Are Readers Born or Bred?

While in college, I took a number of children’s literacy classes as part of the requirements in the Education and Reading Specialist programs.  A long-standing debate in those fields is whether or not readers are born or shaped by their environment–an argument that harkens back to the nature versus nurture argument.  What role does environment and heredity play in the life of a bookworm?

My parents are avid readers and were constantly reading as my younger sister and I were growing up.  There were lots of books in our house and Dad took us on weekly trips to the library.  He read to us each night from one of our many favorites–a few I own to this day! (see pic below.)  Reading to your children is supposed to be a sure-fire way to get them interested in reading.


At age 8, I started reading independently.  I tackled small chapter books and by the time my teen years rolled around, I was reading magazines, newspapers, and about five books a week from the library.

My sister, who is 2 1/2 years younger, never picked up a book except for a brief stint with the RL Stine Goosebumps series.  Today, if she reads 4 books a year, it’s a big deal.  I managed to get her hooked on Twilight and the Kay Scarpetta series, but as a rule, she doesn’t read.

It seems perplexing that the two of us are such opposites when it comes to reading despite growing up in the same environment and sharing much of the same genetic makeup.

And so, on to you.  Are you the lone reader in your house?  Do you think that reading to your children (or being read to as a child) can shape literary preferences and predilections?  Let’s psychoanalyze this together…

34 responses to “Are Readers Born or Bred?

  1. My mother, sister and I are all readers. My hubby isn’t. My son likes to read, but since he’s in college, he has very little time to read for pleasure.

  2. My mom is a bookworm but not my dad. My younger sister is just like me. Loves to read. My older sister is my half sister and she is not a reader. Guess which biological parent is hers? So, I definitely believe there is a bit of genetics going on.

  3. My husband and I adore books. Our first kids were hooked on books by six months. Then, with each subsequent pregnancy, I worried about whether that child would be a reader. It was seriously one of my biggest fears. But, they are all great readers!
    I’ve always thought that given enough time, I could make any young child learn to read. Your post makes me think that maybe I couldn’t.

  4. Love reading, and reading to my kids…I wish I had more time to do both. My older sis reads a lot more then I do but I don’t think our brother reads for enjoyment rather more for his job. My oldest is only six but she has learned to read and is learning to love it more everyday…such an awesome thing to watch.

  5. I was surrounded by books and heavily encouraged to read when I was younger (my dad spent a lot of time reading to me before I could do it myself…), and one would have to assume the same was true for my brother, what with being in the same household and everything. And yet, I read voraciously, and he hardly ever. He spends a lot of time online, but who knows what the last book that he read was. My dad always liked to read, and my mom never was never so passionate about it, so maybe in this respect I took after dad and my brother took after my mom.

  6. Hi,

    My parents are not readers…and I didn’t grow up with people around me who are readers. But I devour books like you wouldn’t believe (Lol).


  7. I’m not sure why I’m such a hardcore bookworm compared to my family. My brother only reads books he’s assigned in school (and maybe Harry Potter/Artemis Fowl), my parents read maybe 2-5 books a year, and I read, um. Lots more than that. Heh.

    My grandmother actually own a bookstore when I was younger, but I don’t think she ever read any of the books she sold (shocking, I know!). So I don’t know what happened. 😀

  8. I’m the eldest too and was a complete book worm as a child – read less now simply because I have less time but I LOVE reading. My younger brother struggled to read anything, hated it, it was torture for him. He started to appreciate books while taking trains through Europe in college, but still only reads a few books a year. I wonder if there is something relevant about the birth order…

  9. This is a very interesting discussion. Don’t know what the answer is. My husband and I are both avid readers and of our four children only one of them is a reader. The others only read when they have to. Despite the fact that they were read to even in the womb. Neither of my parents were readers but my Mum read to us every night, I am the only we from one sister and two brothers as well. It’s a mystery to me!

  10. Both of my parents are readers. I am the oldest of three girls and we all read, although we have different tastes. I have three children (aged 10, 8 and 5) and all three love books. My husband is lucky to read one book a year.

    My daughter (8) had to talk about what I did at school the other day and said that I had the best job (as a freelance writer) because “mum gets books, reads books, writes about books then gets to KEEP books”.

    I have read with my children since they were babies and the older two often read to the youngest.

    So, both nature and nurture at work here. Doesn’t look like I’m much help offering an answer to your question. 🙂

  11. While I do think nurture plays a big part in making someone a reader, it seems nature makes up the core.

    My mom was never a reader. My dad reads but not that much. My two aunts (dad’s sisters) were the readers who influenced me and my sisters to read. No one ever read to us. We just evolved. My aunts’ children, all of them, have been more heavily influenced by their moms’ reading, but none of them are as hooked on books as I am. A lot of them aren’t even readers at all. I am the biggest reader in my family, cousins and all. My dad encouraged me, even though he didn’t know which books to recommend, but he and my aunts knew I would appreciate books for presents more than toys. My mom who never reads always gives me books, too, just because she knows I love them. She goes on garage sales, buys bunches of books for me, and I discovered so many great writers by those.

    Today, I read to my sons. I’ve been reading to them since they were babies, every night. My eldest, however, isn’t so interested in books, while my second reads all the time. I guess, no matter how similar the influence, it really all depends on the person, whether their imagination works enough to nurture all the stories we tell them. I noticed my eldest is a practical little boy, while my second always thinks out of the box. He is the reader.

  12. Interesting…I love to read, had books everywhere, read to my daughters, took them to the library etc., both are readers, however one reads a lot more than the other.

  13. It’s true that it seems to be the oldest child that becomes the reader…
    My family is the same way. Both parents enjoy reading but it’s not much of a priority for them (read on the beach, have a book on the nightstand) but they were great about reading to me and my brother every night. I of course became the book addict while my brother only reads occasionally. I think we’re far enough apart that I simply stole the thunder (I was 9 and he was 3 when I started stealing my parents books to read sometimes).
    I’ve always wondered what made the difference for us because my parents did the same things raising us both. The only difference for my brother was that I was around!

  14. Mom and Dad always read to me.
    I always read.
    I don’t read as much as I should.
    Steve reads schematics.
    I read to our friends kids and when the time comes that we spawn, I will read to our kids.

  15. That’s exactly the same situation as me and my younger sister, except I’m lucky if my sister reads 1 book a year!

    My parents aren’t big readers, so perhaps it’s me whose the strange one in my family!

  16. My younger brother is not a reader, but I’m not surprised since he has ADD plus he is a slooooow reader. He’ll read graphic novels and short stories, but it takes him forever to read a novel and he doesn’t do it often. (He makes exceptions for Steven King and Neil Gaimon.)

    I AM a reader but an extremely quick one. (It’s one of the ways I learned to compensate for my dyslexia…reading quickly allows me to bypass it.)

    But our father is a huge reader and I don’t think that genetics would have made a difference either way if he wasn’t.

  17. hmmm…interesting question…I’m guessing that it’s a little bit of both nature and nuture. I grew up with parents that read to me every night, then I would see them reading their own books before bed every night so I guess it just became a habit for me to read every night before bed on my own. My husband didn’t grow up with parents who read a lot or a bookish influence, and he’s never been a big reader since I’ve met him. Slowly, he’s beginning to read more (maybe because my light is on every night before going to bed so he feels the urge to read too?) and he’s been picking up books, mostly memoirs by sports figures which he finishes SLOWLY then complains about having “nothing to read” next. Really??? How can there be nothing to read?! I do not understand that concept!

  18. Very thought-provoking! My father is a journalist, so he’s made his living off the written word… but generally limits his reading to non-fiction, sports and memoirs. And even that is pretty sparse.

    Once a devoted reader of all things Danielle Steel, my mom’s reading habits are now limited to the occasional People magazine and books on digital photography. The end.

    That being said, my parents have always encouraged my sister and I to read religiously — and we’ve taken their advice! My dad took us to the library when we were little, and no one in my family would begrudge us a new book when out shopping.

    I absolutely think reading to your children shapes their literary preferences and predilections . . . just as my own were shaped by my grandparents and parents spending a lot of time reading to us and encouraging us to read. I also believe there’s a really strong correlary between reading faithfully as a child and intelligence and academic success later in life!

    It’s because of my love affair with books that I’ve become a writer myself, majored in English in college, and am now an editor.

    And it’s because of my early reading obsession that I’m consistently prompted to write a novel in response to every blog entry you post 🙂 haha!

  19. My family growing up: I read all the time, my sister did not.

    My family now: I read whenever I can (at the expense of never watching TV). My husband reads, but not as much, and mainly business books. My older son does not read unless he has to. My next two kids enjoy reading, but not as voraciously as I did when I was their age. I read a lot to them all when they were younger.

    I think it’s all partly nature, partly nuture. Interesting topic.

  20. Your situation is the same as me and my younger brother – I think he has read “Jaws” twice for the horror element but that is about it! My mum always comments that because I was the eldest they had a lot more time to read to me and I was reading by myself before I went to school – so for my mum it is definitely environment – but she is not a big reader either! My father on the other hand is and I feel I collected the reading and writing gene from him (he’s a journalist). So, for me I think it would have to be a combination of nature versus nurture.

  21. I don’t remember being read too all that much as a child, but do know that my Mom and sister always had their nose in a book. I was too busy playing in the dirt or riding my bike to read. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I became a reader. I read to my kids a lot and my oldest, who is almost seven, seems to have an interest in books now.

  22. My parents never read in my presence and we did not go to the library however I read early and easily but wasn’t interested outside of schoolwork…that is, until I was 8 years old and my mom gave me my first Doc Savage book (The Stone Men and I still own this bedraggled book) and that was all it took to make me a voracious, independent reader as a kid. Now I’m a voracious, independent reader who happens to be a librarian 🙂

  23. Very interesting post. My parents both read and we grew up w/ a lot of books around the house, made weekly library trips, etc. But I didn’t learn to read till 1st grade. Now my sister and I are both avid readers, though she far surpasses me in volume. Being a wicked fast reader (and unemployed) helps. NO OFFENSE SUE. John and I both love books, as much as reading them. So do our daughters. It’ll be interesting to see how they gravitate when older.

  24. Very interesting that you are a reader and your sister is not. My middle brother and I are big readers but our youngest brother is not — and both my parents were big readers. I am praying my son is a reader … if he isn’t, I will feel that I have failed as a parent in some way. But my husband isn’t a reader so if it is somehow genetic, he’s got a 50/50 shot!

    And I love the books from your childhood! My son and I just discovered “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” at the library and both of us just loved it! He was particularly taken by the picture of the giant pancake on the building.

    Wonderful post!

  25. My personal theory is that environment plays a bigger role than heredity. My mom read to my brother and I since before we could comprehend what was going on. Books are a huge part of my fond childhood memories – same for my brother. My brother is the biggest reader in the family. I love it equally as much, but am a lot slower – so I finish far fewer books in a year than he does 🙂

    I married a non-reader, and I do hope at least one of our yet-to-exist children shares my love for it. I know our kids will be read to by me.

    Just 2 days ago I read an article noted on a fellow book blogger’s site about a study that found that home organization was a bigger predictor of future reading than whether or not a child was read to. (I have tried hard to recall whose blog that was on, and I have failed.)

  26. My Nana always read and she babysat allllllllll of us after school. I was the only one that she would let in her room. Under her bead was always a bag of Tollhouse chocolate chips, and whatever she was reading. That is where I spent my afternoons. At way too young of an age I was reading the Vampire Chronicles, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, all of them. She gave me “kid” books too- Anne of Green Gables (the box set!), Tom Sawyer, all of them. If it wasn’t for her I would still be a stuttering non-bookworm. And I wouldn’t have a built in excuse for my penchant for chocolate chips!

  27. You know, I don’t remember my mom reading much when we were growing up, unless she was reading to us. She read The Thornbirds when I was 12 or so, and she shut herself in her room one night to finish it and told us to fend for ourselves (thank goodness for leftovers).

    My younger sister and I were both readers–the town librarians knew us well, and we took a book with us everywhere we went. My baby sister, however, had some learning issues and pretty much refused to read books for anything. When I came home from work one day (I was in college, she would’ve been about 17), she was still in PJs, eating chips & salsa in front of the TV, which I knew had been on since she woke up that morning.

    So I turned off the TV & handed her a book. And we fought for an hour. I ended up sitting on the remote, then unplugging the TV. And eventually, she did read the book I gave her (’cause as Mom argued, I wasn’t about to give her a book she wouldn’t like; I wanted her to read!), and as I had (wisely) given her a book that was the first in a trilogy, she came back to me and borrowed the second, then the third, then the rest of the books by that author.

    But to answer your questions, I think it’s mostly about environment and encouragement. To echo a line from Special Topics in Calamity Physics, houses without books worry/scare me.

  28. I heard an interesting segment on WNYC radio today about the neurology of reading and I think it bears a whole lot of relevance to your question. Leonard Lopate interviewed Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz and Dr. Bennett A. Shaywitz (professors in Learning Development at the Yale University School of Medicine and Co-Directors of the Yale Center for Learning) for a piece in his ongoing “Please Explain” series. Link.

    Ideas include manual versus automatic reading, dyslexia, dysgraphia, speed-reading, logographic alphabets, and the three most important areas of the brain involved in reading.

  29. Very interesting question; obviously fitting with the numerous studies on the matter… I can’t really say in regards to my own upbringing, seeing as all of my close relatives are readers (in one form or another). I often thought that perhaps it had a lot to do with nurture, both for and against: a child may grow up secretly wanting to be different from the readers around him/her and will therefore avoid books and find other means of entertainment. In my household, at least, it was always very much about reading. That’s not to say we didn’t find other ways to amuse ourselves, but from the moment I was born to the time I started school, books were a major part of the time I spent with my parents and older siblings. I suspect that that played a major role in getting me interested in reading.

  30. My brother, sister, and myself are all voracious readers. We are also all introverts, and we were read to as children.

    One of the biggest factors is whether or not reading is easy for your sister. The literacy program I work in has really opened my eyes to the spectrum of reading ability.

  31. I am just not sure how I missed this great post this week, but fortunately Beth F guided me here today.

    While growing up I remember my parents reading, but I certainly would not call them voracious readers. Dad mostly read the newspaper, and Mom read a book every once in a while. Both my brother and myself enjoyed reading as children (my brother even more than me) – and we are both voracious readers as adults — go figure!

    I started reading to my own children from the time they were 6 weeks old. I read to them at least once a day, oftentimes more than that (it was my default activity when I needed to keep them entertained). I think where I made my mistake, however, is that once they could read on their own, I no longer read to them. I did this for two reasons: first, I am a fiercely independent person, so when I could learn to read on my own I did not want anyone to read to me. I thought this was normal and so forced my behavior on my kids. Secondly, I was afraid that my children would not learn to read if they relied on me reading aloud to them (faulty logic now that I look back in hindsight).

    Of my 3 children – one reads occasionally, one never reads (but he is a highly auditory learner and is now in the music industry), and one (my last) reads almost as much as her mother.

    I guess if I were to take a stand on the issue I might say — if it is in your nature, and it is nurtured in the home, then reading will be an essential part of your life.

  32. My sister and I were exactly the opposite as well. I would check out at least 10 books from the library at a time and she had to be bribed to take one home. She reads a little bit now but it wasn’t until college that she began to.

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