Pointers from a reluctant-reader-turned-author.
Because I write books for young readers and I’m open about the reading difficulties I’ve had throughout my life, many adults with reluctant readers in their lives ask how they can help their struggling child. Based on some study, conversation with kids, compassion, and my own life’s experience, here are my 7 tips for helping your reluctant reader:
1. Rule out learning disorders.
The root cause of a reading problem may be more than lack of interest or effort. Reluctance and frustration with reading can be symptoms of a diagnosable disorder like dyslexia. In short-format reading or other subjects a child might be able to compensate for a mild or hidden condition but feel intimidated by longer-form reading. Testing offered through your school or health program may help you find out.
Did I have such a disorder? I don’t know. I went to grade school in the ’70s when there wasn’t as much focus on what we now call “alternative learning styles.” I don’t even remember being tested. I just remember that reading seemed harder for me than for other kids. These days there are helpful techniques and effective accommodations for kids with diagnosed learning conditions (and these conditions no longer carry the stigma they did a couple of decades ago).
2. Support, don’t threaten.
More pressure makes reading harder, not easier. A struggling child is easily overwhelmed and shut down by mounting demands to be better at a task that’s difficult for them. I was threatened with failure at school, discipline at home, and eternal underachievement if I didn’t improve my reading. None of that made reading easier or more attractive, it only raised the stakes of failing at a subject I was already bad at.
3. Any reading counts.
There’s nothing more frustrating to a struggling reader than to find something they’re excited to read only to be told, “That’s not real reading. You need to read XYZ.” Well, guess what, I didn’t care enough about XYZ to spend the extra time and effort that reading requires of me. Let your reluctant reader read what interests them. When I plug into subjects I’m passionate about, I’m much more willing to put in the effort to read and immerse myself in the subject.
4. Keep it in perspective.
It’s hard for kids to be subjective about their reading difficulties. I couldn’t say, “Aw, I’m just a slow reader – I might catch up later” or “I have a learning disorder that I can overcome with adaptive learning techniques.” All the input I was getting caused me to take it personally and think, “Other people get this reading thing and I don’t, so I guess I’m just stupid.” Is a the pursuit of a better grade now worth the lifelong self-esteem issues that reading difficulties can cause? In the long run a child’s confidence and self-image determines their ability to achieve. Work on the big picture, not just the black and white lines.
5. Encourage alternate subjects.
Legendary television producer Stephen J. Cannell had such severe dyslexia as a young person that he could hardly read or study, so he got his self-esteem from playing sports. Cannell went on to write and produce dozens of TV series, employ hundreds of people, and become a bestselling author. As for me, I concentrated on art from junior high through college. There’s no way I could have majored in text-heavy subjects like law, business, history, or literature. I wouldn’t try to read a thick Tolkien novel, but I would pick up an art book! No doubt, your reluctant reader is good at or passionate about something that’s not reading-dense. And no doubt there are novels or nonfiction books with those themes that would be compelling companion reads.
6. Be a reading role model.
Get caught reading – to, with, and by your kids. There are some alarming statistics about how few adults ever read a book after high school or college. Then we wonder why our kids don’t want to read. Even though I had reading difficulties, my dad was constantly reading at home and we had stacks of dime store novels in the basement. Reading was “modeled” in my home, so picking up a book wasn’t an awkward or alien activity when I was ready.
7. Don’t give up!
Your reluctant and struggling reader wants to achieve and learn – they’re just having trouble with reading right now. They may surprise you and blossom later – or really shock you (and themselves) by becoming an author!
The amazing conclusion from my life’s experience is that childhood reluctance to read doesn’t spell doom for a person’s future – even in the areas of reading and writing! We’re living in a world of technology and helpers. This is the future where our learning styles are less a factor than our curiosity and passion. I owe most of my personal development to the fact that I can read, so I want kids to discover a love of books and learning too. Like so much else with kids, though, it often seems to arrive best on their terms.
A couple resources for reluctant reader info:
Chris Everheart is author of the YA thriller described as “unputdownable” and “will draw in even the most reluctant readers”:
A lone teen. A suspicious death. An ancient conspiracy.