What to do about reluctant readers?

| Friday, July 15, 2011
Today's Tune: My Favorite Accident

I've posted about this site before, but it's still awesome, so I thought I'd post about it again since my topic today kind of ties in. If you have a reluctant boy reader -- or really, just a reluctant reader in general -- you should check out Guys Read. It has some wonderful suggestions and a lot of great advice for reluctant readers.

Which brings me to today's topic: what do we do about reluctant readers? Not just boys, but any reluctant readers? As someone who writes for young people, it's kind of a big deal to me that young people are reading. Many are, but there are others out there who WOULD read, they just can't seem to find the books that are right for them.

When I saw Jon Scieszka at the SCBWI summer conference last year, he introduced me to Guys Read, along with a lot of great insight into why some kids are reluctant readers. When we're young and beginning to form our lasting relationships with books and the written word, we sometimes get mixed signals. Those mixed signals often take the form of, "Some books count as reading. Others do not." The books that "count" are often forced on kids (classics, non-fiction, historical novels) while the "others" are discouraged or even taken away (magazines, comic books, certain genre novels).

This forcing of "good" literature and discouragement of "bad" literature can set up a block for some kids. They don't want to read stuff they find boring or painful. They want to read about things they like; things that interest them. I can totally relate to this. I love many of the classics, but I will forever loathe The Scarlet Letter because it was forced on me even though I found it painfully dry. Might I have a different opinion of the work had I picked it up of my own free will as an English major in college? I guess I'll never know.

We place value judgements on where kids get their words. Graphic novels and magazines are considered fluff. Filler. Not real. And that's not fair or right. I mean, I don't recommend letting 8-year old children read Maxim or Cosmopolitan, because there's no way that can end well for anyone. But if a child is genuinely enthralled by a story in a comic book, or an article in a car magazine? How is that a bad thing?

Not every child has the same reading interests or capabilities, and that's okay. Kids with dyslexia or other learning disorders may feel less pressure when faced with a story in a different medium, like a graphic novel. Some kids may be bored to death by The Hobbit and Hamlet, but get totally into the Percy Jackson series. It's not about forcing the literature we think is the highest quality or the most educational. It's about establishing an early and positive relationship with the written word in whatever form it best speaks to each individual child.

Reluctant readers are reluctant because something about literature has turned them off. They've had experiences with it where they found it too boring, too difficult, too forced, too whatever. Time and time again we hear stories of young people who rarely read anything at all until someone convinces them to try this book or that series, and then they're hooked. After that, they'll gobble up anything along those lines because they've finally found the story that speaks to them and they want more. It's a gateway to similar books and, hopefully, a more positive relationship with literature as a whole.

Don't belittle a child's reading choices because they don't align with what you feel is "appropriate" literature (appropriate in the sense of quality, not necessarily of content). If a child is reading at all, explore what it is about their selected reading material that appeals to them. Do they like dragons? Fairies? Cars? Explosions? Superheroes? If they're not reading, ask them about their usual interests and help them find suitable literary alternatives, in whatever form that content may come.

We can help kids find the right stories. It's just a matter of listening to what they want from their literature.


{ Matthew MacNish } at: July 15, 2011 at 5:27 AM said...

I was loving this post until you said someone might be bored by The Hobbit. I mean how could that be possible?

Anonymous at: July 15, 2011 at 6:01 AM said...

So do you feel the AR system in school is way off base? Just curious.

{ thebloodfiend } at: July 15, 2011 at 7:14 AM said...

@Matthew, it's possible. My little sister (10) was bored by it. I loved it when I was nine.

{ Magan } at: July 15, 2011 at 8:13 AM said...

Sometimes I think that the Canon needs to change. Like the books that we are forced to read in school. I actually hated reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school, but when I read it later on I really enjoyed it. I think maybe if people got to choose a little bit more of what they read in school then it might help kids to read more.

I.E. I took a creative writing class in high school and my instructor had us always bring a novel to class and we read for the first 10-20 minutes of every class since every writer should be a reader. It was nice to pick something out for our own enjoyment and not have to read another copy of Gatsby.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: July 15, 2011 at 8:14 AM said...

Excellent post, Steph. Reading opens up the imagination and, in my opinion, aids in developing the ability to concentrate. So a child might not want to read Upton Sinclair or Jane Austen. Just get them reading and let the doors open themselves. Once a love of reading is instilled, the reader will seek the broader horizon without coersion.

{ Andrew } at: July 15, 2011 at 9:15 AM said...

I both agree and disagree with your post. Yes, we need to let children read what they like, but. Kids haven't experienced enough, yet, to know what they can like. You have to encourage them to keep expanding what they read and trying new things. And you have to -force- them to do that. At least at the beginning. Few kids actually just pick up reading any more. And I'm saying this as a parent: as parents, it's our responsibilty to make our kids read. But it's one of those things that has to be by example. I read to my kids when they were small, and I read. All the time. I even read books my kids say, "Hey, Dad, I really like this book. I want you to read it, too." It helps when I say, "Hey, Kid, I really like this book. I want you to read it, too."
I want to make this really clear. 2/3 of my kids love to read. Both of the boys. My daughter (the youngest) will read, but she doesn't "love" it. Not yet. However, I had to really work with all three of them in the beginning. Make them do it. Like eating their vegetables. More kids would read if more parents took an active role in makeing their kids read. That's all there is to it.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: July 15, 2011 at 10:10 AM said...

@Matt - Right? But it happens, I swear!

@Anonymous - Unfortunately, I don't think it's that simple. It wouldn't be very effective (or possible) for a teacher to have to teach 35 different novels because every kid picked their own. But maybe there could be a method of allowing a choice of some kind so kids have more control over what they have to read, or incorporating more "free reading" programs.

@Magan - Yeah, I like those "free reading" sort of assignments. The classics aren't bad, but I've lost count of how many people absolutely HATE *insert classic here* because they had to read it in school.

@Andrew - Every child is different, and I fully support parents encouraging and monitoring reading habits. I agree that they need to play an active role. I don't have kids, but I have worked with them and I do have younger siblings, and I think too often those of us who are older/more experienced tend to have set ideas about how to do things, like reading. Like that we loved Madeline L'Engle and she writes good books, so of course our kids will like her if they give her a try. Or that our kid who will only read comic books isn't doing it right, so we take the comics away and give them novels instead. I just think at certain points, we have to let go of our own ideas of what reading means and let kids develop their own reading habits, which we will encourage and monitor and test out different books with, and eventually they'll branch out.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: July 15, 2011 at 10:31 AM said...

"And you have to -force- them to do that."

I would venture to suggest that this approach is why so many of them get turned off to reading for life.

{ Susan Kaye Quinn } at: July 15, 2011 at 10:42 AM said...

I keep saying this again and again, and it dumbfounds me that people still discourage kids from reading the "wrong" things! But keep preaching the message, and people will eventually get it. Rock on, sister!

{ everydayperformance } at: July 15, 2011 at 12:49 PM said...

Graduate school turned me off of reading for several years - it was work and a job, not fun or pleasurable. It's not just kids!

{ max } at: July 16, 2011 at 7:31 AM said...

I grew up hating to read. Funny thing is, my father was the author of over 70 books and I never read any of them. I worked in the motion picture business and then video for most of my life. Recently I decided to find out why I didn't enjoy reading. The result has been 36 manuscripts so far. Nine of those will be out by the end of the year. I structured the books as if they were feature films. Kids tell me that reading one is like being in an exiting or scary movie.

Max Elliot Anderson
Books for Boys Blog http://booksandboys.blogspot.com
My Youtube Videos http://www.youtube.com/user/Maxbooks100

{ meganstirler } at: July 16, 2011 at 10:43 AM said...

I had a 16-year old "delinquent" student a few years ago who was so excited to tell me about how he'd just read his first voluntary book - and it was "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman. Dang. I could talk with that kid for hours about film and he was SO smart, but I don't think he ever passed an english class. He's a perfect example of how kids can be turned off and alienated by the common academic approach to teaching literature. He went on to buy every Gaiman book he could and loaned them all to me so we could talk about book when he was supposed to be doing his homework for my class... Whoops.


{ Seabrooke } at: August 10, 2011 at 11:31 AM said...

When I was growing up I never got an allowance. My spending money came from a booklist - my mom would prepare a list of a couple dozen age-appropriate titles that she'd got from various sources of recommendation and then for every book on the list that we read (and gave her a short verbal book review of) we'd get a dollar, or two dollars, or whatever the going rate was. It really set up my lifelong reading habit. I plan to do the same for my own kids.

My husband is a reluctant reader. He says he used to read a fair bit back in university, but I've never seen him pick up a book for pleasure in all the time I've known him. I know there are books out there that he'd love the story of if only he'd open it up and start reading, but he won't read, despite my attempts at encouragement. I've finally had to give him up as a lost cause.

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