Learning-to-read

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. My middle-grader is refusing to read.

Q: I love to read, my older son loves to read, but my daughter hates it. How can I get her as excited about reading as the rest of us are? I’d be happy if she read anything, but she’d rather do anything else than read. I bring home stacks of books, and she rejects them all. When she’s tested, she can read, but she won’t do it. She’ll start a book, and abandon it. Help!

A: It may be time for a reading intervention if your child consistently answers “What do you want to read?” with; “I don't.” Emergency measures are needed!

It sounds like you did just the right thing with one child, but it's not working with this one. I'm going to suggest that you put aside your expectations about your family's reading characteristics and take some time to observe this child as if you hadn't really done that before. It might help to think of yourself as a personal assistant rather than a parent, teacher, or friend when it comes to reading.

 

Here's a step-by-step guide to try:

 

girl enjoying time with a pet dog

Observe or ask your child, and then tell the Children's Librarian what most inspires her outside the world of books. Maybe she loves movies, animals, baseball, drawing, cooking, chess, silly humor, snowflakes . . . whatever it is, we will look for books related to what really inspires her,;what really grabs her attention.

Take home a variety of books – short or long; illustrations or photos; fiction or non-fiction; comic books or magazines; biographies or fantasies; jokes, magic tricks, cooking, knights, dragons, spies, warriors, talking owls; a sample of stuff that includes anything that catches the eye. (NOTE: If your child gets overwhelmed by choices, take 3, not 12. girl overwhelmed by pile of books

Do not worry about the level. Assume that you are going to read it aloud to her. By doing this, we open up the possibilities – and we're more likely to find something she really wants to hear about. Choose books with attractive covers or any super-appealing characteristics.

When you get home, lay out all the choices in front of her – on the floor or the bed or couch. Don't use her homework area. Ask her to choose based on the cover illustration, or read the front flap or the first page to see if it grabs her attention. Ask her to pick which one to try.

If she’s still resisting, arrange a relaxed, quiet time. On the couch, in a hammock, or the backseat of the car, invite her to close her eyes as you read aloud. Let the author weave his magic threads...and remember to see the last blog post on reading aloud. There was some stuff about fidgety children listening...

Remember you can ask the Children’s Librarian to help you find both the printed book and an audiobook. Don’t get fixated on your child reading along with the recording; the focus here is on getting her engaged in a story. However, it may help to have the book to consult – to see the illustrations, or a map to the fantasy world, for example. That is enough!

 

headphones and books

Audiobooks are also great if she has time on her own without you, or if you don't read aloud well in English, or if you commute together and can both listen as you drive – or if your child gets hooked on a series you dislike; she can use headphones. We give out audiobooks frequently to working parents, commuters, immigrants learning to pronounce English better, reluctant readers, and of course kids with vision impairments, as well as garden-variety avid readers.

 

 

Before you leave:  Send us your questions!  Post below, send a message through Facebook, or stop by the library.

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. Killjoys: Judgment, Shame, & Frustration (Reluctant Readers, part 3)

Q: I'm ready for him to move on! My son has been reading Garfield books forever! (or Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, Rainbow Magic, Geronimo Stilton, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or endless hours of comics.) Isn't it time for him to read harder books? Old illustration of baby getting thrown out with bathwater

A: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. While those books may seem as worthless as old bathwater; repetitive, stale, and stagnant to you, in fact re-reading or reading formulaic writing builds fluency and increases comprehension – but the baby in this metaphor is your son's fledging motivation. In your efforts to dump those stale books, make sure you're not dumping something much more valuable and significant: his sense of autonomy, confidence, and inspiration. 

How can all those positive feelings come from reading formulaic writing? Well, let me ask you: Was your son eager to get another book in the series? Did he focus on it to the exclusion of other activities? Was he so enthralled by it, he recounted the whole story to you? Did he beam at you with the next volume in his hand? Well – You can't separate his enthusiasm, focus, and spontaneous memorization from the qualities of the particular books he chooses. However, you seem to have an avid reader on your hands, so your work here may be done! He is building neural pathways that connect the activity of reading with feelings of joy. Brain research confirms that Aristotle was right when he wrote “We are what we repeatedly do.” Adult avid readers confirm that they built their own habit of reading with practically any content – pulp fiction, comics, magazines, or whatever else might have motivated them when they were young. (See this study for the science behind building positive habits.)

So, do not get all boy reading mangacontrol-freakish at this point. How you handle your frustration with his reading choices matters. Don't battle over this. If his reading choice seems too easy, too obnoxious, poorly written, or a challenge to your values, try to not judge. If you object to the content, discuss it with your child and add your own perspective and understanding. In fact, this is an excellent way to make sure he knows your values!

It won't hurt to promote the reading choices you prefer – the books you consider more quality literature, the challenging ones, the ones you learned so much from when you were his age. However, my observation and experience is that your influence is strongest when it is respectful and without shame. Shame kills motivation.

Okay, so what do I do? When you visit the library together, let him pick out anything he wants. Accept it. You can also pick out what you want him to read. You can share book trailers to turn him on to literature outside his comfort zone. (Here are some kid recommended ones, some from Washington, DC, some chosen by OPL librarians, and some from the recent 90-second Newbery film festival.)

 boy reading to his mom at bedtime

You can also wave your arms around and tell him why your favorite book is truly fantastic! That's wonderful and funny. But you must respect his process. Don't push too much.

Your child’s feelings of confidence and autonomy are more important than your pride in his accomplishments. Be patient, and you are likely to get both. Do not let your judgment (or society’s) squash his enthusiasm and kill his reading habit before he gets to what you think is the good stuff.

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. The Dangers of Reading Aloud (Reluctant Readers, part 2)

Illustration by Richard Scarry of bunny reading newspaperQ:  You say it's okay to read aloud to my daughter even though she's 9 years old and she thinks everyone in her class is ahead of her, BUT I'm still worried that it's becoming a crutch for her to avoid learning to read on her own. Are you sure I'm not sabotaging her work or impeding her progress by continuing to read aloud to her?

A:  Yes, I'm sure. From my experience – talking to kids, parents, and teachers for the past 18 years, and reading studies on literacy, the only potential down-side of reading aloud to your daughter is that she may do worse on spelling tests. The up-sides, on the other hand, are many:

  • She can relax and enjoy the story. (Enjoying reading is crucial. See last month’s blog entry.)
  • She can do other things while listening. Sometimes the issue with late-blooming readers is they don't want to or can't sit still long enough, or hold their eyes steady long enough to get from the top of the page to the bottom. Let her do a puzzle, play with string, squeeze a rubber ball, fold laundry, brush the dog's hair. She will develop stillness in her own time.
  • She'll understand more of what's happening in the book, especially if you read in your most dramatic voice, emphasizing the emotional content and the action. Your voice amplifies the meaning behind the words. She is more likely to become absorbed in the story.

Drawing of kids doing puzzle, listening to book

  • When there's a vocabulary word she doesn't know, or the story brings up complicated issues, she can ask you any questions she has instantly.  (Of course this applies to all genders. If you have a reticent child of any gender, feel free to start the dialogue. It's okay once in a while to ask, “Do you know what this means?”...but don't ask too often – it can be insulting. Asking “What do you think?” or “What would you do?” Can be alternated with sharing your own thoughts and experiences, so it won’t feel like a pop-quiz.)
  • She could develop a habit of talking to you about complex issues or things she doesn't understand, knowing you will discuss things without judgment. Wouldn’t it be great if she continues this habit into her teenage and adult years? The part about being non-judgmental matters; all questions are good ones. 
  • As a result of hearing books read aloud to her, she’ll be better able to participate in classroom discussions. Her enthusiasm (without the trauma of forced reading) may inspire her to speak up, and she’ll be better prepared after the thoughtful discussion you've started together.  She’ll become a part of the reading community.Drawing of dad reading to kid, who imagines adventure

Okay, but…“What if my daughter’s teacher insists that she reads on her own? What if she still worries she may be teased about not managing by herself?”  Try this: Pick out any book she wants to read, read a chapter together at home, and when she takes it to school she will re-read it on her own. Reading aloud to her in a calm, relaxed environment will help her build a rich and varied vocabulary, and keep pace with her friend's reading. 

NOTE: At any age, the effort to call up memories of stories is a great way to improve reading skills.  Even if your daughter is accused of “memorizing” chunks of text to impress her teacher or classmates, appreciate her desire to participate in class! Not everyone can pull this off – give her a high-five if she can recite pieces of the story from memory.

Don't try this at home!  - Just kidding; the whole point is to try this at home. There is no danger in reading aloud to a fellow human being, of any age. Many other things can hurt them; not this.

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. The Reluctant Reader

The Reluctant Reader. Part 1.

Q: My son is 8 years old and he hates reading. It's like torture to get him to sit still for the 20 minutes each day his teacher requires. I'm at my wit's end. I'm worried about him, and I know he's feeling stressed about it, too. What can I do?

sketch of a librarian ready to take notesA: It's not time to panic. I've met plenty of kids who say they don't like to read, and who avoid reading at all costs, and yet they grow up to be readers. Parents don’t always know that each person starts reading in their own good time. Statistically, this often happens sometime around or before 3rd grade, but it's not universally true that by 3rd grade everyone reads on their own. Plenty of bright children become readers later than anyone expected.

The single best predictor of whether or not a child will learn to read, read capably and with ease, and read for pleasure for the rest of his or her life is whether or not he or she enjoys reading.

“Yes, but how do I make this happen?” you ask? The two best ways you can help your child enjoy reading are:

  • Read aloud to him
  • Let him choose his own reading material

If we enjoy something, we put more energy into it, we are patient with ourselves about it, and we keep trying even if we don't succeed immediately. You are the ideal person for this job; to give your child the joy of reading. Share your enthusiasm with your son. Allow him to choose what he wants to read, and then read it to him – up until the moment when he says he wants to read it on his own.

sketch of a kid reading to her mom

As you visit the library and read aloud to him, try for a light-hearted, breezy, low-stress attitude. If your son continues to express dismay, frustration, disappointment in himself, or fear about his abilities, I would suggest that you acknowledge his feelings, and then tell him that eventually it will “click” for him. In the meantime, enjoy your time together.

Don't fear that you must read aloud to him for the rest of his life. This phase can last just long enough so he gets the strong message that reading is fun, it's important enough to you to really spend time on it, and you are enjoying this parent-child activity as much as he is. At some point, his ability to sit still, focus on the page long enough, recognize a sufficient number of words by sight, and bring various decoding skills into play without strain will all reach critical mass, and he'll embrace reading on his own. It will happen eventually.

Note: If your child is struggling with other issues like nearsightedness, dyslexia, or another condition that might need some attention, know that the signs of those kinds of constraints could be subtle, and not very different from what is perfectly, developmentally normal in all children. It doesn't change the advice here, but there may be other work involved to get him from where he is today to being an enthusiastic reader. If you observe or suspect something like this, talk to your child’s teacher or pediatrician.

“Wait!” you say? “I need a book, not advice.” Okay, I get it! When you go to the library, talk to the children's librarian. Mention that you want to find a good book to read aloud to your son, age 8, and to make sure it's a really captivating, exciting, wonderful story. So many people ask this question, that we will know how to take it from there. Try us.sketch of mom reading to kids at a table