Your child hates books. Now what?

Photo Credit: S.L.

Photo Credit: S.L.

Many of the kids I see do not like reading. They find reading hard. They find it challenging. The words are too new or too many or too complicated. The letters transpose and the spelling’s tricky. They don’t like answering questions. Summaries give them stomach aches and rashes. They choose books not by topic but by least page number, thinnest spine, biggest font, and most page-gobbling illustrations. They become experts as word-counting and can pick the shortest paragraph in a glance. They often complain that they hate all books. That no genre speaks to them. For them, reading equals schoolwork, books are naught but tedious demand, and stories are equated with comprehension tests and loathsome reading responses.

Granted, the children who require Speech Therapy are often predisposed to some difficulty. They struggle with language/learning issues, they may have dyslexia, dysgraphia, learning disorders, language delay, word retrieval issues, auditory processing problems, hearing loss, attention deficit, difficulties with identifying, understanding and responding to social demands.

It would make sense that they would not like reading, concentrating as it often does all of those needed skills into a neatly typed package of condensed language. It would make sense that books would feel intimidating, crowded with small-font letters, complicated words and confusing expressions and metaphors.

All true. Yet truth remains that many children who are not language/learning disabled hate books. Maybe your child does, too. Maybe you have tried cajoling, bribing, promising, charting, stars, stickers, brownie points … and they still prefer cod liver oil to reading. Don’t despair–it does not have to be this way.

We can change that. You can change that. Here’s how:

All too often we confuse books and stories with reading. Teachers and parents clump together the child’s reading level with their interest level and language level, though those are not always compatible. Also, we stop reading TO the children and ask them to read aloud to us instead. It is good practice, we are told, we believe. It “counts” toward the 20-minutes-a-day requirement from school and catches two birds with one stone–story time and reading homework. Done. In addition, it makes us feel good to “keep tabs” on the child’s progress, and unwittingly, we make every page a test of skill, every story a piece of work. When the child resists, some parents are told to strike a compromise: “take turns reading,” they are told. It makes the book move faster, yes. It also pulls the child out of whatever listening and imagining the story they might otherwise manage, and thrusts them into the arduous task of deciphering and vocalizing. No wonder they become masters of paragraph word counting.

Children’s reading level may be far below that of the language they should and can enjoy listening to. This is true not only in First Grade, but through the elementary and middle school years. Focus on reading at the child’s reading level only, and the child is bored. Focus on reading age-appropriate books only, and the child is constantly failing to keep up as she struggles to decipher, loses track, loses interest, sees books as “too hard!”

Reading is a world onto itself. It is a skill, but also a place for wandering in a dream and conjuring up pictures from a story. It is where the association between book and pleasure can come in.

Have a child who is reading reluctant? First and foremost, divorce the reading task from the world of stories. Take upon yourself to read TO the child. Find a childhood book you loved or a story that is of interest for the child (and no, you don’t have to start with David Copperfield, the Iliad, or Huckleberry Finn…). Read it to them. This is for pleasure. Not for tallying pages for a log or counting down the minutes for homework. Not for testing, either. No demands from the child but to relax and listen. No turn taking. No asking questions to reassure yourself how much the child understood. No queries about vocabulary words you “think the child should know” unless the child stops you to ask. Let the child absorb whatever their heart lets in, even if they daydreamed half-way into the story–there is no test at the end of this one, no requirement to keep on track. You, too, relax into the book with them and read awhile. You are not wasting time but investing in the child’s internal imagery and listening. You are building book-love.

Stop before the child tires of listening. Even better, leave the reading at a cliff-hanger till the next evening. It works for TV episodes and a good mystery. It works for children, too. It gives a taste of ‘more’.

For the child’s own reading–offer books that are almost too easy but not quite. Don’t over-reach. Don’t urge them to “try something harder for a change”–one or two words that are difficult to read in every page are more than enough. Don’t push them to read “this book because I have read this and loved it when I was your age.” Don’t urge on them the book another child in class “already read a year ago.” Reading is not about just getting through the page. It is not about struggling so much to read each sentence that you must re-read it to know what it meant. Reading is about success and flow, words that string together into sentences with little effort and almost no breaks. More than the story itself, you want the child to have a sense of mastery over reading. A sense that they can read and are not exhausted by it. Make it fun. Be enthusiastic but not cloying (children have a super sensitive bull-detector for such stuff, as you know).

Keep at it. Especially keep at reading TO the child. Children who are read to through 8th Grade have bigger and more flexible vocabularies than children who are not being read to. Reading to children fosters richer imaginations and creativity. It helps with predicting and inferences, at understanding nuance, satire, metaphor, and humor. All that said–remember–the stories you read TO the child are not a platform for testing them for knowledge or comprehension. After all, when you pick up a bestseller or a favorite novel, you don’t have to write a narrative about it later … you are not made to answer formal questions about vocabulary, who did what to whom when why or where, or to find examples of simile and metaphor …

Keep at it. Soon enough you’d find yourself leaving the book (cliff hanger dangling) someplace within the child’s reach, and catch a little nose stuck in it when you aren’t looking. An insider’s hint: this works even better with a flashlight within reach and a off-handed story about how your aunt or uncle or second-cousin got into trouble reading under the covers after lights were officially to be out …

Have fun, and may the reading fairies smile.