How to Encourage a Reluctant Reader

Reading may be fundamental, but for many children it isn’t very fun. Just as some students struggle with math anxiety, others are reluctant to sit down and read a book on their own.

While literacy is an important skill, it can be difficult for students to pick up at first. A child who has trouble sounding out words or identifying individual letters rapidly may form negative associations with the reading process. Even if these challenges ease up over time, some of these associations may continue throughout a student’s life.

“If your initial experience with any phenomenon is more failure than success — if reading doesn’t start out as a happy thing — it’s kind of counterintuitive to expect that kids will want to come back to it,” says Peter Afflerbach, a professor of reading at the University of Maryland and the author of “Teaching Readers (Not Reading).”

Reading comes with a host of benefits for children. In addition to helping children acquire new vocabulary and knowledge, Afflerbach says reading allows children to strengthen their social connections as they share what they’ve read with friends, family members and teachers.

Still, it can be difficult to get children to do something they simply don’t want to do. Diane Tracey, a retired professor of education at Kean University in New Jersey and the author of “Helping Your Child Overcome Reading Challenges” says children who refuse to read often do so because they are experiencing some sort of difficulty, whether that’s a struggle to identify the letters that make up the words on the page or an emotional hardship.

Identifying and addressing those challenges — by checking in with your child’s teacher or simply reading with your child regularly — is critical to helping your grade-schooler learn to enjoy reading, Tracey says.

[Read: When Do Kids Learn to Read?]

If persuading your child to read feels like pulling teeth, here are some strategies that could encourage them to pick up a book — or some other form of reading material — and maybe even enjoy it.

Introduce a Breadth of Reading Materials

Reading doesn’t just mean books. Magazines, blogs, comics and even audiobooks are forms of literature that can engage your child and support their literacy development.

“All reading is good reading,” says Kathy Lester, president of the American Association of School Librarians. “Parents shouldn’t be afraid of letting their kids read graphic novels, for example — the important thing is to keep your kid reading.”

Your child may not naturally gravitate to the texts assigned in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy reading. Tracey says grade school reading simply might not be all that interesting to your child.

Afflerbach and Lester recommend that parents think carefully about their child’s unique interests and find reading materials to suit them. For example, if your child likes playing basketball, try to find an age-appropriate sports blog or magazine that they can read.

Talk to Their Educators

Your child’s teacher may have a better idea of any specific difficulties your child is facing.

Tracey says there are several factors influencing a child’s lack of interest in reading, categorizing these into what she calls “foundational factors,” which deal with a child’s emotional and physical health, and “literacy factors,” which more directly involve a child’s reading skills. A teacher can help determine if your child is struggling with the literacy factors, such as phonics, vocabulary or comprehension.

“The question is looking at these foundational factors and literacy factors, and figuring out where the problem is or where the problems are, and then working in those targeted areas,” she says.

[READ: Book Bans: What to Know.]

Lester also recommends opening up a conversation with the school librarian about what topics your child is interested in. By doing so, the librarian can help you and your child find a range of reading materials that better suit your child’s interests.

“It’s really important for kids to have access to school librarians because we are able to curate a really wide collection of materials for kids, whether it be fiction or nonfiction or graphic novels or magazines,” she says.

Make Reading Active

If your child feels restless or bored while reading, you may want to pair other activities with the reading material to make it more interesting.

Lester suggests parents come up with fun activities that relate to their child’s reading to get them a bit more engaged with the content, especially if it’s on a topic they’re already interested in. For example, you might read a story about gardening with your child, then go outside to work in the garden together. She adds that doing these kinds of reading-related activities with parents can also help young children form stronger bonds.

[READ: When to Be Concerned About a Struggling Reader.]

Older children can be a bit more self-sufficient, taking on more involved activities that require them to read. Bob Fecho, director of the English education program at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, says parents can encourage older kids and teens to read by asking them to research information on attractions and tourist activities at a potential vacation destination in order to plan a family trip.

Reading with your child can also help make the reading process more dynamic. Tracey says she often reads to her grandchildren before bed, facilitating a sense of closeness between her and the children while also modeling reading practice.

Consult a Specialist

Sometimes, a child’s reluctance to read is rooted in something more serious, such as dyslexia or another learning disability. While this isn’t always the case, your child may have difficulties that only a specialist can diagnose.

Dyslexia is one of the most well-known disabilities that affects reading, but it’s not the only one. Consult with your child’s doctor to rule out other challenges, such as poor vision or hearing.

Tracey says a child’s emotional state can be a useful indicator of whether parents should seek additional help.

“If the child doesn’t want to go to school, doesn’t want to do their homework, cries when they have to write something, that alerts you that there’s a problem,” she says. “Something’s not right if your child is so reluctant that they’re really just stressed at the thought of reading and writing.”

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