Research shows that time with text is one of the most important elements to success in reading. While focused instruction in word study, reading fluency, or comprehension may aid a child’s progress in reading, they will not become better readers if they do not learn to read with independence.

This sounds easy and oversimplified, I know. The reality is that it’s not easy getting a child to read when they are reluctant to do so. But it’s also not impossible. If you’re looking to get your child reading more, try these five steps.

1) Have a frank conversation with the child.

If your child is a reluctant reader, chances are they aren’t going to express enthusiasm about starting to read more. This is natural–and more importantly, this is okay. Threatening your child with punishments or berating them to read is more likely to work against you in the long run, even if it does get them to complete their nightly reading for a week or so.

It’s important for students to understand the purpose behind independent reading. It’s important they know that you are not simply asking them to read more independently for your own pleasure; you’re asking them to build an independent reading routine because it’s going to make school easier for them, and it’s going to help them learn about topics that matter to them.

But most of all, let them know that you understand it’s not their favorite thing to do–and that you, the adult, aren’t trying to change that about them. Instead, reiterate the importance of learning how to read independently, and reassure them that you are here to support them in reaching this goal.

2) Collaborate with them to set a daily reading goal.

As a teacher, I have to strike a balance between pushing my agenda and considering their feelings. My agenda, of course, is to get them reading 15-20 minutes per day at a minimum, but I also know that reluctant readers struggle with reading stamina, confidence, and book choices.

You might think you need to address decoding or comprehension challenges before they can read on their own, but this isn’t necessarily true. Kids can read in numerous ways. They can read pictures just as much as they read words. What’s most important is that they get their derriere in a successful reading spot and that they keep their eyes on their books for the agreed upon time.

I usually start these conversations by asking students what they want their daily reading goal to be, in terms of the number of minutes read. Every child is different, so I can’t possibly tell you where to start. That said, the most salient advice I can provide is to let your child lead this part of the conversation. That doesn’t mean you don’t get a say, but by letting them lead, they begin to feel a sense of responsibility and control over their reading goal. Quite simply, you can ask them:

How many minutes do you think you can sit in a “successful spot” and read without interruptions?

For many reluctant readers, a daily goal of five minutes may be just right, even though it may sound incredibly low to you. Remember, you are in this for the long haul. You have to see the long-term goal, which is an intrinsic investment in independent reading.

Once they’ve completed the agreed-upon goal, I recommend finding a way to keep track of this. Personally, I hate reading logs that track minutes and book titles, which is why I use a simple calendar when tracking reading progress. On the days they reach their goal, let them put a sticker on the calendar, and on the days they don’t, kindly let them know that they won’t be adding a sticker. You can use this calendar later on when deciding on an authentic reading reward.

3) Set them up for success with a reading spot and a bin of books they can read.

Routine is everything for kids. Why? Because it takes the subconscious stress and guesswork out of things. It allows something that is initially undesirable to become comfortable and familiar.

This is another great place to let the child exercise their independence. Talk to them about spots in your home that are conducive to productive independent reading–and talk about what it looks like when a spot is a “successful” one. Successful spots:

  • help readers keep their eyes on the book.
  • help readers stay put until reading time is over.
  • help readers stay comfortable while they’re enjoying a book.

Again, this is a partnership, and you may already know which spots your child doesn’t work well in. If your child suggests a spot you know won’t work, kindly tell them why you think it won’t work. That said, if you have no evidence that it won’t work, give them the benefit of the doubt. If the spot proves to be unproductive or distracting, you can say something like:

“I noticed that when you sat near the toy bin you were really distracted. I think we need a new successful spot for reading.”

But you can also comment if their choice of successful spot works. You can say something like:

“I noticed you were really focused when you sat in the big comfy chair. Let’s try that as your successful reading spot this week.”

You’ll also need to supply them with ample reading materials. I suggest a book bin that can hold books from your home library. The book bin allows them to stay put in their reading spot, instead of going to get more books to read. Remember, a spot is successful when a reader can stay put while reading. For early readers, this certainly means they need multiple books on-hand. That said, if they finish all of their books before their daily time is up, rereading books is a great way to build reading fluency.

4) Identify authentic rewards for reaching their reading goals.

The operative word here is authentic. Rewarding your child with screen time or sweet treats is unlikely to build intrinsic motivation and investment in reading. Instead, you must remember to reward reading with more reading. This creates a “virtuous cycle of reading,” making it even more likely that you will build an intrinsic inclination towards reading within your child, as opposed to compliance routine where the child needs to be bribed to read.

Use the aforementioned reading calendar to determine the reading reward. It’s important that any and all effort is rewarded, even if you feel like your child is capable of more. We must remember that our kids are doing what they are capable of doing. No child wants to disappoint their parents or fail to reach their goals. If they don’t reach their reading goal, it simply means that they need more time to work on it.

Need some ideas for reading rewards? Let your child choose a new book from the bookstore–any book they want. Yes, that includes graphic novels, fact books, and other books our adult minds are disinclined to see as “real reading” (Spoiler Alert: Those books are absolutely real reading.).

But what if my child doesn’t reach their goal? You might be thinking. One way to address this is to buy different “levels” of rewards. Buy a few gift cards of different value from your local book store. If your child meets their reading goal, give them the one of the highest value, and if they don’t, give them one of the lower value gift cards. This preserves the reward without punishing them, continuing a cycle of positive reinforcement towards a sustained reading goal.

5) Get in on the routine.

We have to practice what we preach. If reading is an important thing for kids to do, the adults in the room have to show it’s important to their own lives, too. If your child is an especially reluctant reader, this step will be critical for you.

Reading is just as much cultural as it is skill-based. Children who live in homes where reading is a part of the family culture are much more likely to read. As a result, I recommend creating family reading times where everyone works on their reading goals. This is a great way to wind down the evening before bed, or it could even be a great after-dinner activity. Make it work for your family’s routine, but remember that kids are less likely to build this routine if it’s not a part of the family culture.

Any questions?

Let me know in the comments, or reach out to me for help.

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Paul,
    Love the 5 tips for kids that have no challenges in reading fluently. What is your advice to parents who have children who are dyslexic and have difficulty in reading most printed text or may not have access to digital versions of books? That is estimated to be about 10-20% of the children in US schools.

    1. Hi Kathleen!

      I think a couple of ideas could work, like audiobooks from the library or audiobooks on a mobile device. But in my experience, kids with dyslexia can still read books with print, even if they read them differently–or even if they can’t read all of the words. With the students I work with who have dyslexia, I spend a lot of time finding books that they feel they can conquer, and oftentimes, these books are heavy in pictures. I think erring on the side of books they find “easy” is good, too, because it builds confidence, stamina, and fluency.

      I wish there was an answer that worked for all students, but I think it’s a matter of being creative, listening to the child, and continuously having conversations about how to match them with books that work for them.

      Thanks, Kathleen!

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