Reluctant and Struggling Readers

So your kids don't read books?

Why not? There are two main reasons why kids don’t read books:

  • They simply don’t want to read them: they prefer doing other things.
  • They can’t read them: their literacy skills aren’t developed enough.

And often they don’t want to read because they can’t, and they can’t because they won’t. It’s a vicious circle.

Is there really a problem?

Reading ability is usually measured by reading age, e.g. a reading age of nine is the reading ability of the average nine year old. But this is only an average - children develop at different speeds; as they do in all things... So it’s not a reason to worry if your child is a bit behind.

However if a child’s reading age is well below the average, it begins to affect them, and steps should be taken. If you think something is wrong, in the first instance speak to your child’s teacher, who should be monitoring progress, should have identified those who are struggling, and should be able to help.

But how can I help?

First, understand that just because children don’t read well it doesn’t mean they’re 'stupid'. Second, don’t worry, professional help is at hand. Let’s start by looking at those two reasons: can’t read and won’t read:

Can’t read...

Reasons range from schooling issues (they do happen – to the extent that children don’t ‘get’ reading, and that makes it hard) to more fundamental problems, such as visual impairment or dyslexia.

Won’t read...

Actually, they probably do read. Reading isn’t just about reading books – it’s about reading. Reading shop signs, or on the Internet, or reading TV listings, all helps build basic literacy skills.

Children choose not to read books for a variety of reasons, but basically it boils down to this - if they’re not choosing books it’s because there’s something else they prefer to do in their free time.

But why don’t they like books?

There are probably two reasons:

Books used in early reading schemes can be pretty boring. The texts are simple (often patronising) and the illustrations are frequently pedestrian. These kinds of books usually do get the kids reading; but an unintended consequence can be that children learn that reading is something you do at school, and it’s boring and unrewarding.

Second, the process of learning to read is hard work. It’s about learning letter shapes and letter sounds, and then somehow learning to put all this together to decipher (experts call it decoding) the printed word. It certainly isn’t fun.

So what can I do to overcome reluctance to read?

Magical overnight conversions are unlikely. But whatever you do, don’t make it a battle. If you do, reading joins eating sprouts, homework and the dentist!! Reading also risks getting drawn into a bigger parent/child struggle.

Be subtle, and get two messages across: reading can be fun (it all depends on finding the right book); and good books do exist.

The right book will meet three criteria:

  • It matches their specific interest(s).
  • It matches their reading age.
  • It’s appropriate for their actual age (i.e. it’s not patronising them by being too young for them, nor is it too old).

If kids want to read something, they really will try. If they don’t want to read it, they won’t. If you want children to choose to read stuff, it’s got to be about stuff that interests them: it sounds obvious – but it's often forgotten. So don’t choose for them, choose with them.

But how do we find the right book?

  • Heavily illustrated books are a good place to start - walls of text can be intimidating, and the only reward is from reading. Illustrated books offer rewards that don’t only involve reading. But even then, there are good books and there are not-so-good books. And the difference often lies in the illustration styles - the pictures and the layouts. You may not spot the difference, but your child probably will. So let them choose: but do check that the language level is appropriate.
  • Short books with instant rewards are better than longer books with delayed gratification (which is the case with a lot of fiction). Fiction is an acquired taste: don’t push it too hard, especially with boys.
  • Comic books are a good way in – but be careful about ‘adult’ comics – the text is often difficult to read (because it’s in capitals) and the layouts can be confusing.
  • Audio books are OK, but listening isn’t reading. Listening will develop the ability to follow a narrative, and helps make books more acceptable, but it doesn’t develop reading skills. Some publishers produce podcasts of books, where the text and illustrations appear as the story is read. These can be listened to on portable mp3 players – the height of cool. These can help struggling readers gain confidence, as they can listen over and over again.

Yes, but where do we look?

Most kids’ books are designed to match the interest age and the reading age; for example an interest age of nine and a reading age of nine. And most bookshops organise their shelves the same way – by age group – to match average interest and reading ages. That’s fine for the average reader: but counter-productive for the struggling or reluctant reader. For example, if a 12 year old boy has a reading age of 7, the problem is obvious: he can’t read books designed for a 12 year old, and he won’t read books designed for a 7 year old (too babyish).

All is not lost, however. Some publishers specialise in books with interest ages higher than the reading age (these are often called ‘high-low’). But you may have to ask, to find these in the bookshop – not all shops have caught on yet to this requirement.

OK - we’ve found the right book. Now what?

It’s all about confidence. And turning reading into a habit.

Read with them. Share the enjoyment with them. (A recent survey found that boys in school regarded reading as uncool because it was a solitary activity). If you read with them, you can help them with any difficult bits.

"Don’t present them with ‘it’s time to read’. That’s like school – it’s become a task. Rather, try to create situations where they are amenable to books. Next time you’re together in the right shop, dig out a cool book you’ve found (you might need to do a scouting trip first). Use the content to engage them, rather than the fact that it’s a book: ‘Did you know …’

Make sure there is an achievement in there somewhere: reading to the end of a section, finding out about x (and maybe transferring that knowledge into the real world), getting to the end of the book (if it is short). Children also need to develop reading stamina. By the age of 12 children should be able to read long texts without difficulty. Just like exercise, this doesn’t come easily and needs practice.

And reading books yourself sends the right message.