Reluctant Readers

When Your Kid is a Reluctant Reader: What’s a Smug, Self-Assured Parent to Do?

Yes, I was a smug parent. I admit it. I figured reading would be easy for my kids because I’m a reader. I adore the printed word. How could I not, when my mother, a former teacher, read to us from infancy and took us on weekly trips to the library? Our home was filled with books. Once when I was a teenager, a friend was scared (her word) when she stopped by my house and everyone, including both parents and all three kids, had a book in hand. The TV wasn’t on; we were reading. Oh, the horror! Seriously, my idea of heaven is a place like the library from Beauty and the Beast. It’s always open. And, there’s chocolate.

Well, when I had children, I was certain they’d love books the way I did. No problemo, right? Kid #1 fulfilled my expectations in every way and then some. She loved to be read to, and she took to reading, drinking up the letters, sounds, syllables and words like a parched dromedary in the desert. By kindergarten she already knew basic sight words and was put in the highest reading group right away. Now in middle school, she devours books and has read above her grade-level for a long time. *sigh* I patted myself on the back for a job well done.

Enter kid #2. She loved to be read to, but she didn’t take to reading. Not at all. She participated in a great preschool group taught by myself and other parents, just as I’d done with kiddo numero uno, but that whole alphabet “thingy” never seemed to totally make sense to her. I still vividly remember spending an entire extra week on the letter P.  We ate popcorn and pizza, went to the pet store to look at parrots, sang silly songs, traced and wrote the letter P ad nauseum, made letters out of play do, and everything else I could think of. When I was certain my child had that letter solidly in her sweet little head, I wrote a giant letter P on a paper and asked her what letter it was. Her response?  She shrugged, and said: “I don’t know. What letter is that?” Registering that child for school was humiliating, because when the time rolled around, she didn’t yet know the entire alphabet. I still cringe as I recall the expression on the kindergarten teacher’s face when she asked me if my child had gone to preschool. When I explained I’d done it at home and with a neighborhood group, I got THE LOOK. You know the one.

By that time, I knew something was going on. Being a speech-language pathologist, I suspected a learning disability or a language delay. However, at that time I wasn’t working outside the home and I no longer had access to the testing materials or the ears of other professionals who could have helped me determine what exactly was going on inside my kiddo’s head. So, my sweet, bright, funny reluctant reader started school and continued to have a hard time learning her alphabet and her sight words. It was tough for her to pay attention in class. Luckily, her teacher listened to me as I expressed my concerns and frustrations, and agreed to have her tested for speech/language and learning issues. Finally, things clicked into place. I learned that my child has ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder. This difficulty in attending to the right things at the right times, or inability to focus, impacted her learning and her social skills. Seeing the test results for the first time was a nice “Ah ha!” moment for me.

Finally, I knew what was going on and knew where to go from there! My daughter got additional help with reading and received language therapy to build her vocabulary knowledge, which I implemented at home as well. Guess what? She improved immensely at school, and caught up to her peers. Now about to enter third grade, she can read at grade level. Woo hoo!

And guess what else??? She still doesn’t like to read.

Kids may be reluctant readers for many different reasons. If reading is something that is hard for them to do, you can’t blame them for not liking to do it. But reading is essential for success in school, and I’d also say it’s necessary for success in life, frankly.

So, what to do??? I don’t have all the answers, here, but I do have a few suggestions that are helping me support my daughter’s learning and increase her interest in books.

  1. Make books part of your everyday life. Obvious, but important. If your kid doesn’t see you read, why would she think of it as a fun or an enjoyable part of life? If you spend hours watching Netflix or keep your nose stuck to the screen of your smartphone for hours on end, what does that teach your kid about the joys of reading? Whether it’s from an actual book or an ebook, just read.
  2. Let them read what they want. Grit your teeth and put The Hobbit aside. Let Harry Potter go. If they don’t want to read a certain book find what they do want to read. I’ve had to learn to accept all those “trademark” paperbacks, like the “My Little Pony” or “Strawberry Shortcake” stories that make me want to puke because my daughter was motivated to read them.  Some day, she’ll fall in love with Harry, I just know it!
  3. Read with your kids, even when they’re older. My oldest still loves it when we read together. (Don’t let her know I shared this.) We read out loud a lot in the evenings or during road trips. It passes the time and introduces reluctant readers to great books they haven’t tried yet, while building their vocabulary by introducing unfamiliar words in context.
  4. Try not to make reading a chore, but DO make it a daily requirement. This is hard. Since reading is difficult for many kids, by default it becomes a form of torture and something that definitely isn’t fun. So, start a reading chart and reward your child for time spent reading. Use whatever works, and find ways to motivate your child. For example, if a book has been made into a movie that your kiddo wants to see, require your child to read small parts of the book, even if the entire thing is beyond them. Then, read the rest of it out loud or have your child listen to the book on CD. Once they’ve read or at least heard the entire book, reward them by letting them watch the movie version.
  5. Get professional help, if possible.  My kids like me as Mom. They do NOT like me as “teacher, tutor, speech therapist, etc.” For that reason, it often helps if I enlist outside help for challenging homework or difficult projects.  There are lots of after-school programs and tutoring services available. If it’s feasible, try extra reading help from an outside source.
  6. Love your kid.   Accept her the way she is. She is a reluctant reader, but that doesn’t make her any less valuable, does it? It certainly doesn’t that mean you love her any less. Don’t get sucked into the comparison trap when other parents start bragging about how great or talented or mind-blowingly brilliant their kids are. Don’t let it make you feel bad when your kid doesn’t seem to measure up in every possible way. Just remember, your child is perfect the way she is.

So, long story short, this has been a challenge for me. Kiddo Number Two made me question myself and humbled me to the dust. To the dust, people!! I had to let go of my smug assumption that I “knew it all” and would raise a couple of book-loving nerds with ease. She made me realize that I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay. She reminded me that every kid is perfect just the way they are.

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