Encouraging the Reluctant Reader

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I am a reader. I grew up imagining myself as a teacher and what my classroom would look and feel like, and reading was always a part of that perfect imaginary classroom. Pillows and books and children all around me reading and discovering worlds they never knew about in their minds.

I would hear gasps of wonder and outbursts of laughter and see tears of sorrow or joy as they are moved by a writer’s words. I wanted them to see, feel and find themselves lost in the pages of a book leaving the world they actually lived in behind. I wanted this for my students and my own children because this was what reading was for me. I knew how life-changing a great work of fiction could be, doesn’t everybody?

The reading nook in my classroom this past year – lots of books and a comfy place to escape into a good story!
The reading nook in my classroom this past year – lots of books and a comfy place to escape into a good story!

Turns out, no. Not everybody has the same love of reading that I seemed to have been born with. Plenty of people would rather do something else other than crack open a good book, and it seems as time and technology progress, the distractions from reading keep growing.

Unfortunately, there is no secret science to turning someone into an avid reader, and what works with some will not work with others. However, there are things you can do to help develop and encourage reluctant readers, which in turn will create an appreciation (and maybe even a love) for reading.

Modeling

I teach fourth grade, and at the beginning of each school year, I give my students a reading interest survey. I ask questions to find out what they like, what reading habits they already have established, and what examples of reading they see from others in their lives. This gives me a good base understanding of where they currently are as a reader, and what I need to do to help them grow.

Almost all of my students who walk into my classroom with a love of reading come from homes where they see the adults in their lives reading. It might be the newspaper, a book, a magazine, or a website. Reading is a part of their lives at home. If you are worried that you have a child that doesn’t want to read, read with them, read in front of them, read around them. Children naturally want to do what their parents do and if you read, even if it doesn’t seem like it, they really are watching you.

Also, don’t forget the power of reading out loud to your children. As a teacher of upper grades, we see a fall-off in the time parents spend reading with their children. When my children were little, it was a part of their bedtime routine. Soon they were reading on their own. What a huge milestone!!!!! Watching them read amazed me more than when they learned how to walk. Understanding how to decode words, taking symbols, and turning them into meaning — I mean does it get any more amazing?!?

So of course I wanted my kids to practice on their own. Our shared reading time fell to the side as our busy lives took over. There are late-night baseball practices, school events, meetings, and all of these other things that regulate the wonderful, snuggle up with a book time into a luxury instead of a necessity.

But we still do read together, and my almost 10 year old will curl up next to me with a blanket over both of us. If I ever miss those little toddler bodies when looking at my half-grown “all boy” boys, I simply read to them, and there we are again. Nothing halts the passage of time faster than reading out loud to my children. And I realize reading time should not be a luxury, but a necessity after all.

Build Stamina

One of the benefits of living in today’s world is we have instant access to information at our fingertips. If you have a wonder or a question, just google it. It takes no time at all.

However, the downfall is technology makes things easy. We don’t have to take much time to find information — the exact opposite of reading. It takes time to get into a book. It doesn’t just jump right into the action. If you get bored you can’t just flip the channel and find something else.

So we build stamina.

At the beginning of the year, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes for my class just to get settled with their books. By the end of the year, it takes at most five.

How do we get there?

Building the time in small increments. Set a timer, set the mood, and create a cozy environment. At home, you can do the same things. Dedicate a portion of your day to turning off technology. Have everyone grab their books and read. Play soft music, and most importantly, sit with your kids when they read. Have them read aloud to you if they are struggling. Not only will you be developing a love of reading, but you will also be giving them comfort, stability, and support when they are vulnerable.

High-Interest Books

The reading surveys in my classroom help give me insight into what my students like and what books they might be interested in. I have read almost every book in my classroom library and can make great suggestions. If a kid tells me they love baseball, then I know of about ten books they might like. If they love horses, I have a basket of books for animal-loving kids.

Let your children pick the books they WANT to read.

This has been one of the hardest things for me as a mother and a teacher. My favorite books as a kid were Anne of Green Gables, Little House, Little Women. All of these books spoke to my heart and have helped develop me into the person I am today. My lifelong dream was to grow up and teach in a one-room schoolhouse and find my one true love after a series of misadventures. I wanted someone else to find the same joy I did when I read these books.

Then I had boys. Two wonderful, sweet, athletic, hilarious, and gross boys.

I had to make peace with the fact that these books do not appeal to them. However, books with gross bodily functions, mass destruction, science fiction, and mysterious treehouses do.

So we find books they are interested in by going to the library and talking to librarians. We also look on reading book websites and check out GoodReads. It is amazing how much faster my boys will read, and WANT to read when it is something they pick out on their own. They love non-fiction, and we read A LOT. The current hot book in our house is Bugged: How Insects Changed History by Sarah Albee. Who knew history could be so gross?

Popular Books for Elementary Students:

As with any list, it is constantly changing. The following are some of the books that were popular in my fourth-grade classroom the past few years. I have had both boys and girls like books on both sides of the columns so please do not feel limited by the title!

book list

Don’t Give Up!

These three strategies are just a few that work. And honestly, for some reluctant readers, these tips might not help at all.

But there’s still hope.

My husband and sister were both reluctant readers growing up. Neither one would naturally pick up a book on their own. However, as adults, they both have found a new love of reading. The stage was set for both of them to discover that love on their own.

As a parent of one natural reader and one who has struggled, I know I am setting the example for that love to take place.

So run to the library, click on your Kindle, turn the TV off and escape into the imaginary world of your choice. And while it might not happen today, this week, this month, this year, or even this decade, never give up! Reading can be a lifelong habit, but it also takes a lifetime to develop.

Helpful Websites:

  • Wonderopolis is a great site where questions kids wonder about are answered
  • Sharpread has great ideas and information from Colby Sharp, a teacher, reader, writer, kid lit fanatic, and speaker. (I want to be him when I grow up.)
  • Nerdy Book Club is a great place to find new children’s books titles and recommendations, as well as fellow readers.
  • Donalyn Miller is an author and speaker and also has great book recommendations. (I REALLY want to be her when I group up.)

Have you dealt with a reluctant reader? What tips do you have for helping encourage reading?


amyAmy Swick is a fourth-grade teacher at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School, whereby the end of this school year, did have gasps of wonder, outbursts of laughter and saw tears of joy and sadness from her students when they were lost in books scattered, with pillows, all around her classroom. She graduated from USC with her Master’s of Art in Teaching in Elementary School in 2004. She and her husband Tim, also a fourth and fifth-grade teacher, at Pontiac Elementary School, have two wonderful boys. Bobby is a rising fourth-grader and Joey is a rising third grader. They spend their summer reading, traveling, and currently living at baseball fields.

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