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How to Help Your Students Read Books

Some college staff leaders have observed a recent trend that students are less motivated to read books. Many students struggle to read, don’t have the time, or lament that they used to read when they were younger. Perhaps this is mainly an effect from screens and our reduced attention span. Whatever the causes of this trend against literacy, does it matter? Given the resistance of students and our own challenge in convincing them to read books… should we even bother helping students to read? Is this a lost cause, and therefore we should just text our students a three-minute video clip when they have a question about evil and suffering? 

Why should your students read books? 

Books are sources of wisdom, and that’s reason enough to read them. The Scriptures gush about the superior value of wisdom as Proverbs 3:13-14 claims, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Wisdom brings the blessing of learning from the mistakes and experiences of others before encountering those situations and feeling the pain of one’s own mistakes. Since books are the accumulated and distilled wisdom of years by wise people, then I say, “Read it before you need it!” Books can be an accessible source of mentoring as Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Imagine sitting at lunch to learn from John Piper or Timothy Keller or Steve Shadrach for a few hours. You can, by reading their books. We might even say that in an abundance of (good) books there is wisdom! 

Books are not the only source of wisdom, of course; there are many ways to learn. And not every book contains high-density wisdom! YouTube, podcasts, college classes, articles (like this one), online courses, Sunday church sermons, or even TikTok can teach us something far faster than reading 200 pages. The benefit of books is they require slow thought, forcing you to process what you are learning. This may seem like a liability in an age of speed. But we have cognitive limits, and books have stood the test of time as deep reservoirs of wisdom. 

One caveat before we get to some practicals: Obviously students need to read the Bible. God wrote a book, and it’s the only book you must read. So start there with students to get them into a regular habit of prioritized Scripture reading. But after that, help them to begin reading wise books. 

Four ways you can help your students to read books: 

  1. Model it

Whether for good or for bad, the students you lead will be shaped by their leader. If you are a reader, your students will see that and many will follow. If you are not a reader, your students will see that too, and probably not develop a love for reading. They mimic what you model. So collegiate staff need to read

How can you model being a reader? Here’s a few ideas: carry your current book with you to campus to show students and talk about what you’re learning. Post on your social media book quotes, or consider making a TikTok video to recommend books for your students. Give students a quick tour of your home library—this simple act may stir in them a love for reading. Quote from books in your large group talks to show the valuable insight gained from a reading life—hold up the physical book to read the quote, visually demonstrating your source of wisdom. What you model, they will mimic. 

  1. Give books away

Students often are on a tight budget, but you can bless them with free books! Give books away to all kinds of students: to eager freshmen, curious agnostics, growing disciples, hungry leaders, and graduating seniors. Give books for students to read over the summer or winter break. Give books away as fun prizes, or as supplements for large group teaching. The excitement of free book swag might increase their motivation to read. For example, at a student conference I recently taught about distraction, and gave away Competing Spectacles and The Common Rule. Maybe you don’t have the budget to purchase many books for students, but you can still let students borrow from your personal library. You can also refer them to other libraries: churches, local public, or their campus library. There are millions of options for reading, so maybe a good place to start is Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke or pick one from this Top 10 list for students.

  1. Host discussion groups

Reading is like going to the gym: it’s hard by yourself, but more fun with friends. You can host book discussion groups for your students, which gives them encouragement and accountability to complete the book. Discussing it each week gives greater understanding and helps stir applications. The leader can consider reading the chapter out loud during the meeting (or take turns with readers) to help students who struggle with reading when alone. Recently I led a group through The Fuel & the Flame: Ignite Your Life & Your Campus for Jesus Christ by Steve Shadrach and Paul Worcester. This discussion group bore great fruit as several participants decided to apply for our student Leadership Team. 

  1. Listen and help

Some students love to read, but many struggle in various ways. As a wise shepherd, part of your job is to listen carefully to discern what the difficulty is, and then provide targeted help. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” We need to listen first and ask more questions to figure out what the obstacle is. Then 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Asking questions will help you discern what this specific student needs: admonishment, encouragement, or help. 

Two common struggles for students are that they don’t have time and that reading is hard. Slow down and give them practical help in creating a reading habit, like reading one page a day, or scheduling a reading time each week. In order to say yes to reading, the student may have to say no to other good things. Encourage students to spend less time on screens, as it often decreases their attention span and eats away at the skill of concentration, essential for reading books. Depending on the difficulties they face with reading, you may want to recommend some comprehension strategies, or direct them to the learning help resources on your campus.

For decades to come… 

As a final encouragement, consider the long-term impact you can have on your students if you foster a love of reading during their four years at college. As they graduate, they will feed themselves wisdom from great books, read to their children, lead book discussions in their churches, and skillfully disciple the next generation. Tony Reinke writes, “I suspect most avid book readers have mentors who influenced them. God has positioned parents and pastors [and college ministry staff] to model a love of book reading to their children and to their flocks [and to their students]. Making books appealing in this culture is especially difficult, but igniting a love of reading in others is a high calling worthy of our time, planning, and foresight” (Lit, page 175). I try to impart this to my students by modeling these ideas, even teaching a recent student seminar on reading books. You too can be that influential mentor to spark a love of reading for decades to come!