How to raise a reader

Do you have a reluctant reader, particularly a boy who isn't terribly keen on books? Diana Noonan has ideas for making the printed page more of a priority.

It’s worryingly true that children who don’t enjoy reading when they’re still at school are not likely to be readers as adults. Research has shown this many times over. Unfortunately, if you are the parent of a son, it’s also shown that almost twice as many boys shy away from reading as do girls. With the world so currently fixated on brain function, it’s not hard to find explanations for this latter piece of bad news (it’s supposedly something to do with testosterone and the development of male versus female brains). But that’s not much help to a parent whose son is failing to enjoy reading or refusing to pick up a book unless he’s made to. What parents of any reluctant reader (boy or girl) want to know is how to solve the problem.

Fortunately, there do seem to be answers, but they will often demand as much from you as your children. Avid readers come from families who are avid readers. If parents are not engaged with the printed word, they can’t expect their children to be. I believe we, as humans, are inherently lazy. Staring at a screen is always going to be easier than hunting
out a book and reading it. Screens don’t demand our concentration in the same way the page does. They don’t even ask us to turn a page, or to decide when we need a break (ads do that for us). So your first calls are to turn off the technology and head for the library. Tech-free reading time doesn’t have to be all day, every day, but whether it’s part of Saturday afternoon or for half-an-hour after dinner, it does need to be regular enough to become part of a family routine. And you all need to take advantage of it (dads and brothers especially).

Primary schools are full of female teachers and girls chatting about books. Male teachers are few and far between, so don’t expect to find your son’s male-reading modelling in the classroom. If your children question why they need to read (and at set times for set periods), use sport as an example of how we can only improve at something (and come to enjoy it more) if we go to training sessions. But, at the same time, be careful not to turn a reading routine into a chore. When you head for the library, let the kids do the choosing. If they bring home comic books or nonfiction, that’s fine. Boys especially will often choose nonfiction that appears to be image-heavy but, rest assured, there will also be captions and labels among the pictures.

Research also tells us that child readers come from homes where encountering reading material is an everyday experience. So don’t be in a hurry to tidy away reading material or keep the family library in the cupboard where everyone forgets about it. Buy books and magazines from garage and library sales so you can keep them as long as you want and leave them about the house without fear the dog will chew a corner or the baby tear out a page. And encourage family to give books to each other as gifts. I don’t think there is anyone I know, adults included, who don’t look forward to rewards for good behaviour, so don’t be afraid to instigate the oldfashioned sticker-chart-on-the-fridge and to reward your young reader each time they complete a reading milestone. As well as home-based reading rewards, there are also internet and library-based reading challenges which families can tap into.

Above all, don’t expect miracles to happen at once. For a child who is severely switched off reading, the steps they at first take will almost certainly be small ones. The key is to encourage them to look at print in whatever ways draw them in. Cooking together is one sure way of introducing bite-sized reading sessions without a child even being aware of it. Let your child peruse a recipe book with plenty of photos. When they find something they want to cook, help them read the recipe, which they will then return to again and again as they prepare the dish. Letters from grandparents provide another source of bite-sized reading material. So invite Granddad to write to his grandson as often as he wants. Short stories rather than chapter books also provide a “mini-read”. Children benefit in myriad ways from simply spending interactive time with their parents. If you are checking your phone while expecting your child to read, you are wasting your efforts to help your son or daughter enjoy reading. Instead, read to and with them, on a subject that you may not be interested in yourself, but which they are. Like most aspects of parenting, helping your child become a reader involves a good deal of selflessness on your part. Whatever you decide to do to encourage your reluctant reader to look at the page, the sooner you make a start on it, the better. And the longer you stick at it, and the more routine it becomes, the greater the rewards will be.

Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand's best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand curriculum.

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