Monday, December 19, 2016

Reluctant Readers: growing readers in an increasingly digital world

I manage the children's department of the main library in my city, so I spend a lot of time talking and working with kids, mostly ages 12 and under, as well as parents, teachers, and caregivers.
I'm using this forum to introduce a series of blog posts to help parents, caregivers, educators, fellow librarians--anyone who is interested--in building literacy skills for children.

This post is going to specifically address reluctant readers in the older elementary grades. I'm looking at primarily 3rd through 7th grade students, but the reasoning and methods I use to help a fourth grader is the same I use to help a kindergartener or a high school student. Literacy is more important now than it has ever been, and addressing literacy needs in our communities is a focus that is evolving and reinventing itself with every new technological innovation that appears.

So the question that I get no less than four times a week is:

My child doesn't like to (or won't) read. How can I encourage him/her to read without feeling like I'm pulling teeth?

No matter how much you would like for it to be, the answer is never just thrusting a book into the hands of a child. You're gunning for failure if you try. It isn't about what books you like, or what you think is good for them, or what you think they should be reading at a certain age or in a certain grade. It's about what THEY like, what they WANT to read, and what they are CAPABLE of reading.

These children are Reluctant Readers. They've likely never been exposed to books that speak to them at their level or engage their imagination. Maybe they come from a home where reading for pleasure isn't a priority. Contrary to popular belief, that's FINE. Not everyone is passionate about reading! However, reading is fundamental to success in building critical thinking skills at a young age. Since children are required to read for school, they will struggle to understand the importance that reading has in their success in school (and beyond) if they don't have support at home. Seeing family members reading reinforces the importance that literacy has in the home, as early as infancy. So if this is your family, consider picking out a book to read together, as a family. Make the book choice as a family. It can be a picture book, non-fiction book, chapter book--the purpose is to read and think and discuss what your reading. There's no right or wrong to it. Refresh your memories about what happened the last time you read or in the previous chapter. Talk about what you're reading now or what is happening in the current chapter, and discuss what you think might happen next if that's possible. This requires setting aside regular, committed time, and while it doesn't have to be every single day or for an extended period of time, it does have to be consistent. Just remember--if you can set aside time every day or week to watch a particular show on television or Netflix, then you have no excuse for not setting aside that same time to do family reading. If you can do this with your readers when they are young, you're much less likely to have a reluctant reader on your hands.

What do you do if you already have one, though? Think about and try to understand why they might not be interested. For example, a lot of children only read what is required of them in school, which (let's be honest) is quite often not fun. I was always an avid reader, but after reading Great Expectations in the 8th grade, I refused to read Charles Dickens ever again. To this day, I still cannot stand his books. So I LITERALLY FAILED one quarter of English every single year from 9th through 12th grade because I refused to read Dickens. Now, I made it up during the quarter we spent on Shakespeare, which I loved and always aced, but it shows a point that many adults forget when trying to get a child to be excited about reading. Kids are every bit as stubborn and opinionated as adults. They know what they like and won't they don't, so don't discount that when you're looking for things that interest them.

Some children don't want stories at all. If you have a kid that is constantly link-clicking through Wikipedia online, you've got a realist on your hands! Fiction or storytelling isn't going to be their thing. Nonfiction has a dedicated audience all its own, and you can't pay a child who loves science to read a fiction story about goofball kids making trouble in their school or home.

Or can you? After all, most required reading in school is fiction, and they have to read it in order to get through the class. So how do you bridge that gap?

Take advantage of your public libraries or school libraries; get your kids their very own library card and encourage them to check out multiple books at once. If they only check out one book, they might read four pages of it, not like it, and then not pick it up again. If that's the only book they took home, you've put in valuable time but your child still isn't reading. Let them check out four or five books. It's okay--they're free!

For Reluctant Readers, the key is motivational material. I'm talking about books that are fun, quick, and sneakily get kids to read an actual chapter book, from beginning to end. The goal is to make readers comfortable and able to follow a narrative, understanding the critical steps that advance the plot, all without the readers realizing that's what they are doing. Here are some good examples of motivational books (and these are just a few!):

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Combination illustrated/chaper book)
The Magic Tree House
Dork Diaries (Combination illustrated/chaper book)
Junie B. Jones
Amulet (Graphic Novels)
39 Clues
Bad Kitty
A to Z Mysteries
Infinity Ring
Big Nate (Easy Reader, Chapter Book, Graphic Novel)
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Fancy Nancy
Nick & Tesla
Who Is...(Who Was...) (Nonfiction, biographies)*
I Survived...*
Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales*

Note that the books I listed above are, for the most part, series books. Of course there are motivational books that are stand-alones, such as Wonder, The Giver, and most anything by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I simply chose to go with series books for this blog because most children get very attached to characters. The paperback series aisle is the most popular section in the children's department at my library. For those lovers of non-fiction that I mentioned earlier, the titles listed above that have an asterisk are good examples of either nonfiction books, or fiction books based on real events or people. The I Survived... series is a fantastic example of one way that you can bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction reading.

{Stepping up on soapbox}
Okay. I'm going to deal with the elephant in the room right now. YES. Graphic novels are completely legitimate forms of reading and are an excellent choice for reluctant readers. I will go further into this in a future blog, but for the purposes of this one, remember that children who don't like to read are often just overwhelmed by the size of a chapter book. All those words are intimidating! Once a child has decided that they are just not going to be capable of reading a book that size with that many words, you aren't going to break through to them without a lot of difficulty and angst. Graphic novels break up all of those lines and make the whole process seem far less daunting.

Additionally, it's worth noting that children now live in an age where everything is digitized and dramatized--television, movies, video games, cartoons. Almost from birth, we know how to follow a plot through from beginning to end, even if all you're watching is a 20 minute episode of Bubble Guppies. Most children haven't made the connection that reading isn't all that different from watching television. They are following a plot and seeing it play out, except that it's in their mind instead of watching it unfold in front of them. Graphic novels help readers become more comfortable with the very idea of chapter books. They teach a reader how to follow a plotline from beginning to end, and they serve as a soft bridge into the world of chapter books. I will address this in more detail in a future post, but I'm going to leave that alone for now.
{Stepping down now}

Other things to think about with reluctant readers. Consider the format of the book you're asking your child to read. Books come in hardback, paperback, trade-paper (flexible covers that are larger than your traditional paperback books), digital (e-books), and audio formats. For reluctant readers, I highly recommend either audio books or paperbacks.

Now I know what you're going to say, and I feel you. I realize that hardback books are more difficult to destroy than paperbacks, and kids are HARD on books. The simple reality is that while hardbacks hold out longer, they are also more intimidating. Kids who are already resistant to reading chapter books are going to have an easier time swallowing the idea of reading a thin, paperback copy of Mary Pope Osbourne's The Magic Treehouse series, than the MUCH larger, though identical, hardback version. As a librarian, and as a manager, I'd rather have a shelf full of beat-up looking paperbacks that have clearly been read and loved on repeatedly, and have to be replaced more frequently, than a shelf of hardback books that look pristine and untouched.

Books in audio formats are an invaluable asset to those students that struggle with processing or cognitive disorders, visual disabilities (books in braille are difficult to come by for most libraries!), or students who just have a hard time navigating through words. I know at least four librarians that have dyslexia, and all of them have said the same thing about audio books. Listening to the book, while reading along with the audio, helps students follow along and become used to how words are ordered on the page. Plus, audio books are great options for long car rides!

So now it's your turn. What kind of things have you found to be helpful in encouraging reluctant readers?

PERSONAL PREFERENCE: At the end of each post, I'm going to put my own two cents in for  my personal favorites in helping engage with my families. For reluctant readers, I am a HUGE fan of the 39 Clues series from Scholastic. Fantastically developed characters (the two leads are a brother and sister--appealing to everyone!), action-packed plot lines, and each book is written by one member of a whole team of well known children's authors, such as Rick Riordan, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park, and Gordon Korman, to name just a few. Rotating authors makes young readers comfortable and willing to pick up other books by those authors (a child might recognize Peter Lerangis' name from the 39 Clues series, and then pick up his Seven Wonders series, which is a more ambitious book to tackle). These books have the main protagonists racing all around the globe, visiting historic cities and sites. Pretty sneaky way of teaching history without the readers even realizing it! Each book in the series is less than 200 pages long, and since they are action/adventure books, they are incredibly fast-paced. There is no better feeling to a child who is a reluctant reader than when they realize that they've read two or three books in a couple of weeks, and had fun doing it!

Coming next: Children's Librarian Series, Part 2--Compulsive Readers