What to do with kids who CAN read, but DON’T

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magicbookGetting children who can read, but don’t to become children who can read and do is challenging. It’s such a triumph when we realize that YES they CAN read! Woohoo! And then it’s such a bummer to find out some of those same children actually dislike reading. What’s up with that?! Reading is such a fun way to learn new things and imagine yourself in all sorts of adventures, it’s hard to understand kids or adults who don’t want to read.

Now, the single inarguable goal for educating our children is that when they exit formal schooling, they will be avid readers who continue to learn and grow well after schooling has ended for them. Sure, there are all kinds of other things they should learn during the academic years, however, avid readers are, by definition, lifelong learners. If children aren’t developing into delighted readers, then regardless of all the wonderful things they may learn from family or teachers, the absence of books throughout their lives will stunt their future intellectual and linguistic growth.

Sadly, once children learn to dislike something that really is wonderful (like reading…or asparagus) parents and teachers have a devil of a time turning them around. So what is it that holds kids back from becoming avid readers?

I think it’s a little four letter word—FEAR. Fear of the unknown, of the new.  Fear of the independence that reading on their own brings. Fear they may not do it right without help.

Kids are conservative by nature. They don’t like change. So the shift from being offered daily support in learning via picture books (where they learn how books and print work) to graduating to chapter books with lots of words and few to no pictures may be scary to some children. They might feel they aren’t ready for books with many pages.

To help kids overcome their fears, we can lead them in taking small steps into the mysterious world of chapter books.  If we get them hooked on books, then moving them forward through challenging standards and into wide reading is no longer a slog through deep mud. It’s an adventure for teachers and their students!

The School Library Journal offers some excellent recommendations for individual and series books for hesitant readers that meet the small-step need. These recommended books are still simple chapter books, but have many of same characteristics as picture books, such as short sentences, simple vocabulary, frequent if not constant pictures, rhyming and the like.

We adults do things because we need to or because we have to for our jobs or to help us make our lives work better. Children aren’t motivated by such rational pragmatism, so reading isn’t something that children, especially very young children, will do because they should. Children’s work is play. If reading is a fun part of their play lives and personally relevant, they’ll eagerly choose to do it. And children who are taught how to find books that spark their interests, and are encouraged and supported for their independence will eventually read longer, more complex books. With this kind of support, kids soon discover the wonderful opportunities and joyful experiences available to them through reading…and off they go!

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6 Responses to “What to do with kids who CAN read, but DON’T”

  1. Troy Croom May 15, 2015 at 2:28 am #

    You raise a couple of interesting points. One, how to inspire children to love reading (thanks for the link!). Another, how to ensure that these transferable skills really transfer after graduation. Maybe I’m an odd case. I loved English and I loved reading, got my BA in and (much later) my MA in it. So why didn’t I continue reading fiction after college? I’ve read tons of books on psychology, spirituality, self-help and biographies, too. Yet, as much as I enjoyed dissecting Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in class, for example, I’ve avoided “difficult” reads ever since. Which, let’s face it, a lot of “high literature” is, ever since Mr. Joyce. One some level, I suppose it comes down to a question of interest. But on another level, I blame my own laziness. And, too, you’re right: it’s fear as well. Left unchecked, this can lead to students blaming themselves for being inherently “slow readers” or “bad readers,” which can be an unnecessary downward spiral of eroded self-confidence. I wish I’d encountered Mariolina Salvatori and her “difficulty papers” when I was younger. (You’re probably familiar with her, but just in case, I recommend her seminal article, “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition,” 1996.) As a newbie college Comp teacher, I hope to use the difficulty paper to challenge students to see that, often, interesting writing is challenging writing; that such writing might need an honest confrontation of the difficulty, and an adaptation of reading skills, rather than avoiding it and missing out on the challenge. Of course, other Comp teachers might simply ask, Why bother teaching fiction at all, when our job is to ready them for WAC?

    • Mark Condon May 15, 2015 at 8:15 am #

      Wow Troy! You’ve added lots to the conversation. I have reflected myself on my love of mysteries and humor and non-fiction while I’ve been tip toeing around classics I was never assigned and so never read in my English major. I have preferred to think of myself not as lazy but as giving myself over to stories and humorists and experts to let them work their magic via books. Choosing books from my heart offers me brief vacations every day. I had no aspirations as a writer of great fiction, but if I did harbor such dreams, I’d have read everything that the greats of fiction have bequeathed to us between the covers of their books. Thanks, man.

  2. Melanie Keel May 15, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    I taught a children’s literature (for teacher educators)course this spring semester and was amazed at the number of students who had negative experiences reading as children which has persisted throughout their college years. I had them read Better than Life and Reading Magic across two courses. I also had them write their own Literacy Autobiographies to reflect on their histories as readers. We had a lot of classroom discussions on how we can create a love for reading in our students. My students still struggle with reading content curriculum that they find difficult. I think by the end of the course, many of them embrace the importance of their continued role as readers as they enter their classrooms so they can talk about what they read and their students see them as readers. For some children, seeing a beloved teacher reading can be an inspiration to be a reader.

    • Mark Condon May 20, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

      Excellent point, Melanie! Little guys MUST see people they admire reading. Parents, siblings, friends, and of course teachers.

  3. Peter Legrove May 17, 2015 at 12:24 am #

    I am sure we have a severe problem with the reading situation in the western world. As i write kid’s books every time i go to a library i ask what books are kids reading, and usually i am told they don’t read. And if you go into any library after school is out, all the free computers are being used by school kids to play games. We got problems. I always read kid’s books that have been made into movies, and most kids just watch the movie. i honestly know don’t know how to get kids to read.

    • Mark Condon May 20, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

      I know it can be frustrating, Peter. However, I do believe in the pleasure principle. We have to arrange things so that these youngsters discover just how much enjoyment they can get from free choice reading. Then keep ’em supplied with great choices.