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Get ’Em Hooked: Strategies for Reluctant Readers

My then-fourth-grade daughter. Photo provided by the author.

My nine-year-old daughter tested well above grade level on every reading test, so why was I pulling my hair out trying to get her to open a book at home? Any attempt to push an easy chapter book into her hands was met with a brick wall of resistance.

My mother heart panicked; if she didn’t learn to read, and to enjoy reading, she’d have a harder time in school, college, and life.

Thanks to some detective work on my part, plus advice from educators, my daughter finally became what I’d hoped she would: an avid independent reader. She’s now a junior in college (majoring in math — somehow, she’s still my kid), and she loves books as much as ever.

Some of the things that helped her learn to love books proved useful with my other children as well.

Take away the Intimidation Factor

My daughter could read a stack of fifteen picture books without batting an eye but shied away from a 60-page Magic Tree House book. The greater the length and the smaller the text, the more anxious she got. And having some pages without any illustrations at all? Scary!

The fix proved remarkably simple: We checked out an audio book from the library and got her the same book in hard copy. Then she followed the text as the audio played.

Tackling a whole book and mountains of text no longer seemed so scary because someone else (the voice actor) was doing some of the work. After reading a few books this way, her confidence level shot up and she could read easily a chapter book alone.

Have Them Listen to Books

Read aloud to your children before bed (yes, even the older ones when schedules permit). In the car, especially on long trips, play audio books.

Literacy involves a lot more than deciphering words on a page. Listening to books helps hone skills like comprehension, prediction, making connections, understanding symbols and themes, and more. Those skills carry over to when a child reads independently.

Back up a Bit

Many children who think they’re poor readers have really just been given books that are above their level. Bad reading experiences can turn kids off reading like nothing else. No wonder they’re frustrated and think they’re dumb!

Find a book a few levels easier and try again. Can your child read 90% of the words on each page with ease? If so, it’s probably in the Goldilocks zone of being just right.

Once they see that yes, they can do this, confidence grows, and they’ll gradually move through harder levels.

Find What’s Interesting to Them

The other big killer of reading joy is forcing a kid to finish a book they hate. This is the second most common reason kids think they’re “bad” readers: they’ve never enjoyed reading, so they must be bad at it.

The truth? They’ve never been given a book they actually like.

While they’ll have to muscle through some books that are simply assigned at school, try to find ones for reading at home that strike a chord with something they personally find interesting, whether that’s comic books, nonfiction about snakes, novels about martial arts or ballet or Legos or horses, or whatever else your child finds interesting.

Admit to Hating Some Books

I had a friend who was a 30-year veteran of the junior high English classroom. One of her favorite lessons was bringing a suitcase to class filled with books she despised.

The students knew Mrs. Staheli as someone who loved books, devoured them, and wanted her students to love reading too.

So imagine their shock when she pulled out book after book from that suitcase with statements like, “Couldn’t get past the first chapter,” and, “I was required to read this one in college, but it was so boring, I read it backwards.”

Whoa. If Mrs. Staheli could hate some book — could NOT FINISH some books — then maybe hating some books didn’t meant mean her students were bad readers after all. For many students of the years, this demonstration blew their minds in a good way.

Use Mrs. Staheli’s technique at home. If your child knows you as an avid reader, then saying how how you had to slog through a certain book in high school or how you can’t stand a certain author’s style will open up that same aha in your home.

Visit the Optometrist

After trying several of these techniques, my fourth-grade daughter improved in her reading significantly, but she was still reluctant to crack open a book on her own. She’d sit down with a chapter book for the twenty minutes required on her reading chart for school, but that was about it.

That’s when I noticed how often she complained of headaches in her forehead.

A visit to the eye doctor showed that while she had 20/20 vision, she had significant astigmatism in both eyes. That meant her eye muscles had to work significantly harder to focus on small things like text. Eye strain led to headaches.

In other words, reading was physically painful for her.

She got a pair of cute reading glasses. Days later, I caught her curled up on her bed with her glasses on her cute little face and her nose in a novel.

Holding back tears, I tiptoed away so as not to disturb her.

Learning to read affects children’s lives in ways nothing else ever will, empowering them with skills that are vital for success in a world that’s more connected by the written word than ever.

If your child is a reluctant reader, don’t give up. Keep trying. Play detective. The rewards are well worth it.

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