One of the top questions I work through with friends, family, parents of my students, and even my own children is what to do when a child doesn’t want to read. Or I am asked for ideas for how to increase a child’s desire to read. This is not a question I take lightly, nor one that I have a magical solution to. I wish. But I do have a few ideas that may help a reluctant reader get more interested in reading taken from my own experience as a teacher and parent.
First of all; be a reader yourself. Nothing speaks louder to a child than having reading role models. Read as much as you can, discuss your reading, share your reading, and read widely. Switch it up to showcase that reading is not just one thing to you, but can consists of many types of books and genres. I always have a book in my purse, backpack, and in my house. I read when I am waiting for people, when we sit a traffic lights, whenever we have an errand to run and I stay back in the car. Be a reader yourself so that the children in your life can see the value of it, not just hear about it. Also pass books on in front of your children, I often hand books to others and discuss why they might love it. My children and students have started doing the same.
Secondly, keep reading aloud. We read aloud to all four of our children every single night. They pick the books and we gladly comply. It is a perfect way to end the day and allows a moment to create a shared experience. This goes for older children as well. Several of my students have reported sharing a book with a parent and I can tell you; it makes a huge difference to them. I also cherish the read aloud time we have in class, much too little of it unfortunately, but again it allows us to have a shared experience that will shape future conversations about books. (One tip: Read the first book in a series aloud to ensure students get hooked and have more books to read). Create a shared read aloud experience with the world by joining The Global Read Aloud or other shared read aloud projects. This helps students connect with the world and also gets them excited about incredible books.
Third, take them to the book store. Yes, I love a great library but there seems to be a stigma to some kids about “those old books” that they can find in the library versus the new and shiny ones they can see in a book store. My trick, so that I don’t go bankrupt is to take my own children to the book store first , let them select all of the amazing books they cannot wait to read, write them all down, and then head straight to the library to get them from there. Once in a while they get to select a book to purchase from the book store and we make a big deal out of it.
Fourth, keep handing them books. Be specific with why you are handing it to them. “I read this book and think you might like it because…” and keep doing it every chance you have. Don’t be offended when they don’t want to read it. I tell my students all of the time that even if I think a book is great they may hate it, which always turns into a great discussion of taste. Children need chances to develop their own taste and in order to do that they need to be presented with a lot of books to choose from. (This is also why I have a large classroom library and many books at my house). And don’t just hand them the Classics, or whatever you think they should read, if they express interest in something hand that to them. My mother never limited what I read even if she felt something was too hard or outside of my interest, she just let me read. When we micromanage we stop children from discovering themselves as readers.
Fifth, don’t let your own ideas of what great reading looks like ruin great readings for others. I think we are all super guilty of thinking we know what great reading looks like. Whether it is reading a certain book or genre, whether it is reading in a certain type of environment or noise level, whatever we prefer is what we assume must be best for all. Just don’t. I have had students get deep into the reading zone while listening to soft music. I have had students only want to read one certain genre and nothing else no matter what I presented them with. I have had students swear that the best reading they can do is when they walk around the room. Yes, really! And guess what? They were right. Their best reading is their best reading, not the silent lying on the couch method I prefer. But you should have the conversation with them, ask them what it looks like and then have them cultivate that. Discuss your own reading preference so they can find their style as well.
Sixth, don’t do rewards. Ever. Reading is its own reward. The minute we start to tie reading with a tangible reward, we remove the intrinsic pleasure we hope our readers discover. Although reading for a reward can offer a short-term solution to get a child reading, it will set a long-term precedent of what reading is for. It is not worth it. It will almost never lead to some sort of revelation of how pleasurable reading is and instead you have created a new bad habit; the “give-me” monster whose outstretched hand will only read when there is a tangible prize at the end. So don’t start, even if it seem like it might help a little, the damage it will do will not be worth it in the end.
Seven, give it a break. I can be a high-strung reading parent, particularly because reading has not come super easy for one of my own children. When we saw her struggle, my immediate reaction was to want her to read for longer periods of time in order to practice more. My husband intervened, thankfully, and reminded me that when she does read it is hard, concentrated work and so we want to keep it short and sweet. Make it a pleasurable experience, not a drill sergeant moment. So if your child is really fighting you on reading, or struggling, don’t force them to read for a long period of time every day, keep it short, pleasant, and predictable. Let them browse books, read a bit and support them throughout. They will get there, it may just take time and that one great book, but making something already difficult or hated into a long battle is not going to change their mind or help them love reading.
Eight, talk about reading but in a non-threatening way. My daughter and I invent stories a lot on our drive home, sometimes based off of read alouds we have done. My students and I discuss movies all of the time, particularly if they are based on a book and we need to compare it. I show book trailers, I do impromptu picture book read alouds, and I get very, very excited about new books that I am reading. Books are a constant undercurrent of my life and I do my best to bring it to the attention of the children I am surrounded by, but in a non-obvious way. So go to author talks and signings, do read alouds, go to movies based on books, leave books out, listen to audio books on road trips, be excited about being a reader and don’t give up. You never know at what moment a child will start to love reading.
Nine, realize it’s ok if they don’t love reading. I can’t believe I just write that but it is true. Yes, we should make opportunities for all children to love reading but we also need to be ok with a child if they don’t. My mother raised my 4 siblings and I to love reading (I really have 11 siblings but these were the ones at my mom’s house) and 4 out of the 5 kids love it more than anything. My one brother… not so much. He is a great reader and once in a while will fall in love with a book series, but most of the time he is busy doing other things. His life is not less full or less pleasurable than mine. So we need to be ok with having a child that doesn’t love reading as much as we do…That doesn’t mean we stop, but it means we stop judging them on it.
What did I miss? What ideas do you have to share? I know many of us struggle with this.
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.