Helping a reluctant reader

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 Photo: Adriana Varela/Getty Images

Looking back, it seems like one day my daughter picked up a book and just started reading. I don't remember the angst, the bribery, or the negotiations. I only remember that one day she couldn't read and the next all she did was read. And it hasn't really changed since. We've lost her to books. Sometimes I even find myself plucking one from her hands in the hope of having a conversation.

But my second child is not such a lover of reading. Now in Grade 2, he's been suffering through the school readers for over two years. It's not that he can't read. It's simply that he would never choose to. Each night after dinner, I jolly him along to grab his book and read to me. Most nights he obliges, but only after the usual excuses of tiredness, or sickness, or some other avoidance strategy. I decided last year that the school readers were so boring, I wouldn't want to read them either, so I let him choose a book. It could be anything, as long as it had words. So far that's meant him reading the Woman's Weekly Cake Cookbook, the captions from the Guinness Book of World Records, and a story I wrote him. Now I don't care what he reads, as long as he does.

I'm a children's writer, so having a reluctant reader in the house is tricky. It sort of damages the ego. But it also means that he's been exposed to stories and books his whole life. He has had a daily diet of being read to. And then every night his dad also makes up a story before bed. There are books everywhere in our house. My daughter's room is a library. My son's is too, but he doesn't notice them so much. He has had exactly the same exposure to books as my daughter has. But while a trip to the library for her is thrilling, my son is happy so long as he can pick out a talking book and maybe a comic or two. It's not that he doesn't love books. He does. But only if someone else reads them to him. 

There is a great deal written around reluctant readers. There is a whole industry of books, computer programs and games designed for them. But the best advice I've ever heard is to let children read whatever they choose. To let them find how fun a story can be. To read to them forever, not just when they are little. To tell them it's reading time, not television time and if they don't want to read, then they can listen to a talking book. To take them to libraries and book shops. And to read yourself.

All of this is great advice. But teaching a child to read can be a very emotional time for parents, because it can be really hard. It requires patience, understanding and a lot of time. I know children need to find reading fun. I know children should be allowed to read whatever they want; even supermarket catalogues. I know children should be read to from an early age. I know all the things to do to help, but sometimes my son drives me mad. Sometimes I just want him to concentrate, to look at the words, to sound out the sounds, and to try. Sometimes I give up. Sometimes I take over. Sometimes I just can't be bothered and I know how he feels.

But sometimes we have a little breakthrough.

This week I bought my son the third in Aaron Blabey's Bad Guys series. They are very simple stories with pictures on every page and my son loves them. He loves them because he gets to read each character in a different theatrical voice. It's like a play to him. And it's fun. And mostly he's really happy to read them to me at night. But yesterday, for the first time ever, he picked the book up and read a bit to himself. Not because I'd asked him and not because I'd cajoled, but because he wanted to.

My daughter and I both grinned at each other and stayed very still. We didn't want to break the spell. Surely now, we both thought, he'll realise how great it is to read alone, and to lose yourself in the words and the story and for time to stop around you. But no. Two minutes later he closed the book, ready for me to read Harry Potter to him.

But I'm taking it as a sign. It has to be. Reading is in his blood.

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