“I used to dream about reading the Harry Potter books with my daughter when she got older, but she won’t pick up a book,” said the woman behind me in the Starbucks line. Her friend nodded sympathetically. “She just wants to play soccer! Sometimes I wonder if she was switched at birth.”
If that frustrated stranger’s story sounds familiar, that’s because she’s not alone. So many parents do everything they can to encourage a love of reading, from reading out loud to keeping the house stocked with books to making regular trips to the public library, only for their children’s teachers to label them with the dreaded phrase “reluctant reader.”
‘Reluctant readers’ don’t struggle with reading—they just don’t enjoy it. Some think of reading as being a ‘school thing,’ while others just hate sitting still. They might do just fine in English class, but studies show that the benefits of reading for pleasure are real. Enthusiastic pleasure readers tend to perform better in school, show lower rates of stress and depression, and even develop a stronger sense of empathy! And to think that hundreds of years ago, doctors warned that too much pleasure reading was bad for young people’s health!
If traditional approaches haven’t worked with your favorite reluctant reader, try these strategies to encourage a love of the written word!
Play a game
Some kids don’t want to sit and imagine a story– they want to live it! Even in the age of smart phones and tablets, board games are as popular as ever. Regardless of age level, games are a great way to boost literacy skills and fondness for reading. Some games, like Boggle or Bananagrams, actively involve spelling and vocabulary, but others are sneakier. Think of your favorite complex board game, like Monopoly or Catan. Simply reading cards and instruction manuals encourage reluctant readers to engage with written words. Still skeptical? Kids have been shown to learn up to 5-8 times faster when playing a game because their minds are engaged and motivated. Sounds like a great excuse for family game night!
Listen to a book
If your child loved being read to as a kid but won’t pick up a book now, audiobooks might be just what they need. Try playing a variety of audiobooks in the car every time you take your kids to school, sports practice, errands, and vacations. They might seem indifferent or annoyed at first, but they may just remind you to start up the book again the next time you’re in the car. Experiment with different genres and types of books until you find something that genuinely appeals to your kids. They may just ask you to check out the sequel.
Pursue a passion
There’s nothing wrong with preferring soccer to storybooks or painting to poetry. Don’t assume that nonfiction holds less appeal than fiction. For many reluctant readers, learning about a favorite topic may be the key to a lifelong love of reading. Kids might enjoy articles about their favorite sports teams, help plan family vacations by reading guidebooks, plunge into the world of unsolved mysteries like UFOs and Bigfoot, cook their way through a cookbook, or even learn a new skill like origami. And don’t forget– there’s nothing wrong with using the internet to look up information. Research skills will always be important!
Short forms, big wins
By now, you probably get the idea that we believe books aren’t the only kind of material worth reading. Nowadays, kids are so busy with extracurricular activities, homework, and staying in touch with friends that finding time to read a book is not always easy. After a few days without making progress on a book, it’s easy to forget about it entirely. Short stories, magazines, and graphic novels are all great ways for kids to enjoy reading in bite-sized pieces– and they’re much more portable than, say, a copy of War and Peace. If you’re looking for age-appropriate magazines that aren’t packed with ads or commercialism, Cricket Media publishes nine titles for kids of all ages. Check out the full selection here!
Share a conversation
Reading may be a solitary activity, but for some reluctant readers, conversations make books come alive. Ask if they’d do anything differently from the characters in the story, or if the characters remind them of anyone they know. Even the most innocuous comment can turn into an interesting conversation. If your child says, “In the book, they’re allowed to play on the playground when they finish lunch, but our school makes us sit in the cafeteria,” that opens the door to a discussion about differences between the story and real life. It doesn’t have to feel like homework. Ranting about a least-favorite character is still a way to engage with a book!
You were probably expecting this one: model a love of books to your children. Let them see you reading for pleasure. Talk about visiting the library or book store with excitement and tell them about the books you read. If they see that reading isn’t just something they have to do for school, they may look at books in a new light. Don’t discount the opportunity to let kids become role models, too. They might not want to read to themselves for pleasure, but they may be willing to read to younger siblings. Little kids love to be read to, and older kids often secretly want to look at colorful picture books, too. Give them a chance to become the storyteller and help select books for their younger siblings, and soon their confidence in themselves as readers will grow!
Do you know a reluctant reader? Which strategies helped them?