Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers

Today’s focus on reading is a guest post from author Max Elliot Anderson who offers encouragement to parents of reluctant readers:

As a child, I never liked to read. When I mention this to someone today, I can anticipate the reaction.  Mouths drop open in disbelief, followed by a gasp. “You’re kidding!” often follows.  That’s probably because I’m also the author of a number of action-adventures and mysteries especially written for other boys who may be facing similar reading difficulties.  Even as an adult, reading for enjoyment continues to be a problem for me.  I do read in order to gather information, but not for pleasure.

My research into reading difficulties began about eight years ago.  I wanted to understand why it was that I grew up as a reluctant reader. Today, I’m sharing some of the conclusions I have reached.

To begin with, my work with reluctant readers often allows me to speak in schools. One of the first questions I like to ask is, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t like to read?” A few hands go up, and then others follow. There may be two or three girls who raise their hands, but predominately it’s the boys who respond.

Next I ask, “Why?”

“Books are boring,” one will say. Another suggests, “They’re too slow and nothing happens,” or, “I’d rather do other things.”

“Like what?” I’ll ask.

The answers always include watching television, playing video games, and spending time on the computer. Research by others often arrives at the same conclusions.

I found some interesting patterns in several of the books I selected for research.  In many cases, they defied a reluctant reader like me to get into them.  The style was boring, the dialog was sometimes sparse, or when it was used, it seemed too adult. As I looked around for books written especially for boys 8 – 13, I found only The Hardy Boys and a few others.  Finding stimulating reading material for boys is a challenge, indeed.

Based on my research, I have determined there are quite a few strategies parents and teachers can employ to support a struggling or reluctant reader:

  • Rule out visual or medical problems. These should be diagnosed by professionals, but here are some things to look for.  The transposing of letters or numbers may indicate a problem. You might notice that your child sees 14 when the actual number on the page is 41. The same can happen with small words. Does the child use a finger to keep his place on the page?  Does he have a short attention span, or hold the book too close to his eyes?  Does he have good posture while reading, or does he move his head from side to side during reading, rather than moving his eyes? This may indicate binocular trouble because both eyes aren’t working together.  I suffer from this. One of my eyes sees distant objects better, while the other sees closer items with more clarity. A child with this problem may slouch in the chair, or turn his head to one side in order to favor the eye that can see the book best.In addition to vision problems, a child may suffer from ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, or other learning disabilities.Children with visual or medical issues may be reluctant readers because reading is just too much work.
  • Parents, teachers, and librarians are reporting that they’ve found success by starting with audio books. In some cases, this is used while also holding a copy of the same book. A child is able to both see and hear the words at the same time, and practice following along.
  • Don’t be afraid to select a book that is below grade level. You may also want to experiment with comic books, or graphic novels. The most important objective is to find something he’s interested in and wants to read about. This could include the sports page in your local newspaper, or magazines like Sports Illustrated for Kids, Ranger Rick, Highlights, and others.
  • Some have found success by using electronic readers like Kindle. Your child is already comfortable with a computer, or video games. The e-reader allows him to change the font, make it larger, change colors, and even look up words in some cases.
  • Consider how you can influence your child’s choices. If your child avoids reading in every way possible – choosing video games or the computer over reading – you might set those activities aside as rewards. You can say, “After you’ve read for thirty minutes then you may spend time on the computer.”
  • Read aloud with your child, and make sure he sees you model that reading is important in your life. This has added influence if the dad is involved.
  • Get rid of distractions. Again, in my case, I find it difficult to concentrate if there are other noises around. This is compounded if there are lyrics in a song on the radio, stereo, voices coming from the TV, or from nearby conversations. Set up a quiet, comfortable reading place. Above all, make the reading environment enjoyable.
  • Have your child try reading to a dog, a cat, a doll, or some other stuffed animal. In this way, children aren’t intimidated or judged by an adult. At the same time, you can monitor their progress.
  • Keep an eye out for books written in order to be more user-friendly for struggling readers. These include books with lots of humor, dialog, and heart-pounding action and adventure, plus chapters ending with a cliffhanger.  Also look for high interest, low vocabulary books called Hi-Lo books.

Anytime I’m asked if reading is really all that important, I give several reasons why it is, and add that readers are the leaders others follow.

You can keep up with Max Anderson on his blog Books for Boys.  Keep an eye out for his newest release – Lost Island Smugglers – coming out in June!

Do you have experience with a struggling reader? What books or strategies proved to be most helpful for your reluctant reader?

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  1. I don’t have a reluctant reader, but one of my favorite kid’s book review sites has some good suggestions for various ages.

    Graphic Novels
    Real Life Boy Stories
    Real Life Girl Stories
    Books for Boys
    .-= nopinkhere´s last blog ..When I am 18 =-.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    My son is about to be 3 and he devours books just like his mama (ahem). However, growing up, my brother could never understand why I always had my nose in a book. When it became very clear that if left to his own devices, he would much rather fill a ream of paper with drawings than read a letter, my mom started bribing him with comic books. He devoured them. He read them from start to finish several times, sucked in by his love of art and his admiration for Stan Lee. He can tell you every single Spiderman and X-Men artist, which series belongs to which artist and how each series unfolds. Comic books where my mom’s refuge when she hated to read, and she passed that onto my brother. Some people hate them, but they brought my brother up to reading level when he was in elementary school.

  3. I was homeschooled, as were my siblings, and I was not a reluctant reader… to put it very mildly. I read every spare moment. However, one of my younger brothers was a reluctant reader, and for one short season of a few months, I was tasked with working with him on his reading. (I had graduated from high school and had prior tutoring experience to this, so it was a good arrangement for us.) We spent two hours daily on reading- kind of like boot camp, and sometimes not very fun. But I did try to make it as enjoyable as possible- choosing boy friendly reading material (and this post is so right about the difficulty of finding that!), and keeping upbeat no matter how frustrated both of us became. I also created lists of similar words, for example a list like this – like, lick, live, liver, love, lap, licking, liking- and would have him read it and then would cross off each one correctly read. The ones he guessed on we would go back over repeatedly. I do have to take issue with your suggestion to have them follow along to a book recording. This is just going to encourage sight reading, which leads to errors, confusion when dealing with unfamiliar words, and encourages (in my limited experience) guessing. I would think that having them listen to recorded stories is a great way to foster the love of story which is going to draw them into a book, but that is not in my opinion a good aid to teaching reading.
    .-= Natalie @ Naddy’s Blog´s last blog ..Wednesday reading… =-.

  4. canuck_grad says:

    Gordon Korman is awesome for boys! (and girls!)

    Other books I recall from childhood that I think would be good for boys:
    Maniac Magee, Eric Wilson mysteries, The Dark is Rising Series, My Side of the Mountain

  5. This post strikes so close to home. I’m an avid reader as is my daughter, but my middle son is a reluctant reader. He loved storytime when I would read him picture books at night, but once he hit first grade and he was expected to read on his own for 10 minutes per night, the struggles ensued. I tried many different genres, encouraged his participation at the library including a forum on little known book series so we could both get some ideas for series we might not be familiar with. I’ve tried graphic novels, short books, short chapter books, etc. He JUST got hooked on the Wimpy Kid series – he loves to read it, although he’s a very slow reader. He also truly enjoys non fiction – which shouldn’t surprise me, because when we would check out picture books, he had much more interest in books about combines and tractors then fiction picture books, so not sure why I didn’t grasp that earlier. I find that the subject has to grab him – Titanic, Tanks, Airplanes are big ones right now. My son is getting some fluency help right now in school and I am hopeful that once he becomes a more fluid reader, that he will dive right in – I now think its the mechanics of reading that have turned him off vs the idea of reading. Now, I know he’ll never be one to choose to hole up with a book vs run outside and ride his bike or come in and play his DS, but when I declare electronic free time, I am hopeful he will choose reading vs lego building sometimes! And, at night, if my kids want to read for 20 minutes they can stay up – if they don’t read, lights must go out (no legos, no ds, no toys) , so that is definitely some fairly decent incentive to read!

  6. Great suggestions! I particularly appreciated your background story and researched approach. Thanks!
    .-= Melissa Taylor´s last blog ..Win a Wiz Kidz Thinking Skills Card Game =-.

  7. In my previous life (before kids) I was an elementary school teacher with an endorsement in K-6 reading and writing, so this is a topic that’s dear to my heart. I strongly second the idea that many reluctant readers prefer audiobooks, but my only caveat would be to make sure they’re following along with the actual book, not just listening. Putting words to sounds is crucial. There are so many good audio books out there now that this is where I would always try to start (and your local library should also have a fairly good selection).

    I would also encourage parents of reluctant readers to find ANY series of books that the child shows interest in, even if you think they’re silly or not “real” reading (this includes comic books and magazines and things like the Captain Underpants series). Often these “silly” books become a springboard into more serious books.

    Finally, (and I’m not saying this to be judgmental here) try turning off the tv/ videogames/ even music. If they have nothing else to do, reading often fills in that time. (My almost three-year-old doesn’t watch tv–yes, we’re those weird parents– and I very often find him “reading” to his stuffed animals or flipping through books and magazines. Of course, I often find him splashing around in the toilet too, so you win some, you lose some.)

  8. I love this attention to reluctant readers! I am a mother of 4 boys. When my oldest was in first grade his teacher recommended he repeat the grade because of his poor reading skills and lack of interest. As a mother I made this my “mommy mission” over summer break that we were going to get him reading, but make it fun! I started a book club for him and his friends. (Who also were struggling to read.) I held book club at our house and we did activities, played games that related to the book.

    It’s been 5 years and now my son reads well above his grade level! Having a book club has become such a tradition in our family- that when my third son started school he was excited to read and declared, “now I can have my OWN book club!”

    Two years ago I started my website to freely share all my book club outlines and games. There are a few “survival tips” I share on how to host a book club for boys. (Especially those who don’t like to read.) I always have an “incentive” game… one that rewards boys who can answer questions correctly. Once it was for every correct answer they got a water balloon– then after we had a water-balloon fight!

    The site is inspired by my 4 boys and the results of our actual book clubs. (hence the name of the site) But these ideas would be great for girls too!

    Most importantly , hosting a book club for kids doesn’t have to be complicated or hard. It could be as simple as a monthly pizza party and watch a movie… (A movie based on a book! Have them read the book and then watch the movie. You can ask them questions in advance– and they can earn “movie bucks to buy snacks to munch on during the movie. Kids will naturally say–“Hey! They skipped xyz…!” They will naturally compare and contrast the movie with the book.)

    Great ideas on this article and comment box!

  9. Megan, very informative article by Max. It didn’t occur to me until now that magazines could be an important tool in stimulating interest in reading, but it makes sense. I recall as a kid gravitating toward magazines in the school library because of the quicker read and visual elements. Now I’m inspired to put together a Top 10 magazine options for the young reader at my magazine related blog so if you have any input I’d be happy to include your comments or list of favorite magazines for kids.
    .-= Craig @ CheapSubscriptions´s last blog ..Cheap SI for Kids Subscription. Limited time. =-.

  10. canuck_grad says:

    Craig, there is a Canadian magazine chain for kids that is great. The main one is Owl magazine, but there are ones for other ages (Chickadee, Chirp). I loved them when I was a kid.

  11. The audio books at Barefoot Books are perfect for reluctant readers. The introduction music grabs kids attention right off the bat, the narrators voices are all mesmerizing to listen to and the illustrations are eye catching with bold colors and unique styles.


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