How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.

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8 thoughts on “How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

  1. I love this post! It is so what I needed to hear. I have always been torn between limiting screen time (we already have very limited viewing because we don’t own a tv), to acknowledging that actually, he loves the stories he is watching, and that this is can be a good thing. We have a mixture of audiobooks, books, and some really good kids series. Thank you for pointing out to me that together, these can all encourage my son to become a reader. You have really helped me connect the dots.

  2. I’ve found it challenging to help my 2nd grade triplet boys find reading material that they are passionate about. I agree with your suggestion to think outside of “typical” reading material. It can be challenging as a parent to not compare your kids, or relate to something they struggle with that comes naturally to you. I am still searching for material that resonates with one son. I’m looking forward to implementing some of your suggestions and hopefully create a book worm. I can’t wait to spend this summer reading with them – and re-watching our Star Wars blu-ray collection. 😉

  3. Dear Narrowback Slacker,

    May I please copy on both my facebook page and in print near my children’s books? My customers need to see this.

    Regards, Linda Roller Liberty Book Shop

  4. I completely agree! My reluctant reader refused to read for way too long thanks to a negative 2nd grade teacher. We didn’t pressure her to read because she would just dig her heels in deeper. But, I read to her every single night. It was a sweet snugly time because, hey, I love a great story and so does she. Finally, at the very tail end of 5th grade, she took up Harry Potter all on her own. She started and she never stopped. She read, no exaggeration, 40 novels that summer. Harry Potter, the Narnia series, both Percy Jackson series… On and on. Now she always has her head in a book and wears t-shirts about being a book nerd. Hang in there, folks, and keep the stories coming.

  5. This post was so helpful to me to understand a parent’s perspective on raising a reluctant reader. I’ve found the exact same thing in my 7th grade classroom– one good book and they’re hooked for life. A couple resources for parents in addition to your local librarians would be Pinterest (so many great book lists) and the teacher who’s assigning the reading logs. As a teacher assigning reading logs, you did not lie if your son “fake-read” for 15 minutes. Fake reading is better than no reading. As much as possible, I want the actual text in front of kids for their reading logs, but I would certainly count a parent reading out loud or an audio book towards reading time, especially if the child is following along.

    • Thank you so much for this–I’m glad my fake reading is teacher approved! I think it would be helpful for parents to know that “reading’ could mean being read to–a lot of kids feel like failures in the young grades if they can’t read as independently as their peers. And yes, finding the right book is key. A few great resources I recommend to all my friends are Common Sense Media (which provides really great, useful reviews, even if they don’t do enough books imho) and this post on graphic novels for younger grades, which I’ve had bookmarked for at least 10 years: http://www.slj.com/2006/03/collection-development/graphic-novels-for-really-young-readers/?#_. It’s a great piece on the value of graphic novels for very young readers and it changed the way I approached books for my gang when they were little.

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