Engaging teens with reading

There is ongoing discussion about teens not reading as they used to do. In today’s digital environment reading may involve multiple platforms. They’re still reading and writing, just not always in the traditional ‘book’ way.

This section looks at the area of teen reading, the benefits, motivations and types of reading that they engage with.


Why it is important for teens to read
Understanding teenage reading motivation: extrinsic or intrinsic?
What do teens read?
Strategies for engaging teens with reading
Reading role models for teens
Creating a reading culture in teens' lives
Evidence-based practice
Further reading and resources

“Schools aren’t just about teaching children to read, but teaching children to be social beings.” (Michael Rosen)

Why it is important for teens to read

Continuing the habit of reading – widely – into teenage years helps teens to:

  • deal with their increasingly complex world, and understand some of the adult issues they will have to grapple with
  • know they are not alone – that others may be thinking and feeling the way they do
  • open lines of communication, particularly if parents, teachers, librarians provide opportunities to discuss what teens are reading
  • share and see how others have found solutions to problems
  • develop their vocabulary
  • broaden their imaginations
  • improve their writing
  • deal with the increasing demands of school work
  • gain confidence when speaking.

Read more in the toolkit for secondary schools (PDF) from the British National Literacy Trust.

What the research says about teens and reading

NZCER research Competent learners at 14 shows that teens who enjoy reading are more likely to succeed in school and in their engagement with their various communities.

PISA Low-Performing Students: why they fall behind and how to help them to succeed  OECD (2015) report.

The Online Reading Habits of New Zealand Intermediate School Students and the Significance of Web-Based Fiction Harnett, M. (2013), Thesis, Master of Science Communication, University of Otago.

Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview, 2015 Pew report

Understanding teenage reading motivation: extrinsic or intrinsic?

Everyone needs a reason to read. Are students reading because:

  • they have to, for instance to answer an assignment
  • they want to, because they are interested in the subject, or
  • they need to, where reading is like breathing for them?

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.

‘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.

What do teens read?

Teens view of the world is likely to be coloured by the choices of their peer group. 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, libraries need to provide opportunities for teens to give input into collection development. Ways to do this include:

  • surveying their interests
  • taking current themes into account – vampires this year, future worlds the next.
  • using media-derived material such as movie tie-ins.

Books and beyond

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 wide range of relevant and appealing books including both fiction and non-fiction
  • sophisticated picture books
  • graphic novels
  • e-books
  • computer and internet access
  • video games
  • databases
  • mix and mash equipment - such as video/audio/ image editing stations

Use digital tools to promote reading for example, podcasts, youtube, blogs, twitter, social book sharing sites. A popular activity is creating book trailers or having a book trailer competition. You can then display them on your website or blog.

Find out more about online reading communities

Strategies for engaging teens with reading

Access and time

Schools need to provide the resources and opportunities needed 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 response

Students also need opportunities to participate in reader response. Reader responses can be blogposts, competitions, mix-and-mash or book raps, for example. Another popular activity is speed booking.

Book discussion groups can be a powerful motivator as peers play a crucial role in developing attitiudes to reading. Set up book discussion groups – these can be informal, maybe a lunch-time session and make reading cool.

Be prepared to discuss and acknowledge the reader’s ideas – respecting their opinions and encouraging sharing.

“Reading is a social act…” (Stephen Abram)

Reading role models for teens

Role models are a key reference for adolescents, because they provide a window to the future. Adolescents read more when they see adults such as parents and teachers reading. It is particularly powerful for boys to see adult males engaged in reading. ‘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 the Web 2.0 functionality at your disposal – for example, text messaging the latest new books; or, “we’ll text you when we put your book review blogpost live”. Use multiple interface options to engage readers – teens are in this space.
  • Read alouds: don’t abandon read-alouds just because students should be able to read for themselves
  • Displays like 'My favourite read when I was in school' or 'My favourite recent read'. For ideas and inspiration, see Library Displays: creative ideas to promote books from your library collection from Elaine Pearson, librarian at Horowhenua College, Levin.
  • 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.

Evidence-based practice

Always remember to record what your actions were for any library initiative, and monitor the outcomes.

In relation to teenage reading in your school, look at what the initial level of library use was. 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?

Then outline:

  • 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.

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.

Further reading and resources

Boyd, Danah. Why youth social network sites: the role of networked publics in teenage social life (PDF). University of California, Berkeley, School of Information.

Gibb, Robert L. & Guthrie, John T. Interest in reading: potency of relevance. In Guthrie, John T, ed. Engaging adolescents in reading. Corwin Press, 2008.

Guthrie, John T, ed. Engaging adolescents in reading. Corwin Press, 2008.

Harding, Anne.'You've changed my life': teenagers, reading and libraries

Irvin, Judith, et al. Taking the lead on adolescent literacy: action steps for schoolwide success. Corwin/International Reading Association, 2010.

Krashen, Stephen. The power of reading: insights from the research. 2nd ed. Heinemann, 2004.

La Marca, Susan and Macintyre, Pam. Knowing readers: unlocking the pleasure of reading. School Library Association of Victoria, 2006.

Layne, Stephen. Igniting a passion for reading: successful strategies for building lifetime readers. Stenhouse, 2009.

Lenhart, Amanda, et al. Teens and social media. Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007.

Miller, Donalyn. The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Moyer, Jessica E. Teens today don’t read books anymore: 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…

Buffy Hamilton’s conference presentation YA Lit 2.0: How YA Authors and Publishers Are Using Web 2.0 Tools to Reach Teen Readers (2009) gives a succinct account in Slideshare format on reaching young adult readers.

For a list of tips to encourage teens to read see: All about adolescent literacy: how parents can encourage teens to read, from Reading is Fundamental.

Links to Online Community

The Online Communities are an online space on the Services to Schools website where logged in members can discuss multiple or particular interests to do with school libraries and reading. Of particular interest if you are supporting teen readers are:

Engaging teens: Those interested in Young Adult books can find links and resources, share ideas, ask questions and give feedback about how they are engaging teens with reading.

Websites, social networks and blogs on teen reading

Services to Schools’ Library Thing has a brief and up-to-date list of recommended titles for teens.

A Mighty Girl has a wonderful selection of books for 'Smart, Confident' girls.

Children's Books The UK Guardian's book site for children with reviews, book lists, authors' podcasts and more.

Goodreads Hugely popular social network with peer written reviews, recommendations and discussions.

Inside a dog: an Australian website for teenagers with book reviews, news, discussions and a a writer-in-residence blog.

Reading Rants: A blog set up to review out of the ordinary books for teens. The author encourages teens to comment on the books reviewed and gives them the opportunity to write their own.

Reading Teen blog: ‘... a place where teens, parents of teens, and people who just love YA books can find reviews on books, suggestions on what to read (and maybe what not to read), and discuss what they thought about the books.’ A related site contains YA book reviews by a group of parents, linked to this blog: Reading teen: parental book reviews.

Reader to reader: A virtual space to share opinions on books, what you loved, hated, or got stuck on.

Scottish Book Trust has a fantastic range of reading and writing resources.

Good Reading: An Australian website with sections for libraries and kids or all ages.

Spine Out: Australian online magazine for Young Adults created by the Good Reading team.

Spinebreakers: A Penguin books initiative where teens can read book reviews, share content with friends and more.

Teenreads features reviews, reading lists, a blog and interviews with authors.

The Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison is a 'unique and vital gathering place for books, ideas, and expertise in the field of children's and young adult literature.’ It collates book discussions, multicultural literature, graphic novel resources, publishing trends, books-of-the-year – a valuable ‘go-to’ for children’s and YA literature.

Gnooks - Welcome to the world of literature includes a map of literature with information about authors and mindmaps of other authors that might appeal.

Justin the Librarian's blog includes a post on The Future of the teen library - challenging public libraries to review their provisions for teen users.

Michael Rosen’s mission is ‘to turn every school into a ‘book loving school…where books are prioritised and enjoyed.’ You can find resources for download on the Waterstone's Children's laureate website.

TeenRead.com: US based site with reviews, features, suggested reading and competitions.


  • 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. See Schoollib listserv. To join, see the instructions on the SLANZA website.
  • The Secondary English teachers’ online mailing list
  • The Australian teacher librarians’ discussion group is accessed via login


A list-in-progress of twitter hashtags relating to kids/YA literature


Magpies: Talking about books for children The Australian- published children’s literature journal is an invaluable source of reviews, articles and author interviews. Including eight pages of New Zealand material at its centre. Sections on Older Picture Books; Independent readers; Extending Readers are all valuable for teen suggestions.

image: Girl and book by Andy Carter on Flickr