Just pick one! Barb Langridge overheard a mother say to her son, about age 10, when she was working at the library. Langridge tried to help.
“I asked the question I was trained to ask—‘What are the last two books that you read, that you liked?’” Langridge, a Maryland-based public speaker and TV host, and former children’s library instructor and research specialist, remembers. “The boy said nothing—just crickets…Finally he said, ‘I did like that one, Maniac Magee’ [by Jerry Spinelli]. And right then, I could see right into him,” she says. “I said, ‘OK, so what you just told me is that you want to know what it means to be a great man, and what it means to make the world a better place?’ and he nodded. I looked at the mom, and she had tears in her eyes.”
Langridge pulled books from the library shelves, based on what she’d gathered about the boy’s interests. It wasn’t the first time Langridge had encountered a reluctant reader—it’s common, she says—but she believes that even the most reluctant kids can love reading if they’re matched up well with a book.
“If reading is a struggle, they will struggle throughout the day,” says Katie Cothern, a third-grade teacher at Vanderhoof Elementary in Arvada. “In second grade and up, kids have to be able to read in order to access the content in other subjects like science and math.”
“Reading, particularly literary fiction, helps kids build emotional intelligence and empathy,” says Langridge. Researchers at The New School in New York City found that children who were given literary fiction to read had a greater ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions, according to the Scientific American article, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.”
But what if your child doesn’t want to read? Many experts say the solution starts with empowerment.
Let Them Choose
“By adding choice to the mix, kids start seeing books as fun—plus, choice adds a feeling of empowerment,” says Fleur Bradley, Colorado Springs-based author of the Double Vision series and speaker on the topic of reluctant readers. “Now, I won’t lie: some kids naturally like reading more than others, but if we start looking at reading the way we look at TV and movies, it becomes more a question of taste: what kind of book does your child actually like to read?
Arvada mom Julie Kennedy found that after years of reading reluctance, her son Hayden’s attitude toward reading improved in sixth grade, partly because the teacher allowed more freedom.
“This month, they have to read a biography, but there is more wiggle room in what they choose,” Kennedy says. “I find that when he is interested in a topic, I don’t have to keep prodding him.”
Langridge designed her website, A Book and a Hug, to help match children with books they love, based on their personalities.
“I hesitate to hand a child a list of ‘good books.’ The person that put that list together is only looking at half the equation,” Langridge says. “The other half is, who is the reader? If you want to take the ‘reluctant’ out of reluctant reader, find out who you are talking to.”
Creating a Habit
In her classroom, Cothern says that the most common situation she sees is that reading has not become a habit. “They don’t have a favorite book, and they don’t read at home. It takes time and effort to create the habit of reading,” she says. There are many ways parents can help.
- Discover what motivates them. When it comes to reading, “the impact of digital media is hard to compete with…student motivation is a key factor,” says Kimberly FitzPatrick, a learning specialist with Children’s Hospital Colorado and a certified academic language therapist. Through meetings with her school’s psychologist, Cothern learned that kids can be motivated by adult approval, peer approval, an external factor (such as food), or an internal motivator (self). If you’d like to give your kids an incentive to read, consider what motivates them. “Every kid is so different,” Cothern says.
- Read to them. “Learning to love reading starts back when [kids] are little, during snuggly bedtime stories,” FitzPatrick says. “As they get older, they shouldn’t lose that time. Continue to read to them, using books in which the listening comprehension is significantly higher.”
- Browse the library together. Let kids choose as many books as they want. Participate in summer reading incentive programs at libraries.
- Learn letter names before students begin kindergarten. Do this by playing games with alphabet letters, coming up with rhyming words, and replacing the beginning and ending sounds of words, suggests FitzPatrick.
- Ask your child to read to you. “It takes a lot of time, but it was such a bonding experience,” Kennedy says about having her son read to her. “I learned a lot, and we were able to talk about what we were reading.” She even tries to purchase an extra copy of her son’s school textbooks to have at home, to make sure he understands what he reads in school.
- Start with graphic novels. Cothern says that sometimes it’s a teacher’s preference to not allow graphic novels in class, but Cothern allows them. Langridge agrees: “Graphic novels are a doorway to reading like nothing else.”
- Read the same book together. “It makes reading a shared event,” says Bradley.
- Find answers to questions kids ask, using books as resources, suggests FitzPatrick.
- Create conversations around reading. “Ask your child: ‘So you didn’t like that book? Tell me why?’” suggests Bradley. “Kids are smart, and really fun to talk to if given a chance. In my house, we’ve had some fun, lively conversations over dinner about books.”
- Offer books as a reward for something they earned. “Let them choose, whether it’s a joke book, magazine, or poems,” says FitzPatrick.
- “Try audiobooks, if you have a kid who is behind the curve a little when it comes to reading,” says Bradley. “If your child can read along with the narrator, it’ll do wonders for their reading—plus, some kids are just naturally auditory learners.”
- Take turns reading aloud. “With a child who struggles with reading, going back and forth gave [my son] a chance to enjoy the story,” says Kennedy.
- Connect books to popular entertainment. “For books that became movies, try reading the book, then watching the movie,” suggests Bradley. “How is it the same, different, better?”
- Don’t discount small ways to incorporate reading. “Read the manual to the car, recipes, grocery lists…whatever they are interested in,” says Cothern. “Be persistent, and never give up.”
When It’s More Than Just Reluctance
For kids with reading disabilities, reading is like a hard workout for the brain. “[It’s] as if you were someone with a broken leg trying to walk five miles,” author Fleur Bradley says.
While there are many conditions that can cause reading disabilities, experts believe that about 20 percent of students have dyslexia in varying degrees, says learning specialist Kimberly FitzPatrick.
“Sometimes [dyslexia] may be really mild and children can compensate for it, but many will need group or extra therapy,” FitzPatrick says.
For young children, if you are reading a rhyming book together and your child is having trouble getting the rhymes, that could be a sign of dyslexia, says FitzPatrick. Other signs, she says, are delayed language development, inability to follow directions, difficulty learning and remembering colors, numbers, letters, and object names. If you see these signs, consider getting your child tested by a learning specialist.
Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Learning Services Department offers learning evaluations to determine if children have disabilities that could be making reading more difficult. Following an evaluation, specialists provide a report with individual recommendations for parents and schools to support the struggling reader, based on the child’s diagnosis.
Arvada mom Julie Kennedy had her son Hayden tested during his fifth grade year. She discovered his reading level was a year and a half behind grade level, despite reading with him daily, getting private tutoring, vision therapy, and intervention services at his school, in the previous years.
Dr. Bruce G. Bender at National Jewish Hospital administered a Pediatric Neuropsychology Test for Hayden, to determine the cause of his reading difficulties. Hayden was diagnosed with a reading disability and attention-deficit disorder (ADD)—both of which, Kennedy was told, contributed to his difficulties with reading.
With recommendations after testing, help from his parents, and his school intervention specialist, Hayden is now reading on grade level, and sometimes choosing to read on his own. “The test has been really valuable,” Kennedy says, “and has helped us with the bigger picture.”
Looking for book ideas? Check out our Read to Me column for recommendations from book experts and librarians: including books about new siblings, helping the earth, outdoor Colorado, being a good listener, books for kids who think differently, and award-winning books.