On Raising a Reluctant Reader

I never thought I’d be writing this sentence, but here goes. My son hates to read.

Here are a few reasons I never thought I’d write that sentence:

  1. I am crazy about books. I read CONSTANTLY. I model good reading every day.
  2. Our house is full of books. They’re falling off the shelves. They’re piled in corners. We’re tripping over them. It’s almost harder in this house NOT to read than it is to pick up a book and read it.
  3. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a kid who hates to read. I’ve spent my career insisting on this very point—very vehemently—to colleagues, to students, and now to pre-service teachers. There are only kids who haven’t found the right book yet.
  4. My husband and I read awesome books to our kids every night for at least twenty minutes. Kids whose parents read aloud to them always love to read, right?
  5. I work in literacy education and teacher education. I actually teach people how to get kids excited about reading FOR A LIVING.

It’s not that my son hates books. I’ve practiced all of the things that I preach, and I have two kids who are excited for story time each evening.  We read to our kids for at least 20 minutes a day, and usually more like 30 or 40. My older son can barely sit still for 5 minutes, but he can sit perfectly still and absorbed for an hour if I’m reading picture books or graphic novels or the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book—something with plenty of visuals to support and engage him. He gets caught up in the story world, he likes to talk about what’s going on, he wonders why characters do the things they do, he asks me to get more books by favorite authors. He engages in the behaviors of readers.

But he hates to read.

He isn’t becoming an independent reader.

I am sure that his history is largely responsible. He was adopted two years ago at age nine, and he came to this country barely literate in his own language, which uses an entirely different alphabet. He spoke a few words of English but couldn’t read or write it. His younger brother, who knew even less English when they came to us, now reads and writes above grade level. Our younger son had the advantage of learning how to read in kindergarten and first grade. But our older son had to start in third grade, and he missed all that early positive preparation for reading that happens in Kindergarten and 1st grade.

Instead, he gets reading intervention at school. And reading intervention, I’m starting to think, may be a place where readers go to die.

The teachers who work with him mean well, I know they do. But forcing him to stumble his way through boring and meaningless leveled stories that are always too hard for him isn’t turning him into a reader. I think of what Richard Allington says about struggling readers: they need to read lots and lots at their level in order to improve. Instead, my son is forced to keep “progressing.” The second he can muddle his way through a Level G, they’re on to the next level. The school congratulates themselves that he now, according to a test, reads at a Level H. But I see him struggle to read Level B books fluently. He cannot pick up even the simplest beginning reader from the library and read with anything like fluency. So I know he isn’t reading at a Level H. Maybe he can decode a Level H book with a lot of stumbling and stopping and sounding out and hesitancy. But he isn’t reading Level H.

The things he is asked to do during reading intervention time seem to have little to do with the behaviors or actions of real readers.  He has to read multiple books aloud, most of which he’s never seen before. He does various drills, studies sight words (which he still can’t read by sight—not even after two years of daily drill), and tests tests tests.  He doesn’t ever get to read “real” books. He reads books produced by publishers for the specific market of struggling readers and reading intervention programs. Bland stories with the most generic writing you can imagine. There is no such thing as voice or specific detail in these stories.  The plots often don’t even make sense—and not in a delightful, Dr. Seuss nonsense kind of way. These are books written to make kids hate to read. He does at least get to self-select the books he wants to read, but who would want to read these terrifically dull titles?

Although in his real reading life at home (which he doesn’t connect in any way to what he does at school), he has favorite authors—Cynthia Rylant, Mo Willems, Jeff Kinney—these are not authors he gets to read in reading class.

Although in his real reading life at home, he likes listening to fluent, expressive adults read out loud to him, at school nobody does this. In fact, he is often removed from his regular classroom DURING READ-ALOUD TIME to go to the resource room for reading intervention. So he misses the one reading experience that might promote a love of reading.

What he has learned over the past two years of reading intervention is to hate reading. He has learned that reading is stressful—in fact, it’s probably the most stressful thing he does all day, and this is a kid who has a variety of emotional problems that create huge stress for him every day. He has also learned to believe that he cannot read, that he is never going to read.

I remember this feeling well, but not from reading: I had math anxiety. I would be so flummoxed and upset before I even started doing my math homework that there was no way I was going to be able to understand the problem or begin to solve it. I’d be crying within five minutes of my parents sitting down to help me. If I could have been calm and relaxed, I probably would have been much more successful. I was a smart kid. But just knowing I was about to have to do math sent my brain back straight to a fight-or-flight stress response. I could not think.

I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had been forced to perform my poor math skills aloud to an audience every day, as my son is required to do.

He is very sensitive to the fact that his younger brother is a much better reader than he is. They have been here for the same amount of time, had the same amount of experience in an American school. He even gets special treatment in reading which his younger brother doesn’t get—thirty minutes a day of one-on-one reading instruction at school plus homework reading time with parents where he is forced to struggle through reading the same books aloud to us that he read to his teacher earlier in the day. When he tries to figure out why his younger brother can read better, he can only think of one reason: his younger brother is smart, and he is stupid.

The school gets very annoyed when I ask why one of my children can read and the other one—the one who gets about sixty minutes a day of one-on-one intervention at school and at home—cannot. They get even more annoyed when I ask why one of my children loves to read and the other one hates it. “All children learn at their own rate,” they tell me. “Your unreasonable expectations of your older son must be making him anxious. If you weren’t making reading stressful, he’d be doing much better.”

If I weren’t making reading stressful…..

I just assumed that school knew best, and so for two years, my son has endured reading intervention.

But this summer, he has asked me to help him learn to read. I have about two and a half months to undo the damage that has been done.

We do so many things to kids in the name of education that have no relation to what real people in the real world do.  So my guiding principle for teaching my son to read this summer is this: If it’s not something that real readers do, we’re not doing it. I didn’t learn how to read through explicit teaching. I learned how to read by listening to my mother read thousands of stories aloud in her wonderful expressive voice. Hearing stories read aloud opened up the most incredible world of imagination to me. I was so eager to learn to read myself because I wanted to be able to enter that world myself. Reading time was never a time of pressure or tension; instead, it was the time I looked forward to most all day. That’s what I want to recreate with my son this summer.

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7 thoughts on “On Raising a Reluctant Reader

  1. I’m really looking forward to hearing how this all turns out. Henry also hates to read. It’s painful to even type that sentence! He is an amazing reader in that he recognizes thousands of words – it’s the reading comprehension that he stumbles upon. I don’t think I caught that at an early enough age. He begins to read and then his mind wanders and then a page later, he can not remember what he read a page ago. SIgh. I see the same signs in Josie, so this spring we started her with a tutor who works solely on reading comprehension. I’m hoping it helps. I can’t stand the thought of only having one book lover amongst the three!

  2. Do you still read aloud to him? According to Mem Fox and Daniel Pennac, that’s the key! I wonder if it’s really that simple. I also wonder if we don’t get too hung up on reading comprehension and fluency–on some idealized version of reading that doesn’t match what real readers do. School seems to me to often be all about what real writers and readers do NOT do–and comprehending everything in a book is certainly something real readers don’t do. With Temesgen, when he’s really into a story, he can focus really well, but if he misses a few things and gets lost, his attention is off and wandering. It’s so hard to find just the right book for him–over and over again.

  3. What a great (and saddening) insight into reluctant readers, and how education can make it worse… I have a reluctant reader too, and we’re making this summer about reading books she wants to read, whatever she chooses.

    I hope you find joy in reading with your son.

    • What a wonderful idea: make summer about reading whatever books she chooses! I do think that choice and support for reading choices–even when they aren’t what we adults/teachers/parents want kids to read or think kids should be reading–creates a space for readers to begin to grow.

  4. I feel your pain. My youngest hated to read for the longest time. She had all kinds of problems despite being surrounded in so many ways by the English Teacher Household. I approached the school, I fought for help, and now, well, she reads. It was delayed. She’s not a super reader yet, but she does not fight me as much. She loves the tales I share of her in her childhood–she commits those to memory. I’ve come to the place where I realize she may not be an avid reader, but she can read. I don’t know if she’ll ever enjoy it, but I see more attempts on her own now that I have, to some extent, “backed off.” Not advice; just sharing what our experience has been. We have one avid reader and one that could leave it alone–I can totally appreciate that annoying “progressing” phrase given by the school. Makes me want to go off. Hang in there. Tripping over books is a very good thing. 🙂 Daryl

  5. Pingback: Raising a Less Reluctant Reader: 13 Suggestions for Parents | the dirigible plum

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