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Reaching your reluctant reader

Published on: October 01, 2009

A recent survey by Scholastic Books finds that only 29 percent of 7 to 11-year-olds in the U.S. read daily for pleasure. So what do you do if your child is a member of that other 71 percent who shows little interest in books? “Most kids are reluctant readers because their reading time has become unpleasant or they are feeling insecure about their abilities,” says Seattle children’s librarian Pamela LaBorde. Whatever the reason — lack of interest, struggles with comprehension, or too much pushing at home or school — you can reinvigorate your reluctant reader’s interest in the written word.

Follow your child’s interests. Adults sometimes think “reading” is something done with a heavy, musty fiction book written 50 years ago. Instead, LaBorde suggests, “offer the child many options that he can choose. Ask him what interests him.” Mine your child’s interests, whether basketball, horses or alien abductions. Dorling Kindersley produces full-color titles exploring kid-friendly topics from pirates to pets. Children will work hard to get the information they want.

Model reading. According to the Scholastic study, parents who read daily are more than twice as likely to have children who enjoy reading. Talk about the newspaper’s latest article over dinner or discuss the novel you’ve been reading. “Be a good role model by filling up your house with things to pick up and read,” LaBorde says.

Listen to audiobooks. Turn off the television in the evenings and listen to Harry Potter’s adventures. Dramatic storytelling enlivens long car trips, and helps children relax into an imaginative world rather than worrying about decoding text. Try Roald Dahl’s The Twits on the family MP3 player, downloadable through iTunes, or borrow one of hundreds of available titles for free from your library. You may find that you enjoy being read to as much as your child. A bonus: Audiobooks keep hands free for creative pursuits, such as coloring, building with Legos, or knitting.

Try a comic book. Comics have come a long way from the Sunday funnies. Whether a graphic-novel form of Charles Dickens, or simply a “Garfield” treasury, illustrated books often introduce children to new vocabulary and greater fluency, particularly if they struggle with the overwhelming wall of text found in chapter books.

Check out popular series. Popular for a reason, series authors know how to bait and draw a young reader in on kid-friendly topics such as Star Wars, robots, and ponies. In this case, getting hooked is a good thing. 

Tickle your child’s funny bone. Go for giggles with the Jokelopedia, or make up your own jokes to put in her lunchbox. Taking the seriousness out of reading can help change a child’s attitude. Getting the punch line at the end of a sentence quickly becomes a rich reward.

Go back to basics.
Lushly illustrated picture books aren’t just for the preschool set. Gory Greek myths and modern-day fables aimed at mature elementary-age readers abound in bookstores and libraries. Creepy picture books too scary for preschoolers perfectly fit elementary-age children enthralled with the supernatural, and provide reading skill confidence.

Visit the library.
Go once a week and encourage your child to choose any material: book, comic, magazine, DVD, audiobook. Don’t criticize or push harder material by comparing her choices to a classmate’s choices (“Madison’s reading Joyce. Sure you don’t want to try a little Proust?”). Help her find high-interest books, even if it means holding your nose at Captain Underpants during checkout. 

Expand your definition of reading. Print is everywhere in our society, and reading enjoyment can found in many of the same places. Children can help read maps, nutritional information, driving directions, and websites. “We know that many boys [but not just boys], for example, begin to be ‘practical readers’ who read manuals and game guides, magazines, instructions, and so on,” says LaBorde. “They may look like they’re not reading, but they are.”

Read together.
“Parents should continue to read to their kids, reluctant or not,” says LaBorde. “Continuing to provide a positive, fun reading experience helps improve all the preliteracy and early literacy skills all kids need. It keeps kids engaged with books and language.”  Bring out a favorite chapter book from your childhood and make it a nightly ritual to read before bedtime. The comforting reassurance from a parent will ensure your child loves reading — for a lifetime.

Lora Shinn is an MLIS-certified children’s librarian and mother to two. Lora loves reading, traveling, and reading about traveling.

Ripe Books for Reluctant Readers

Adventures of Captain Underpants,
by Dav Pilkey
Charles Dickens and Friends: Five Lively Retellings, by Marcia Williams
Eyewitness Guide Pirate, by Dorling Kindersley
Grossology: The Science of Really Gross Things, by Sylvia Branzei  
Greek Myths for Young Children, by Heather Amery  
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone audio CD, by J.K. Rowling  
Jokelopedia: The Biggest, Best, Silliest, Dumbest Joke Book Ever, by Ilana Weitzman, Eva Blank, Rosanne Green, Mike Wright, Alison Benjamin
The Junie B. Jones series, by Barbara Park
Ripley’s Special Edition 2010: Ripley’s Believe It or Not Special Edition, by M. Packard
Rotten Ralph Feels Rotten: A Rotten Ralph Rotten Reader, by Jack Gantos
The Twits, by Roald Dahl
The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman


Originally published in the July, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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