Follow me through a typical day and you will see me reading: reading microwave cooking directions on the side of a frozen food container, reading articles on travel or exercise or cures for wrinkles, scrolling through educational websites, and at the end of the day picking up a novel from a three-foot stack of books next to my bed. And if you saw me going though my typical day, you would never guess that as a child I was a reluctant reader.
When I first started to read, I learned that reading was hard and time consuming. By the time I got through sounding out a word, I lost track of the meaning of the story. And there were so many words on a page! Reading was work and what I wanted to do was play! Play with my dolls; play with my dog, even play with my bossy sister. Anything was better than sitting down and reading.
My attitude quite horrified my parents. My father was a writer and worked in public relations. My mother, my very patient mother, was a teacher. Both were avid and ardent readers, as was my older sister. I was not! Most definitely I was not going to do what they all were doing. I was going to find my own way. I painted, I made up songs, I wrote poetry, I created junk-pile sculptures, but I did not enjoy reading. I read because my teachers told me I had to and my parents nagged me.
My reluctance to read worried both my parents. My father handled the dilemma by reading to me at bedtime. He hoped that those stories would spark my interest and that soon I would become interested in books. My father read widely: poetry, recipes, mythologies, true tales, mysteries, and on and on. My mother, being a teacher, kept giving me strategies for sounding out words and for figuring out unfamiliar words in context. She played word games with me and she drew pictures with me and we made up funny stories about school, animals, and the beach – anything that was of interest to me. And that two-pronged approach actually worked over time and I became totally fascinated with words and stories. I loved make-believe. I loved learning about different people in new and wondrous places, and I marveled at how writers could string together words to make pictures in the heads of their readers.
However, reading remained difficult for me in elementary school. I was a good student, I remembered what I read; I just didn’t enjoy it. I was a slow reader with a fast mind. I became impatient and devised all kinds of ways to trick adults into thinking I was reading. Most of the time it worked, except when I got to fifth grade. In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Skovron, was not fooled. She knew. She sat me down and told me that I needed to keep reading and if I kept reading my reading muscle would get stronger and stronger and reading would get easier and easier. One day, one fabulous day, I would enjoy reading. I was doubtful. But I loved Mrs. Skovron and wanted to please her. So I tried and Mrs. Skovron made a list of all the things I liked. Then she found books about those things and gave them to me. What hooked me were horses. One day, Mrs. Skovron put Misty of Chincoteague in my hands, and every night for a week I locked myself in my bathroom with a pile of blankets and pillows in the bathtub and I read. And I read and I read. I wasn’t reluctant any more – I was curious – and a little slow reading wasn’t going to stop me. And it hasn’t.
Books are windows and doors to me; they open up to so many possibilities. And that’s what I want children to experience: that even though learning to read is hard, the pay-off is worth it! You get to run, climb, explore, sail into so many exquisite places and meet so many funny, scary, friendly, outlandish people. Today, I can’t imagine a day where I don’t take time to enjoy a book.
Here are some tips that I think will help reach reluctant readers:
- Read aloud to them and don’t stop – even if it’s hard, even if there is not enough time, even if you think they are getting too old. Please keep reading to them.
- Choose a wide variety of text types (poetry, novels, nonfiction articles, recipes, etc.) and read different genres (historical fiction, mysteries, mythology, realistic fiction, etc.)
- When they have to read for homework 15-30 minutes a night, and can only sustain reading 5 or 10 minutes, don’t panic. Have them read for the 5 or 10 minutes and then sit with them the rest of the time and read to them. Gradually extend the time they are reading and you are listening. Soon they will be reading independently.
- You can also share the reading by taking turns reading one page and then another. When reading longer chapter books, I suggest that you start out by alternating paragraphs not pages so that your child stays attentive.
- Before reading with young readers, go for a walk in the book. Look at the cover and the pictures of the story. Talk about what you see and what you think might happen.
- Make a list of topics or questions that interest your child, and then find books that match these interests.
- When reading aloud at bedtime, choose books that are slightly above their reading levels so that you are building their vocabulary and thinking skills. If you start reading a book and your child is not understanding or enjoying it, abandon it and try again at a later time.
- Surround your reader with books that are slightly below and at her reading level. This way she can easily practice reading and building those reading muscles.