Teaching Reading To Reluctant Readers

I have heard it a million times. “I don’t like reading. Books are boring.”

I don’t know why this time was different, but, when Joey said it to me, I challenged him. “It’s impossible,” I said. “To say books are boring means you think stories are boring. A human who doesn’t enjoy stories is about as likely as a monkey who doesn’t like to swing in trees. Humans are story. You haven’t found what you like.” The room fell quiet and we continued with our lesson on pronouns.

The competition was on. I knew I was right and wanted to prove it. I wracked my brain for how to proceed. Should I let him read comic books? Should I begin with magazines? I finally remembered another student, who was also a reluctant reader and about the same age, who’d become hooked on the Cirque du Freak series. Well, I knew that handing Joey the book and saying, “Give it a try. You’ll love it” would be the equivalent of me trying to tackle Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography in its original French: not happening. Like a candy salesman trying to hook her customer, I decided to let him taste the sweetness, in hopes of getting him so addicted that he would do anything to get more — even if that meant reading on his own.

I began reading aloud to him and he was immediately addicted. Each day when our time finished, he begged for more. Hearing fluent reading is beneficial for developing fluency and nuanced reading, major factors in comprehension, so I was excited he was spending so much time listening to me read aloud, but I was determined to have him fall in love with reading, and to actually read. Luckily I’d picked a 12 book series, so when we finished the first book I agreed to delve in to the second only if he read every fourth page.

I dreaded when it was his turn to read. He stumbled, I corrected and we both felt bad. But after a couple of weeks I started noticing an improvement — nothing monumental but enough to keep my hopes up. I hated correcting him and trusted my instinct enough to do research on what literacy experts recommend. I was relieved to learn studies show that correcting a child during read aloud is counterproductive, as it frustrates and embarrasses them to the point of avoiding it altogether, so I stopped. It was difficult to stay quiet when he butchered common words, but I knew if I wanted to hook him I had to let it go.

We read two 200+ page novels in three weeks. He begged for more and I agreed as long as he read every third page. We continued this way – I modeled, he butchered- for another two books. His progress was slow and I started worrying my plan was going to fail. Then one day Joey came running into the classroom saying he couldn’t take the suspense anymore and had finished the novel on his own. The boy who “hated books” had read 100 pages on his own in one night! I was stunned and delighted.

Joey and I read the next nine Cirque du Freak books alternating pages. Often he would take the book home and read ahead. My experience with Joey confirmed what I suspected to be true. Kids don’t hate reading, they hate reading what we expect them to read. Left to choose their own books, at levels they can handle confidently, kids will read willingly.

When I tested Joey at the beginning of the year, he was reading at a sixth grade level. By the end of the year and twenty novels later (five of which he read independently), he was reading at a tenth grade level. On the last day of school I proudly gave him a sterling silver bookmark with his name engraved on it.

I encourage you to help your kids find what they love. Take them to the bookstore and let them browse. Teach them to read the first page of a book to see if it feels right and don’t limit their choices. Any book they read, the classics or not, will improve their skills and set them on their way to falling in love with reading.

Susana Kraglievich is the founder of Central Park Tutors. She spent her adolescence reading Sweet Valley High and Danielle Steele and her adult years in love with Tolstoy, Ibsen and the occasional Vogue.

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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