How to Encourage a Reluctant Reader

Is reading for pleasure at the bottom of your child’s interests? Or does she eagerly pick up the “it” book of the moment — the one all her friends seem to be reading and loving — only to abandon it after a few minutes?

If you said yes to either of those scenarios, your child may be a “reluctant reader,” an ambiguous term that sets parents on edge. Sometimes the interest in reading and stories is there, but the child struggles or loses interest. And sometimes, in situations that are even more confounding, a child is reading at or above grade level but chooses not to read. What’s at the root of this reluctance?

“I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a reluctant reader,” says Nancy Pearl, a librarian, NPR commentator and author of Book Crush: For Kids and Teens — Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Interest. “I think there are only readers who haven’t found the right book.” The trick is to find the right book at the right time for your young reader.

“Young readers need to have a pleasurable experience, especially in that elementary school period,” says Lupine Miller, a children’s services librarian at the Seattle Public Library. Miller asks kids what they’ve been reading, what they’ve liked and what they didn’t like (which can provide important insight). “The key is to really listen to what kids are saying. Do they just not like what they are reading in school? Is there a book the other kids are reading that they want to read?”

Also, you may not realize how much your child is actually reading, since kids read much more than books throughout the day. “Sometimes parents say their child never reads, and then you find out that they read magazines, video game cheats or comic books,” Miller says. These kids definitely are reading — just not in the traditional sense. “I try to remind parents that what [their kids] read is not as important as that they are reading. If they’re reading something and it is pleasurable, the ‘good’ stuff will come.”

We’re lucky that we have so many visually interesting formats and an abundance of truly funny books available for our kids. Books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger are not only wildly popular and hilarious, they’re also accessible without seeming too easy or young. These are books a young reader will be proud to read and to carry around.

Whether your child is struggling or reluctant when it comes to reading, there’s definitely the right book out there somewhere. Here are a few ideas to help find that perfect book — and to keep your child reading.

– Find a series. It’s natural for us to want our kids to read widely and experience new things. But if your child loves a series — even if it seems too easy — encourage other books in the series. You may not be that excited about Junie B. Jones or Captain Underpants, but if your child likes a type of book or certain series, why get in the way of reading? The familiar characters and predictable plot structures are excellent for keeping kids reading. “Try to not pressure or make judgments on what they’re reading or how they are reading,” says Miller.

– Try nonfiction. Today’s nonfiction books for young readers are lively and engaging. Many are heavily illustrated with either drawings or photographs. Topics can range from swords and armor (Arms and Armor, part of the excellent DK Eyewitness series) to exploring the fascinating grossities of life (such as Why Is Snot Green? by Glenn Murphy) to a girl-centric look at friendship (Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them from American Girl).

– Jump around. Many nonfiction books can be enjoyed without having to read straight through. There aren’t chapters in books like Guinness World Records (or similar series), so readers can read one page, flip it and read another. It’s not as daunting and there’s a smaller section of type.

– Read the same book. Miller suggests connecting books with something in real life. If you’re both reading the same book, you can talk about the characters and story in the context of your life.

– Book and movie tie-in. Many of us hold fast to the idea of reading a book before seeing the movie, but flipping the order might be just the thing to engage a young reader. Some readers will benefit from the visual foundation of a movie, as well as having the knowledge to predict the plot before they pick up the book.

– Read to a pet. An unconfident reader can blossom with the nonjudgmental audience of a beloved dog or cat. There are organized Reading to Rover types of programs, but curling up in a corner with your family hound, a cat or a stuffed animal also is a low-pressure way to spend time reading.

– The five-finger rule. A fourth-grade teacher I know tells her class to use the “five-finger rule” when choosing books from the school library for independent reading. If a student isn’t sure about how hard the book is, he should open it up to a random page. For every word he comes across that he doesn’t easily know, he raises a finger. When all five digits, on one hand, are up, it’s a clue that the book might be too hard. You might consider this type of guideline if your child gets bogged down or frustrated by not knowing the exact meaning of every word. On the other hand. …

– Don’t worry about new vocabulary. On the flip side of the five-finger rule is the idea that kids should read what they want to read, no matter the difficulty or complexity. If there are some words they don’t know, they can often get the meaning out of context. The more ambitious readers might seek new definitions. And lots of others will just skim right over the unknown and get what they want to get out of a story.

– Try two or three chapters. People who read for pleasure — of all ages! — should feel free to abandon one book and head to the next one. In all fairness, though, it can take two or three chapters before you’re able to tell if a children’s novel is the right book at the right time. If after three chapters your child really isn’t interested, you can ease the guilt by saying it’s OK to set that book aside and try another. It’s empowering for young readers to assert what they like and don’t like in books.

– Try comics or graphic novels. Don’t let anyone dismiss your child’s reading habits if she prefers comics, manga or graphic novels. Head to the library and try comic compilations of Garfield, Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes (especially if you grew up reading any of those — you can share the fun). Or look for graphic novels like the Lunch Lady series by Jarrett Krosoczka or Babymouse: Queen of the World! by siblings Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. Meanwhile by Jason Shiga is a graphic novel where readers choose the direction to go in the book, sort of like a more sophisticated version of the “choose your own adventure” stories that always sounded better than they actually were.

– Read in small batches. Many teachers or schools will either require or “strongly suggest” reading for 20 minutes a day. Don’t just set a timer and say, “Ready, set, read.” Instead, realize that it’s a total of 20 minutes and that you can get there with five minutes at a time. It all adds up — in the short term for meeting daily goals as well as for long-term reading success.

– Ask a librarian for suggestions. Encourage your child to ask the school librarian for suggestions. On the weekend, take a trip to your local public library. You can help make the initial contact with a librarian, but then back away and let the librarian and your child talk together alone. Letting the librarian get your child to open up about book likes and dislikes is key to finding a good book match.

– Bring lots of books home from the library. If you have some backup books on hand, your reader has choices readily available if the first book isn’t the right one — and more books to read if the first book is a good match. Keep reading!

– Keep books front and center in your lives. Having books in your home turns out to be a documented positive force in encouraging children to read. The results of a  found that growing up in homes with books was a better indicator of future success for children than income or other social demographic factors.

– Keep reading. Do you read for enjoyment? Children need to see how their parents choose to read to enrich their lives. And don’t forget about reading together: There’s no cutoff for when family story time needs to end. If you’re like me, you treasure end-of-the-day reading time — a chance to get to know characters and explore the power of stories with your family.(And I’m not the only one: Alice Ozma wrote a beautiful book, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Read, about the bond she and her father shared from reading together.)

To keep your child reading, librarian Lupine Miller suggests meeting your child wherever his current interest lies and going from there. “Try to not pressure or make judgments on what they’re reading,” says Miller. “Just let them go at their own pace.”

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