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Engaging Reluctant Readers, or When is Reading Like Eating Broccoli?

Some kids seem to be born as voracious readers. (Full disclosure: that was me.)
As a kid, I never met a book I didn’t like. I read the back of cereal boxes, tubes of toothpaste, even junk mail. If there was paper with words printed on it, I would read it. I’ve always been part of the group that has to be told to not bring a book to the dinner table and I always got into trouble for reading instead of doing other homework (big surprise there).

But not all kids fall into this group. Reluctant Readers are the kids that simply have less interest in reading in general. This does not mean that they are necessarily poor readers, though that is one potential reason. Since reading is the primary means children learn in school, being a good reader is a huge advantage, and reading for pleasure is one of the primary factors in being a good reader.

Author Emilie Buchwald famously said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” That we are role models to our children is something we’re all aware of; this extends to reading as well. Children with parents who read for pleasure are more likely to do so themselves. I’ve already written about the power of reading out loud, even to older children. Another option is to alternate reading pages, making the task less overwhelming.

A family environment that is reading-rich is a powerful influence, but don’t discount peer influence. Reading and discussing books with friends is an excellent motivator for consuming literature. Book groups of various types are often available at public libraries, and are great places to encourage a love of reading.

But interaction doesn’t have to be in person. The social media video platform TikTok has recently seen a rise in #BookTok. Users post short videos inspired by the books they love, which can attract millions of viewers, and greatly increase the popularity of the books that get the spotlight treatment.

Many books have been turned into movies and TV shows. If your child has experienced both, you can discuss what some of the differences are, and if they feel they were effective. You could also “cast your own movie” of a book—which actors do they think would be great as the main characters? When taking this approach, remember to keep this a fun activity, not a class assignment. Don’t take the fun out of reading by analyzing it to death.

Also, give kids the freedom to not finish a book. Being forced to finish a book that just isn’t grabbing them is a good way to turn a kid off of reading in general. Obviously, this is about independent reading, not something that was assigned for a class.

Some people turn their noses up at graphic novels, decrying them as mere comic books. But graphic novels can be powerful literature in their own right, as well as a way to experience classic literature. The visuals often make these books more appealing, without detracting from the literary quality. Some parents also use motivators like rewarding reading time with stickers, video games, and other rewards. This can be an effective tool, but external motivators like this are considerably less effective than the internal motivation of reading because you enjoy it.

Author James Patterson said, “There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.” And this is truly the heart of getting kids to read for pleasure: the choice of reading material. Everyone is inherently more interested in reading about the things that matter us personally, that we have some connection to.

Those connections, whether they be through a sports biography, a fantasy novel, or a book of Pokémon statistics, are what make books come alive; that’s where the magic happens. Give kids the opportunity to read what they find interesting and their interests might surprise you.

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