Three Beliefs to Guide Your Reluctant Reader

So, You’ve Got a Reluctant Reader? 

Your daughter comes home from school, hungry, bouncing off the walls, and the last thing she wants to do is open a book. Maybe your son is shy about reading aloud at school because he stumbles through the words and the last thing he wants is to read to you at home and face more corrections. Maybe they sigh and tell you that reading is boring. Whatever your particular scenario, you see a reluctant reader in your house. I’ve got good news for you – I’m here to help!

Now, I hate to break it to you, but developing a love of reading takes time and patience. With my students, I follow three core beliefs:

Belief Number 1: What you consume matters.

Belief Number 2: How you consume does not matter.

Belief Number 3: Who you consume alongside might need to change.

What You Consume Matters

In my experience, the single most important thing in helping a reluctant reader is to identify a topic, character, or genre that captures and sustains their interest. Adult readers often lean toward a single genre, or author, because they’ve found “what they like” and with limited time in the day, they cut to the chase. Why should kids be different?

As a teacher and parent, I long ago decided it came down to one question: What was more important, content that I thought was appropriate, or content that would get the child to actually read? Time and again I’ve decided that I’d like to see a light come on in the attic of a child’s mind, and that means encouraging kids to read books they like. (Thank you Shel Silverstein!)

I once recommended to my mother a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that captured my attention, in a way no other book had. She read it, and bluntly asked, “What on earth did you like about that book? I thought it was terrible.” So remember, some books are right for you and some books just aren’t, and the same goes for your child.

Start a Fire

If a child shows an interest in the sciences, help them uncover what topics spark their interest (geology, marine biology, archeology, etc.) and then, by all means, clear the library shelves of every book on hammerhead sharks if that is what it takes. Once you identify the spark, slowly fan the flame and help them broaden their scope. In the case of hammerhead sharks, guide them from a sole diet of nonfiction to eventually include some fictional tales such as the Magic Tree House Merlin Mission Series #25 “Shadow of the Shark” or I Survived The Shark Attacks of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis featuring fictional accounts of real events. Eventually the spark will change and you’ll be starting over with hamsters, or kittens, or dragons.

Be Surprised

As someone who has always preferred fiction, I was surprised that my kids would enjoy nonfiction. My two young girls are creative, adventurous, and inquisitive. At bedtime we have often read from the Bedtime Stories For Rebel Girls series by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli, because the tidy biographies of female scientists, explorers, activists, and athletes have really captured their attention.   The result has been ongoing conversations about history, politics, and heartfelt moments about decision making. This would have been impossible if I’d only channeled them down the road of fiction at bedtime.

Too Wiggly to Read?

Maybe your reader has trouble with the wiggles and giggles (high energy, difficulty maintaining focus for long periods) in which case I suggest you dive right in to Captain Underpants or DogMan books by Dav Pilkey. I know many parents and even teachers find these books to be annoying, gross, too irreverent, or unacceptable because of the “bad spelling.” I hope you will reexamine your assumptions and notice that the comic book style of these books allows kids to read in bite-sized portions. If you’re having trouble staying focused, this means the content is automatically segmented and easier to digest when you take a bite.

The misspellings are an outright slap in the face to every spelling workbook author on the planet, but I appreciate that kids can see the same “mistakes” they make in a published book. It sends the message that content is more important than perfect form. Frankly, if it weren’t for spellchekk, most uhdults would have more earors in their own riting.

Yes, you will hear more bathroom, vomit, and plunger jokes than you imagined existed, but at the end of it all, you will have helped your young human fall in love with reading. And just think, maybe next they’ll gravitate toward reading about those hammerhead sharks.

How You Consume Does NOT Matter

Ultimately, we all want our children to become blissfully independent readers that choose to read a printed book instead of watching someone halfway around the world unwrap toys on YouTube. I get it. That said, we live in a time and place in the world that has opened up a variety of ways to integrate story into our lives (for better or worse).

I think about reading, and the love of reading, like an island in the ocean. Once we land on the island, the adventure begins and anything is possible. While we are on the island, nothing back on the mainland matters. On the island, we are immersed in the story, and that’s what keeps us coming back for more (like I said, what you consume matters!).

So, if your reader is struggling to put it all together, simply take their hands off the oars of the boat, and let someone else row them to the island. The important part is that they reach the destination and develop cravings for adventure on that island again and again (and again!).

How? Offer audiobooks or read aloud to your kids. Reluctant readers can make significant gains simply by listening to a story. By removing the anxiety or time lost to the hard work of decoding, listening to books lets your child get to the critical aspect of reading called comprehension. Give them a break and remove the barriers that prevent them from getting to the meaning, to the actual story.

Maybe your reader can decode just fine, but they’re in a dry spell with chapter books. Try graphic novels, magazines, or suggest they explore fan fiction (reading or writing!) with the guidance of your local librarian. There are so many options, it just takes the patience and determination to find the right one for this particular season.

Who You Consume Alongside Might Need to Change

If you’re reading this, you might be thinking about trying Hoot Reading, or you are already watching your child read with me or one of my colleagues at Hoot each week.

It’s important to remember that your reluctant reader might be going through a phase and, as painful as it can be to experience it, perhaps s/he might just need to read and discuss with a new person. Years ago, before I found my way to Hoot Reading, my oldest went through a phase where I couldn’t teach her anything. Not. One. Single. Thing. So I swallowed my pride and hurt, and gave it a rest. And of course, it happened with reading (the irony).

I signed her up to read to dogs at the library. I enlisted friends and family to read with her and listen to her. I devised ways for her to read aloud to her three-year-old sister, and her sister’s friends, who naturally hung on to her every word. And still sometimes she won’t read aloud to me at home. But, I keep my eye on the ebb and flow of her skillset and interests, and blow some wind into her sails if it seems like she might be needing a boost.

Remember, getting to that Island of Reading will require different vehicles. You have to be willing to let your child do this work without you sometimes. Maybe they don’t want to be in a boat, with you, so help them find a way to get out to the Island. An inflatable flamingo swim toy? A submarine with a Hoot teacher?  Riding a dolphin? It doesn’t matter. Just go with the flow and remember, our shared goal is to get kids out to that Island!

More Than Reluctant?

Lastly, if you think your child is more than reluctant – if they appear to be struggling far more than you think is typical, or perhaps they struggle in ways that surprise and concern you- please check in with their teacher or your school reading specialist. In my experience, teachers want to work alongside you to help your child become a great reader. Team up with their teacher to better understand what is happening in class, where they land in the spectrum of literacy milestones, and what is truly appropriate for their age and stage of development.

And now it’s time for me to grab my beach towel, sunblock, and book. See you on the Island!