Supporting the reading habit

Are your children avid readers? Do you often see them, book in hand, quietly enjoying a good read? Or perhaps, like many others, your children don’t read much. Maybe they don’t read at all. If they aren’t reading, should you be worried? Should you be doing anything about it?

First, let’s be clear: being able to read is important. It’s not just about being able to pick out the words on a page, to know what the words say. ‘Reading’ is a more complex skill, involving decoding, comprehension, improving vocabulary, and many other things. It’s all put in a basket called ‘literacy’ – and the only real way to improve a child’s literacy is for them to read. Reading is important and it is necessary.

There are two main reasons why children aren’t reading – or aren’t reading much: either they can’t read or they don’t want to read. If a child can’t read, that’s really an issue for school. The cause could be poor or inappropriate teaching methods (it does happen), or it could be something more fundamental, such as dyslexia. However, whatever the cause, don’t panic. Schools are pretty good at picking up and addressing these issues (experts call them ‘barriers to literacy’) at a relatively early stage.

If you child isn’t in the habit of reading, I’ll wager that in 99% of cases it’s because of the second reason: they don’t want to. Most children who read do so because they want to – not because they feel obliged to. In other words, a child who reads chooses to read. Yet many children – boys especially – somehow always manage to find better things to do:  computer games, TV, the Internet. So much to do, so little time!

The problem is that if children aren’t reading, their reading ‘muscle’ isn’t getting any exercise. Their reading skills don’t develop – which makes books even less appealing. It becomes a vicious downward spiral.

So here’s a few pointers to help you get your child more engaged with reading.

Rule one (and this one is a rule) – don’t confront them. They probably already have reading battles with their teachers at school; if you also define it as a battle, you’ve lost already. Many children perceive that reading is something you do at school. Like maths and science, they do it because they have to. Many don’t enjoy it. Children are taught to read, but nobody teaches them that books can be enjoyed.

Rule two. Make sure that anything they are exposed to, in the way of possible reading material, is on a topic that they are interested in. Introduce it because of the subject matter, not because it’s a book. Try to ride on the child’s enthusiasm for the topic, so that they want to read it ‘even though it’s a book’. I knew of one child who defied all attempts by teachers to teach him to read. Eventually he learnt to read using a ‘Haynes’-style tractor manual. The reason? His real passion was stripping and rebuilding tractor engines (he lived on a farm). Suddenly, he had found a reason to learn to read.

Rule three: Be seen reading for pleasure yourself. Set a good example. Boys (especially) tend to perceive reading as solitary and uncool. Try to send out messages to the contrary.

Rule four: think laterally about what constitutes ‘reading’. It needn’t be a book. It could be an ebook on a smartphone, a comic, a magazine, a website, trading cards (Bin Weevils, Match Attax, etc.), shop signs, computer game instructional texts (e.g. on Nintendo DS), etc. Anything to start them on the road: text has meaning and offers rewards. Non-fiction is equally as valid as fiction.

Rule five: keep it short, sweet and simple to begin with. As Chairman Mao said, ‘The long march starts with a single step’. Some book publishers specialize in producing so-called ‘high low’ books. These are books with a higher ‘interest age’ and a lower ‘reading age’. They are designed to appeal to a particular reader – say an 8, or 12, or 14 year old – but what teachers call the reading age of the text is lower – say a reading age of 6 or 7. This means that the books appeal directly to the reader, without in any way being patronizing or babyish, but the text level is that bit more accessible for the reluctant or struggling reader. The books are also a lot shorter, so the satisfaction of completing a book  is more easily achieved. These books, which are usually readily available in schools, are simply great for those not in the habit of reading.

Two new ‘high-low’ series show how this can work. Pig (That’s Peter Ian Green) is a series of six books written, like the popular Wimpy Kid books, in the first person diary form. But the Pig books are much shorter (only 50 pages) and the reading age is lower. They’re also UK-, not US-focused and they’re a bit more edgy (I think they’re funnier, too). Similarly, Spook Squad is a ‘high-low’ series for girls, with an interest age of 7 – 12 years and a reading age of 8 years. The books feature four bright and sparky girls who together save the world from ghoulies and ghosties from the Otherworld. They are safe, fun, spirited, beautifully illustrated and empowering for upper primary level girls.

And most important – both series, like all good books – show what pleasure can be had from a really good read.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.