, book recommendations from teachers, teachers sharing their own reading practices, and specific reading-related activities (e.g., keeping reading diaries, attending 'book talks') were all seen as encouraging.
A reading-supportive environment
The environment surrounding teens and their reading practices (both in and out of school) also play a role in their motivation and engagement for reading. Teens reported that it is important for the environment to be free from distractions, comfortable, and still provide opportunities to connect with friends.
They also said that creating structures and routines could help them maintain a regular practice of reading outside of school. However, it was important that they develop these routines themselves, rather than having them imposed on them by adults.
Recognising the personal benefits of reading
Teens who were more regular readers said that if others their age knew about all the benefits reading could bring them, they might feel more motivated to read in their free time.
The particular benefits teens said they get from reading included supporting their academic attainment, vocabulary development, personal wellbeing, and ability to relate to others, and being a form of entertainment. Reflecting on the personal benefits of reading and using this knowledge to help guide their book choice (e.g., seeking out a funny book when wanting to read for entertainment) helped teens have more positive reading experiences.
Helping teens reflect on the benefits they get from reading and supporting them to seek out reading experiences which achieve these can help make reading relevant to their lives.
There are many things we need to think about when supporting teens on their reading journeys. Having conversations with teens about the things which they feel would motivate them to read for pleasure more is a great place to start. Work with teens to curate relevant and interesting book collections, design activities which make reading social, and help them reflect on why reading could be important to them.