Tween readers – keeping them motivated

Keeping children reading during the tween years - age 9-12, before children become teenagers - can be a challenge. Knowing their interests and providing a range of reading material will help keep their enjoyment of reading alive.


The tween years
Causes of the upper primary reading slump
The importance of reading for tweens
Ways to encourage students to read
Engaging with tweens
How school libraries can help
Further information

The tween years

Tween readers enjoy reading a variety of genres to reflect their developing interests and growing independence. The challenge is keeping them engaged and curious at a time when they're surrounded by distractions, and dealing with the physical and psychological changes associated with puberty.

There is a wide range of physical, emotional and psychological development amongst this group. While some may no longer regard themselves as children, they are not quite teenagers.

Just as when you're working with teenagers, it’s important to know your students and their interests, and have a sense of where they are at emotionally and psychologically. This will help you get the right book to the right student and keep their enjoyment of reading alive.

Read more about engaging teen readers.

Causes of the upper primary reading slump

As your students head towards their teen years other activities and distractions - online and offline - can pull them away from reading. According to the 2008 NEMP report, only about 20% of Year 8 students (down from 30% in 2000) named reading as a high-preference leisure activity. Although about 80% of year 4 students were positive about reading in their own time, this dropped to 59% of Year 8 students.

John Hattie notes:

a flattening of reading in the upper years of primary school which then accelerates as the students move through to secondary schooling years. Over 80% of students in year 5 are at or above expectations but by year 8 close to half are below expectation. J Hattie, The status of reading in New Zealand schools: the upper primary plateau problem (2007)

Another reason students may struggle at this level is because they are now reading to learn rather than learning to read. James Gee  Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University suggests that:

…as school progresses, …the language of content areas like math, science, and social studies) becomes more and more complex … and specialised, and less and less like every day conversational language.

Lack of exposure to a wide range of vocabulary in students' earlier years can slow reading fluency down. They need time to grapple with new words or words, which have slightly different meanings in a new context. If they have trouble understanding these word 'blocks' they can lose confidence in their ability to read.

The importance of reading for tweens

There is now a lot of evidence that reading for pleasure improves literacy success, as found in the New Zealand longitudinal research study, Competent Children, Competent Learners.

The Competent Learners @20 report identified low levels of reading enjoyment between the ages of 10-14 as being one possible indicator that a child was at risk of not ‘achieving a satisfying pathway from school into early adulthood’.

The period from age 10 to age 14 appears to be a time when it is particularly important for teachers and parents to watch for signs that children are turning away from school and learning. This applies as much to high performers at school as low performers.

Reading also allows children of any age to have virtual experiences, which broaden their imagination and understanding of how to deal with different situations (or not). At a time when tweens are becoming more independent, reading can help them navigate new and confusing feelings.

Read more about the research into reading for pleasure.

Ways to encourage students to read

Whether you're a class teacher or a librarian, the following ideas offer a number of ways to encourage your pre-teen students to read:

  • Build a library collection that appeals directly to this age-group - and invite suggestions from your students.
  • Librarians, collaborate with teachers to deepen your understanding of how each student is getting on.
  • Investigate the school’s reading data to identify who is having trouble and suggest titles that might engage them.
  • Check your library management system to see who is borrowing and who isn’t.
  • Develop an in-depth knowledge of children’s literature so you can buy and recommend titles to encourage students through difficult patches.
  • Talk with enthusiasm about your own love of reading.
  • Work with parents to promote reading and books.

Engaging with tweens

Knowing what motivates this age group is useful as you seek ways to connect with tweens as readers. Marketing Vox lists the following personal and social drivers:

  • the need to belong
  • the desire for power
  • more freedom from parents (but not too much. That parents approve of their choices is still important to them)
  • the desire to have fun.

How school libraries can help

You can incorporate these motivations into the library by:

  • providing opportunities for like-minded students to connect with one another through their reading and interests
  • asking their opinions about your library services
  • curating a collection that appropriately stretches your readers
  • creating a library space that is relaxed and enjoyable – rethink any limiting rules.

Jo Fletcher and her team from the University of Canterbury investigated 5 New Zealand schools where teachers had effective reading programmes. The researchers identified a number of successful strategies that library teams can adopt, to foster a love of reading with upper primary students:

  • Ensure students have ready access to lots of age and interest-appropriate reading material. Students in the study commented on the lack of books in some of their school libraries:
    • "There aren’t cool books there…they need more older, more interesting ones”.
  • Develop a culture of respect and trust in the library around reading by respecting your students’ opinions about what they have read.
  • Read the titles yourself and encourage teachers to read them as well - each of the teachers in the study had a wide knowledge of children’s literature.
  • Talk about how much you enjoy reading and why.
  • Investigate the KidsLit quiz and train up a team for the next competition
  • Talk to your tweens one-to-one about their reading interests – they like to be asked for their opinions. Give them opportunities to discuss and share their reading. Recognise the power of peer influence - form a tween advisory group from your keen readers.

For ideas have a look at the student reviews and book trailers on:

Reading aloud and questioning

The researchers in the University of Canterbury study noted that teachers regularly read aloud to the whole class - a popular part of the daily reading programme. Find out whether reading aloud is happening at your school and suggest some books teachers can use. Introduce a reading aloud spot at lunchtime in the library or anywhere in the school that you might get an audience.

Reading aloud can be just for fun without any added questioning. A book club allows students to talk about their reading and ask questions, deepening their experience of a book.

Using picture books 

A number of teachers in the study were using picture books with their upper primary classes with great success. The books were sophisticated picture books "in terms of narrative, illustration and design", and had “storylines of high interest to children of this age.”

If you don’t already have a sophisticated picture book section in your library, try developing one and promoting it to teachers and students. Emphasise that these are picture books especially for older students and require more maturity and thoughtfulness than junior picture books.

Read more about Books for tweens

Further information

Learning Media for the Ministry of Education. Effective literacy practice in years 5-8.


Clifford-Poston, Andrea. Tweens: what to expect from – and how to survive – your child’s pre-teen years. Oneworld Publications, 2005 (p.4-5)

Hattie, J. (2007) The status of reading in New Zealand schools: the upper primary plateau problem (UP). Reading Forum N.Z. 22 (3) pp. 25-39

Byrne, B. (2007) referred to in Fletcher, J., Grimley, M., Greenwood, J. and Parkhill, F. (2012) Motivating and improving attitudes to reading in the final years of primary schooling in five New Zealand schools in Literacy, 46 (1) April 2012  pp. 3-16

Appleyard, J.A. Becoming a reader: the experience of fiction from childhood to adulthood. Cambridge University Press, 1991 (p.59)

Fletcher, J., Grimley, M., Greenwood, J. and Parkhill, F. (2012) Motivating and improving attitudes to reading in the final years of primary schooling in five New Zealand schools in Literacy, 46 (1) April 2012  pp. 3-16

Fletcher, J. (2013) Supporting young adolescent students in reading in Literacy information and computer education journal (LICEJ) 4 (4) December 2013 pp.1183-1191

Greenwood, J. et al. (2013) What happens to reading progress in New Zealand year 7-8 classes? The plateau, literacy leadership, and the remaining tail.

Lesesne, Teri S. Naked reading: uncovering what tweens need to become lifelong readers. Stenhouse, 2006

Parkhill, F., Fletcher, J., Grimley, M., and Bridges, S. (2008) Reading programmes in Year 7-8 primary classes that support effective literacy practices: what is happening and where to next? Paper presented at the British Education Research Association (BERA) Annual conference, 3-6 September 2008.

Sainsbury, M. and Schagen, I. (2004) Attitudes to reading at ages nine and eleven in Journal of Research in Reading, 27 (4) pp 373–386

Sullivan, E. (2013) Connecting with tween readers (online course). Association for Library Service to Children. Participated 8 April- 8 May 2013

Image: 131 Reading again, by Melanie Holtsman on Flickr