By Cassie Taylor

Shot of a father and his daughter using a digital tablet together at bedtime

Early reading habits are predictive of a number of later life outcomes, including higher education attainment and income, yet more than two-thirds of fourth graders in U.S. public schools are not reading proficiently.

We often think of education as taking place entirely at school, but fourth graders only spend about 13% of their waking hours in the classroom, meaning the simple act of regular at-home reading can have lasting effects on children’s lives. In addition, parents reading together with their children not only fosters positive attitudes toward reading, but also improves the development of comprehension and vocabulary.

But families reading together for even 20 minutes a day isn’t as simple an ask as it sounds. At its heart, at-home reading is not only about literacy—it’s also about habit formation, and anyone who has ever tried to develop a positive habit knows it’s not easy.

That’s why we worked over the past year to identify behavioral barriers to reading at home and to design solutions that set parents up for success and enable their children to improve their reading skills. Working with Stand for Children, a non-profit education advocacy organization, we developed and piloted Every Child Reads, a behaviorally informed program designed to support family reading.

Behavioral barriers to building a reading habit

Trying to read more often at home is difficult, and full of often-overlooked behavioral barriers—we identified 16 separate barriers in our work. Here are just a few of the insights we uncovered:

It’s hard to find time to sit down and read. With busy schedules, it can be difficult for parents to find the minutes in a day to read with their child. With many pressing demands, families experience time scarcity, where they focus on what is most urgent even when there may be other important but less time-sensitive tasks.

There are no immediate consequences for not reading. Failing to take the time to pay bills has obvious (and immediate) negative consequences for parents. But there are few immediate repercussions for not reading on a given day, and it can be hard to see the connection between 20 minutes of reading right now and the long-term impact on a child’s life.

Reading isn’t the default activity for many families. Small details—like which book to read, where to do it, and how much time to dedicate—take up mental energy and can deter families from getting started. When reading becomes a default activity—part of a family’s regular routine—the answers to these questions become so automatic that people might not even need to ask the questions. But when reading isn’t the default, people tend to stick to their routines.

How can a reading program help families overcome these barriers?

We developed eight design principles that program designers can use to help families overcome the common barriers to reading at home. Here are just a few:

Encourage parents to make plans, and then send them just-in-time reminders to follow through. Asking parents, “What’s one day you can make sure your child reads this week?” and sending them a reminder on the day they choose is a manageable way to start a reading habit. It may be helpful to suggest pairing reading with another activity, such as when their child gets home from school or is waiting to pick up a sibling.

Help parents set goals. Encourage parents to choose challenging, but not impossible, goals, and guide them toward goals that are effort-based (such as reading three times a week) rather than performance-based (such as finish one book each week). Giving parents opportunities to reset periodically can reduce any negative feelings about missing goals, leveraging the fresh start effect.

Normalize at-home reading. Reading at home is a private act, and as such it’s difficult to gauge who is reading and who isn’t. Emphasize that other families are making progress on their reading goals in order to set a social norm. Highlighting the successes of a diverse group of families and encouraging families with the strongest reading habits to talk publicly about their achievements and the challenges they’ve faced can also help to strengthen norms about reading.

The challenge of measuring a home program’s impact

With Every Child Reads, our goal was to create an effective, scalable program that would help families face some of the biggest barriers to at-home reading. However, we soon encountered tradeoffs in our work: the most helpful program isn’t always the most scalable, and some of the steps we would need to take to measure whether the program works could derail its effectiveness.

For example, recording reading activity is needed to show if the program had an impact, but automatic data logging would require families to read exclusively on an app—essentially instructing them not to read paper books, which could deter many people. Book logs filled out manually would let us record non-app reading, but that adds an extra hassle to the process, and we know even minor hassles can cause people to disengage.

We prioritized making the program as behaviorally informed as possible, which means we don’t have a clear indication—other than positive feedback from parents—of how successful our pilots were at increasing the amount of time families spend reading outside of school. But the insights gleaned from applying a behavioral lens to the problem of low literacy levels, and specifically a lack of home reading, may support and strengthen other programs with similar aims.

Potential for future impact

Every Child Reads represents a start to applying behavioral science principles to literacy programs, which has the potential to help more families read together, setting children up for greater success at school. These early efforts produced many insights that leaders of home reading programs, schools, and communities could leverage to help more families read together at home, helping to pave the way to better literacy rates and educational outcomes for more students.

The insights above are just a few of the many we uncovered in the process of developing Every Child Reads. Read the project brief and our full paper, Building Home Reading Habits for more, including tips for ensuring book access, a key part of any reading program.