Raising a Less Reluctant Reader: 13 Suggestions for Parents

If Kelsey were asking for teaching advice, I would have so many suggestions for her. Working with reluctant readers is probably my favorite part of teaching. I have worked with some very resistant kids, but I have yet to meet one who won’t eventually read.

But Kelsey is asking for advice for a parent friend of hers who wants to know how she can help her 11-year-old son enjoy reading more at home. And that’s a far trickier business.

I, too, am the parent of a reluctant 11-year-old reader. I have written extensively about my son’s struggles in other blog posts:

I wish I knew a surefire parenting approach to transform a struggling, reluctant reader into an avid reader. But I don’t. I can only share what I do at my house to try to help my older son become a less reluctant reader. My interventions at home all focus on increasing the number of positive reading experiences he has and bringing back joy to his reading life.

1. Be informed. Learn what effective reading instruction should look like, and compare what effective reading instructors do with what’s happening to your child at school. There are several excellent brief research articles by Richard Allington available free online that set out the principles of effective literacy instruction. For an engaging look at an effective classroom teacher’s approach, read one of Donalyn Miller’s books, The Book Whisperer or Reading in the Wild. If your child’s teacher seems open to it, consider sharing an article by Richard Allington or purchasing a copy of Reading in the Wild for them. Of course it shouldn’t be the parent’s responsibility to teach the school what effective reading instruction looks like, and to be honest, I haven’t found my son’s school very open to suggestion. Even though I haven’t been able to influence literacy instruction, I could exercise my rights as a parent and decline additional services for my son that aren’t in keeping with what I know about effective literacy instruction. Just removing some of the stress around reading has helped him feel more positive about it. The first question I will be asking my son’s teachers this fall is, “What will you do to help my son love to read?”

2. Read aloud every day. This is the most important thing I do to help my son as a reader: bring stories to life for him through my voice. Reading aloud enables him to experience engaging, exciting, content-rich books that are far above his reading level. He is able to become immersed in great stories, which helps him understand why avid readers love to read. Not sure what to read aloud? Katherine Applegate’s One and Only Ivan and R.J. Palaccio’s Wonder were my son’s two favorite read-alouds last year. Right now, he’s obsessed with Suzanne Selfors Imaginary Veterinary series.

3. Add reading into the schedule without taking away preferred activities. I read to him at times when he doesn’t have something else he wants to be doing. I rearranged my work schedule so that I have time to read to him at breakfast. That gives us about twenty minutes every morning to read chapter books. Reading aloud has always been part of his bedtime routine, and I’ve expanded that time from twenty minutes to about forty minutes most nights. We listen to audiobooks in the car. I take books with us when I know we’ll have to wait for an appointment. Although I would love to substitute reading time for screen time, I am mindful that I don’t want reading to ever feel like punishment for him.

4. Reading is its own reward. I don’t bribe my son to read or offer any kind of prizes or rewards for reading. So much research shows that offering incentives for reading ultimately backfires. Besides, I want my son to read because he wants to, not because he can earn extra computer time or ice cream.

5. Share a wide variety of books. We read everything–fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, fact books, wordless picture books. Many reluctant readers are more compelled by nonfiction than fiction, and many nonfiction books make terrific readalouds. The Robert Sibert Medal, awarded to outstanding nonfiction for children, is a good place to start. Nonfiction picture books are especially popular with my son, and there are so many terrific ones. Check out Kid Lit Frenzy‘s Wednesday blog posts for recommendations. Short fiction and memoir are also overlooked genres. Jon Sciezska’s Knucklehead is a hilarious memoir written in very short chapters, and the Guys Read series offers short, highly engaging pieces on sports, humor, and more. We also read a lot of “easy” books–picture books, easy readers, early chapter books. My son loves everything Mo Willems, he’s always up for a rereading of David Shannon’s No, David! books, and right now, we’re rereading the Mr Putter and Tabby books. Consider rereading some of your child’s favorite picture books from early childhood. Those books might help them remember a time when they actually did love to read.

6. Encourage your child to abandon books they don’t like. Sometimes we start a readaloud that’s simply too hard for my son or that doesn’t hold his interest. I watch carefully for signs of engagement and casually suggest we could start a different book if the one we’re reading doesn’t seem to be working. Abandoning books is a right that all readers need to have.

7. Redefine what you mean by reading. My son can spend hours pouring over the Guinness Book of World Records or the National Geographic Weird But True series. He also enjoys Sports Illustrated magazines (adult and kid versions). Sure, he’s mostly looking at the pictures, but he’s having a positive experience with reading materials, so I count it as a win.

8. Be guided by your child’s interests. Do I really want to read Big Nate or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books out loud? Not really. But these are the books my son wants to read, and I try to be guided by his tastes. Reading popular books like the Origami Yoda series aloud to him helps him be part of his classroom reading culture as well because those are books that his friends are reading and talking about. When my son discovers an author he likes, I immediately get everything that author has written. When he comments that he likes a particular illustrator’s style, we check out the illustrator’s website and try to read everything they’ve illustrated. When he asks a question about history, I find some picture books that will answer his question.

9. Look for books with a lot of visual support. My son is that rare boy who dislikes graphic novels, but they are a great choice for many kids. Not sure what to look for? Check out this list of over 500 recommended titles on Goodreads. And trust me: if you don’t yet read graphic novels, you might find yourself falling in love with them too. My son does love heavily illustrated chapter books, and so I am constantly looking for middle-grade books with lots of pictures. Many nonfiction titles feature lavish photography. Check out the superb Scientist in the Field series, for example.

10. Leave stacks of interesting books here and there. This is one of the few classroom tricks I also use as a parent. And let me just say, it still worked better in the classroom. My son finds specially selected stacks of books for him all over the house. I don’t say anything about the stacks, and often he ignores them. But sometimes, he looks through them and gets excited about something I’ve left for him. Those moments make it all worthwhile.

11. Buy books. Books are the one thing I never say no to buying. I encourage him to choose books from the Scholastic Book Fair. If we lived near a bookstore, I would take him there regularly and offer to buy any book of his choice.

12. Talk about what you’re reading–but not too much. My son is allergic to anything that looks like reading instruction, so  I never interrupt reading time to ask questions or offer instruction. I let myself be guided by his needs and interests. Many times he does want to talk about the moral and ethical situations in books, and we’ve had some of our best conversations about books.

13. Reading is an invitation, not a requirement. The biggest challenge for me as a parent is to back off and make reading pressure-free. It’s easier to do that if I remember my goal, which is to make reading a joyful experience for him. If I push him to read, he loses the joy.

We’ve read over one thousand picture books in the past year and around one hundred chapter books. For a kid who “can’t” read (his word, not mine), he’s probably the best read kid in his class. I’m certain he’s the only one who can name the major prizes for children’s literature and who has favorite illustrators that he knows by name.

Will he ever become the kind of person who picks up a book to read for fun or enjoyment? I’m not sure. Reading is really hard for him, and I don’t think I’d want to pick up a book and read either if it was as hard for me as it is for him. I still hope that someday reading is going to somehow “click” for him and become an activity that feels natural. But I have also made peace with the possibility that reading is never going to be his first (or second or third) choice activity.

What I do know for sure is that if we’re serious about working with struggling and reluctant readers, we have to make sure that our struggling readers are able to experience books in the variety of ways that our strongest, most avid readers do. Ardent readers read out of love–love for story, love for words, love for the ways that books allow us to discover ourselves and the world, love for the surprises and mysteries and wonders of the world that we see reflected and explored in books. We read to have our questions asked and answered; we read to confirm and to challenge our world views. We read because stories matter, because books change us, because books save us. My son doesn’t consider himself to be a reader, but he does know all of those things about books.

Every day, I invite my son to be a reader, and every day, in his own way, he accepts that invitation.


Photo CC-By Edward Kim at Flickr






11 responses to “Raising a Less Reluctant Reader: 13 Suggestions for Parents”

  1. kelseyempfield Avatar

    Dr. Ellington, thank you so much for the excellent post! I also love that you clearly spend a lot of time on your pieces before you publish them. Inviting people to read pressure-free is the best piece of advice. With all of your tips, tricks, and experiences, I have no doubt that my friend’s son will become less reluctant. I’m excited to see what happens with her situation (and yours) and I will keep you posted as best as I can.

  2. holdencaulfieldcampion Avatar

    Re-define what you mean by reading is a great point, there are so many ways that a child can get into reading outside of books nowadays. A child can become a proficient reader before ever opening a book.

  3. carriegelson Avatar

    I can well imagine that your son is one of the best read kids around. I love everything about this post – the great suggestions but even more, the deep Mama devotion.

  4. Beth Shaum (@BethShaum) Avatar

    I love this post and I love that picture. 🙂

  5. Wilcox Carol Avatar

    Love, love, love this post and love, love, love the picture. Your relationship with your son reminds me sooooo much of mine with my boys. Thanks for these very important words!

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  7. jarhartz Avatar

    Perfect tips and picture. The way you put that he is “allergic” to anything that looks like reading instruction is so true for many of our “reluctant” readers. You honor him and how reading can fit and enhance his life. Love this post for teaching and for parents.

  8. Sarah from Logan, UT Avatar
    Sarah from Logan, UT

    We are trying whispersync through amazon where we buy both the kindle version and audio version of a book. It syncs up and the kindle reads the book aloud to you as you follow along. The text that is being read is highlighted. It requires a kindle with audio function. It is too early to know if it will be a success in our family but I am excited to try it on our upcoming road trip.

    Thank you for your wonderful tips. I hope to buy some of the books that you recommended for the teachers at my son’s school.

  9. OTR Links 07/13/2014 | doug --- off the record Avatar

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