Literacy

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. Killjoys: Judgment, Shame, & Frustration (Reluctant Readers, part 3)

Q: I'm ready for him to move on! My son has been reading Garfield books forever! (or Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, Rainbow Magic, Geronimo Stilton, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or endless hours of comics.) Isn't it time for him to read harder books? Old illustration of baby getting thrown out with bathwater

A: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. While those books may seem as worthless as old bathwater; repetitive, stale, and stagnant to you, in fact re-reading or reading formulaic writing builds fluency and increases comprehension – but the baby in this metaphor is your son's fledging motivation. In your efforts to dump those stale books, make sure you're not dumping something much more valuable and significant: his sense of autonomy, confidence, and inspiration. 

How can all those positive feelings come from reading formulaic writing? Well, let me ask you: Was your son eager to get another book in the series? Did he focus on it to the exclusion of other activities? Was he so enthralled by it, he recounted the whole story to you? Did he beam at you with the next volume in his hand? Well – You can't separate his enthusiasm, focus, and spontaneous memorization from the qualities of the particular books he chooses. However, you seem to have an avid reader on your hands, so your work here may be done! He is building neural pathways that connect the activity of reading with feelings of joy. Brain research confirms that Aristotle was right when he wrote “We are what we repeatedly do.” Adult avid readers confirm that they built their own habit of reading with practically any content – pulp fiction, comics, magazines, or whatever else might have motivated them when they were young. (See this study for the science behind building positive habits.)

So, do not get all boy reading mangacontrol-freakish at this point. How you handle your frustration with his reading choices matters. Don't battle over this. If his reading choice seems too easy, too obnoxious, poorly written, or a challenge to your values, try to not judge. If you object to the content, discuss it with your child and add your own perspective and understanding. In fact, this is an excellent way to make sure he knows your values!

It won't hurt to promote the reading choices you prefer – the books you consider more quality literature, the challenging ones, the ones you learned so much from when you were his age. However, my observation and experience is that your influence is strongest when it is respectful and without shame. Shame kills motivation.

Okay, so what do I do? When you visit the library together, let him pick out anything he wants. Accept it. You can also pick out what you want him to read. You can share book trailers to turn him on to literature outside his comfort zone. (Here are some kid recommended ones, some from Washington, DC, some chosen by OPL librarians, and some from the recent 90-second Newbery film festival.)

 boy reading to his mom at bedtime

You can also wave your arms around and tell him why your favorite book is truly fantastic! That's wonderful and funny. But you must respect his process. Don't push too much.

Your child’s feelings of confidence and autonomy are more important than your pride in his accomplishments. Be patient, and you are likely to get both. Do not let your judgment (or society’s) squash his enthusiasm and kill his reading habit before he gets to what you think is the good stuff.

Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. The Reluctant Reader

The Reluctant Reader. Part 1.

Q: My son is 8 years old and he hates reading. It's like torture to get him to sit still for the 20 minutes each day his teacher requires. I'm at my wit's end. I'm worried about him, and I know he's feeling stressed about it, too. What can I do?

sketch of a librarian ready to take notesA: It's not time to panic. I've met plenty of kids who say they don't like to read, and who avoid reading at all costs, and yet they grow up to be readers. Parents don’t always know that each person starts reading in their own good time. Statistically, this often happens sometime around or before 3rd grade, but it's not universally true that by 3rd grade everyone reads on their own. Plenty of bright children become readers later than anyone expected.

The single best predictor of whether or not a child will learn to read, read capably and with ease, and read for pleasure for the rest of his or her life is whether or not he or she enjoys reading.

“Yes, but how do I make this happen?” you ask? The two best ways you can help your child enjoy reading are:

  • Read aloud to him
  • Let him choose his own reading material

If we enjoy something, we put more energy into it, we are patient with ourselves about it, and we keep trying even if we don't succeed immediately. You are the ideal person for this job; to give your child the joy of reading. Share your enthusiasm with your son. Allow him to choose what he wants to read, and then read it to him – up until the moment when he says he wants to read it on his own.

sketch of a kid reading to her mom

As you visit the library and read aloud to him, try for a light-hearted, breezy, low-stress attitude. If your son continues to express dismay, frustration, disappointment in himself, or fear about his abilities, I would suggest that you acknowledge his feelings, and then tell him that eventually it will “click” for him. In the meantime, enjoy your time together.

Don't fear that you must read aloud to him for the rest of his life. This phase can last just long enough so he gets the strong message that reading is fun, it's important enough to you to really spend time on it, and you are enjoying this parent-child activity as much as he is. At some point, his ability to sit still, focus on the page long enough, recognize a sufficient number of words by sight, and bring various decoding skills into play without strain will all reach critical mass, and he'll embrace reading on his own. It will happen eventually.

Note: If your child is struggling with other issues like nearsightedness, dyslexia, or another condition that might need some attention, know that the signs of those kinds of constraints could be subtle, and not very different from what is perfectly, developmentally normal in all children. It doesn't change the advice here, but there may be other work involved to get him from where he is today to being an enthusiastic reader. If you observe or suspect something like this, talk to your child’s teacher or pediatrician.

“Wait!” you say? “I need a book, not advice.” Okay, I get it! When you go to the library, talk to the children's librarian. Mention that you want to find a good book to read aloud to your son, age 8, and to make sure it's a really captivating, exciting, wonderful story. So many people ask this question, that we will know how to take it from there. Try us.sketch of mom reading to kids at a table