Help for the Struggling, Reluctant Reader

by Max Elliot Anderson

As a child, I never liked to read. When I mention this to someone who knows me, I can anticipate the reaction. Their mouth drops open in disbelief, followed by a gasp. “You’re kidding!” often follows. That’s probably because I’m also the author of a number of action-adventures and mysteries especially written for other boys who may be facing similar difficulties.

Even as an adult, reading for enjoyment continues to be a problem for me. I find it ironic because my father has published over 70 books. Several of these were children’s books, and I never read any of them. I grew up in a family of seven children. We had avid readers, nominal readers, and me. Still, I managed to finish high school and graduated from College with a degree in psychology. But I have always been more interested in, or stimulated by, things visual. I do read in order to gather information, but not for pleasure.

I used to think that a reluctant reader was simply someone who hadn’t found the right book yet. But the causes may go deeper than that. The word reluctant is defined as opposed in mind, unwilling, disinclined, struggling, or resisting. At the outset, it’s important to understand our terms. Parents must be certain that, if facing a struggling, reluctant reader, there aren’t any problems with vision, neurological issues, or other medical conditions that might hamper reading. These should be diagnosed by professionals, but here are some things to look for.

Difficulty with vision is a big one. The transposing of letters or numbers may indicate a vision problem. You might notice that your child sees 14 when the actual number on the page is 41. The same can happen with small words. Does the child use a finger to keep his place on the page? I always did this as a child. Does he have a short attention span, or hold the book too close to his eyes?

Does he have good posture while reading, or does he move his head from side to side during reading, rather than moving his eyes? This may indicate binocular trouble because both eyes aren’t working together. Again, I suffer from this. One of my eyes sees distant objects better, while the other sees closer items with more clarity. A child with this problem may slouch in the chair, or turn his head to one side in order to favor the eye that can see the book best.

In addition to vision, a child may suffer from ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. It’s only my opinion, but I think many of the hyperactivity problems, found more often in boys today, could be greatly mitigated by allowing them to run off much of that energy for an hour outside, or in some other physical activity.

Based on my own background, I expected that reading difficulties came from what I had experienced. Readers would struggle because they were intimidated by large blocks of words on a page. Or they were likely to be more visual than linear, as I am. My research took me through nearly two hundred children’s books. I found that some were just silly. Others seemed too unrealistic, while quite a few were simply slow and boring. I wanted exciting, realistic, and very visual things to be happening.

Recently a study was released which noted that nearly 80 percent of children 6 and under, read or are read to in an average day. But it went on to say that children spend an average of 49 minutes with books in that same average day, compared with 2 hours and 22 minutes sitting in front of a television or computer screen.

My research into reading difficulties began about eight years ago. I truly wanted to understand why it was that I grew up as a reluctant reader. I found some interesting patterns in several of the books I selected for research. In many cases they defied a person like me to get into them. The style was boring, the dialog was sometimes sparse, or when it was used, seemed too adult. As I looked around for books written especially for boys 8 – 13, I found The Hardy Boys, and a few others.

An attractive book to a reluctant reader is one that is larger in size than most. The type in these books is also larger, with lots of white space, on high quality, bright, white paper, inviting even the most reluctant reader to come in, kick his shoes off, and stay for awhile.

help for the struggling reader in schools

My work with reluctant readers often allows me to speak in schools. One of the first questions I like to ask is, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t like to read?” A few hands go up, and then others follow. There may be two or three girls who raise their hands, but predominately it’s the boys who respond.

Next I ask, “Why?”

“Books are boring,” one will say. Another suggests, “They’re too slow and nothing happens,” or, “I’d rather do other things.”

“Like what?” I’ll ask.

The answers always include watching television, playing video games, and spending time on the computer. This is interesting since research by others arrives at the same conclusions.

For the purposes of exploring reluctant or struggling readers, let’s say that you’ve had your child tested, and we can rule out vision or medical problems. What is your next step toward getting him interested in reading?

This suggestion may seem odd at first, but parents, teachers, and librarians are reporting that they’ve found success by starting with audio books. In some cases, this is used while also holding a copy of the same book. A child is able to both see and hear the words at the same time, and practice following along.

Don’t be afraid to select a book that is below grade level. You may also want to experiment with comic books, or graphic novels. The most important objective is to find something he’s interested in and wants to read about. This could include the sports page in your local newspaper, or magazines like Sports Illustrated for Kids, Ranger Rick, Highlights, and others.

Some have found success by using electronic readers like Kindle. Your child is already comfortable with a computer, or video games. The e-reader allows him to change the font, make it larger, change colors, and even look up words in some cases.

It’s easy for parents to forget the power they have over their children’s behavior. If your child avoids reading in every way possible – choosing video games, or the computer over reading, you might set those activities aside as rewards. You can say, “After you’ve read for thirty minutes, or an hour,” for example, “then you may spend time doing those other things.”

Read aloud with your child, and make sure he sees you model that reading is important in your life. This has added influence if the dad is involved. Get rid of distractions. Again, in my case, I find it difficult to concentrate if there are other noises around. This is compounded if there are lyrics in a song on the radio, or stereo, voices coming from the TV, or from nearby conversations. Set up a quiet, comfortable reading place. Above all, make reading fun.

Have your child try reading to a dog, a cat, a doll, or some other stuffed animal. In this way, children aren’t intimidated or judged by an adult. At the same time, you can monitor their progress. Also look for high interest, low vocabulary books called Hi-Lo.

Not only is it important for books to be constructed in order to be more user friendly for struggling readers, there should be lots of humor, dialog, and heart-pounding action and adventure, plus chapters ending with a cliffhanger.

In addition to all the above reasons, when I’m asked if reading is really all that important, I add that readers are the leaders others will follow.

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