The Reluctant Reader (Part 1)

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At some point in life, children need to learn how to read. For some, it’s easy. For others, it’s not. Reading is one of those skills that takes a lot of practice. But how do you encourage someone who’s not interested? What do you do if you have a reluctant reader?

Lack of Interest

My oldest took to reading like fish to water. My middle would set the timer and once her ten minutes were up, she’d close the book mid-sentence and dash off. She could read the Bob Books. She could read the easy readers. She understood the directions on homework and could read those easily worded phonics books from school. Taking the leap to chapter books was difficult to say the least. They were a challenge, which she didn’t like.

“My teacher said to look at the first page and if there’s more than five words that you can’t read, then that book is not a good book for you.”

I felt like every book I suggested fit this “not a good book” category. If I suggested an easy reader, she would shake her head. “Too babyish.” Translation: too easy. If I suggested a chapter book, she would open it, read ten words, say she didn’t know five, and close it. Instead of sounding out unfamiliar words, she’d guess. If she did sound them out, she’d mumble through them, adding letter sounds that weren’t in the word.

My frustration grew, as did hers. We both began to dread reading time. I realized that I wanted her to read more than she wanted to read.

The easy readers were too easy, but the chapter books (like Magic Tree House) were still a little too hard. We struggled to find the in-between. When we found a book at her reading level, she stuck out her tongue with a loud, “Blah.” The book was about a boy and a sport she didn’t like. I realized our battle wasn’t just about finding books she felt she could read, but also about finding books she was interested in reading.

I thought about what my daughter liked: all things purple, all things girly, all things magical and glittery. (Her favorite picture book is Uni the Unicorn.)

reluctant reader

The Hunt

Armed with this insight, I scoured the internet. I searched Pinterest and Goodreads for lists of books. I asked friends and teachers. I went to the library and asked for book recommendations. I vowed to judge book covers like a 7-year old. When the librarian suggested a book, I shook my head, “Not girly enough.” If I truly thought about my daughter, I knew it was true, and she wouldn’t like it. I flipped through the next recommended book and saw a lot of words and very little white space. “Too hard.” Round and round we went until I accumulated a small mountain of pink and purple-covered books. If they had a sparkly cover, even better. I selected books about fairies and unicorns and animals with big, adorable eyes begging to be loved. At home, my daughter weeded through them like a boss. The next week, I did it all over again.

After a few weeks, I noticed a small change. When the timer rang alerting us to the end of reading time, she finished the sentence before closing the book. Then the page. Then the chapter. Then once in the car, she read the entire book start to finish. It took her thirty-two minutes.

“When I found books that I liked, reading became more fun because of what I was reading. The other books, I just didn’t like them. They were just not something I was interested in.”

Slow Success

The key: I had to find what she was interested in. Once I did, she started to like reading and her reading improved. She started to put more effort into reading the unfamiliar words and realized she could read them because she wanted to read them. Take it from my 7-year old, 

“Everyone has a point when they struggle with reading. Find books they like because they’ll get motivated to read them. That’s what happened to me. I was motivated because we found books that I liked.”

If you have a reluctant reader, whether he/she is seven, ten, or thirteen, think about what your child really enjoys. Try asking some of the following questions. Hopefully, they will help narrow the search for books your reader is more interested in.

Does it matter if the main character is a boy or a girl? (My son is more interested in reading about boys, my daughter, girls, and my other daughter, had no preference. I still offer and suggest a multitude of books, but this is how they generally gravitate. That said, one of my son’s current favorites is The Rats of NIMH in which the main character is a girl.)

Does she like to read about animals? Families? Science? Fairies? Space? Robots? Monsters? Aliens? This will help guide a subject matter.

Does he like to read fiction, non-fiction, or fantasy? Is he interested in real-life scenarios between school and friends? Does he gravitate toward true stories and historical events? Is he intrigued by the impossible and want to read about magical animals that can talk? This will help guide to a genre.

What books has she read that she really enjoys? This will allow you to look for similar books.

Does he like to read serious books or ones that make him laugh out loud? For some kids, it takes longer to understand a good-humored joke. If the book is witty and filled with jokes the child doesn’t understand, it may turn him off. Likewise, if a book is too serious, it may be too heavy for a light-hearted child.

Does she like to read books with lots of pictures or no pictures? Graphic novels or traditional text?

Once you are able to narrow things down, turn to sites like Pinterest and Goodreads, or your local librarian for book recommendations based on these answers. Check out The Reluctant Reader’s Book List for a list of books we found helpful when transitioning from easy readers to chapter books.

Click here to read The Reluctant Reader Part 2 for great reading suggestions.