How to encourage children to read more?

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If you have a reluctant reader at home, you’re probably wondering what you can do to help him/her develop a reading habit.

As a teacher, I’ve met a number of students who didn’t enjoy reading. I’ve experimented and tried a number of methods to engage students and encourage them to read more. Here I’ll share some tricks that work for me and I hope you’ll find them helpful.

IDENTIFY YOUR READERS

Walk into a grade 11 English class (academic or applied) and see how many students volunteer to act out or read from Shakespeare’s play. You might be surprised to see 4 or 5 girls and 1 boy, if we’re lucky. There are a number of explanations for this. First, acting and/or reading aloud is not everyone’s strength. Why is that? Let’s take a look at a typical English class of today. The class consists of:

a) native speakers;

b) ELL students [ELL – English Language Learners, or otherwise known as ESL students (ESL – English as a Second Language)]

c) Students with Individual Education Plans (ie: requiring various accommodations);

d) Gifted students, etc.

So, how can I support this diversity in my classroom? How do I teach students who have different needs and learning styles? The most important question is: can I teach them effectively? The answer is YES and experienced teachers know that.

Now, because this blog is intended for individuals (teachers or not) who want to encourage children to read more, I will not discuss teaching practices, the principles and benefits of modified and accommodated learning, etc. That’s a different topic. I have mentioned the classroom because we need to understand the correlation between a class and home. As a parent of three, I recognize the learning needs my children have. They have different personalities, interests, strengths and weaknesses. After identifying their needs and learning styles, just like I would do in the classroom, I then think of creative ways to engage my readers. How do I begin? Read on.

CHOOSE APPROPRIATE TEXTS

Whether you’re a teacher or parent, you need to understand that every child is different. Some children don’t like reading because they’ve been presented with texts they don’t understand. I mentioned it before and I will repeat it here: Choose an age/level appropriate text. If you present them with a text that’s too hard for them to understand, your students/children will lose interest. I can’t emphasize that enough.

English is my second language. I was an ESL student, twenty-five years ago, when we moved to Canada. I remember struggling in school while trying to read and understand texts that my teachers chose for me. Sometimes, the selected texts were too plain and boring. Other times, the texts were hard to understand and I spent hours identifying and defining new words. Imagine reading a novel and consulting your dictionary (we used paper dictionaries in class) every minute? I often lost interest in reading, and my teacher didn’t care much. Today, as a teacher and parent, I look back and I understand that there are things my teacher could have done to make learning experience more enjoyable for me.

This is why we talk about leveled reading today. When we assign levels to texts, we present our readers with texts that match their reading skills.

For you, young reader: There are many suggestions out there on how to choose texts that best match your reading level. Some suggest that a book is too difficult for you if you find more than 7 unfamiliar words on one page. Others argue that 3 is the magic number. From my experience, it all depends on the purpose of your reading. If you are reading an interesting book and enjoying it, but you find that you can’t define all the words on one page, that’s ok. Keep reading. Use inferring method to develop a better understanding of the text you’re reading. For example: if you see an unfamiliar word, try to guess the meaning of that word based on the other words in the sentence. You don’t have to worry about the number of unfamiliar words per page. Trust me, if the text is too difficult for you to understand, you will lose interest quickly. If, despite the unknown terms, you still understand most of the text, I suggest you continue reading and inferring.

UNDERSTAND THAT BOYS AND GIRLS APPROACH READING DIFFERENTLY

In an English class of 30, you will most likely find a couple of boys who enjoy reading (and who are willing to admit it). Why is this? This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, we’ve been writing about boys’ literacy for years. Take a look at what the Ministry of Education has to say about that: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/meRead_andHow.pdf

Some strategies suggested here are:

– Provide a wide variety of reading material in the classroom and library.

– Allow students choice in their reading.

– Select books that reflect boys’ image of themselves.

– Include graphic novels.

– Include books in series.

– Provide a balance of non-fiction and fiction.

– Use classroom or library organizers to make reading material more accessible.

– Know and teach a variety of traditional and non-traditional forms and genres.

From my experience, these are great strategies to use whether you want to engage boys, girls, ELL learners, or other ones.

As a teacher I’ve learned to ask questions first and make conclusions later. Before introducing new texts, I obtain as much information as I can about my students. I talk to them and ask questions like:

Do you like to read? Why/why not?

What kind of books do you like to read?

How do you choose your books?

Do you like to read books that you can relate to (ie: if you can relate to a character in the book, does that make the book more interesting to you?)

Describe a situation when you lost interest in a book/reading.

Do you like reading aloud?

How do you feel about presenting in front of the others?

I suggest you talk to your children and learn about their special interests. Everyone has preferences. If your reluctant reader shows interests in graphic novels for example, then support him! Don’t miss an opportunity to encourage reading.

CHOOSE BOOKS THAT READERS CAN RELATE TO

I find that most of my students showed some interest in reading when presented with texts that they could relate to. My children are the same way. From where I come from, we were often asked to read books that were too hard for us to understand and/or relate to. For example: our grade 10 teacher would assign Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina for us to read. The idea was wonderful, but was it practical? I don’t think he considered the following questions before selecting our reading materials:

a) How difficult is this book for my students to understand?

b) Can my students relate to the characters in this book?

c) Do my students have enough background information on the historical period and events described in the book?

d) Do my readers find the topics discussed in this book interesting?

e) How well will my students be able to understand the language used in this book?

f) Will the boys and girls enjoy this book equally?

As some, (a small percentage of his class) enjoyed reading and learned much from the assigned texts, the others struggled. They copied each other’s work or asked others (often their parents or older friends) for help. You can see what happens when we choose books that are too difficult for our children to read, understand, or relate to. Remember, before asking your students/children to read something, learn about their special interests. There are lots of books out there to choose from. Also, don’t forget to identify their level of reading. Everything you assign has to be age and level appropriate if you don’t want your students to lose interest.

CHOOSE CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEXTS

If you are a parent of a child who is uninterested in reading, perhaps you should take a closer look at the books he brings from school. What are those books about? What is he being asked to read? Did he have any choice in selecting his reading materials? Can your child relate to the books he is being asked to read (but not just from the ethnic, racial, or religious point of view)? In other words: are those texts culturally responsive?

What does a culturally responsive text mean? Google it and you’ll find lots of information on this topic. To simplify things for you: As an educator, I understand the importance of using culture as a resource for learning. In other words (as I mentioned earlier): I ask questions and try to learn as much as I can about my students so that I can make them feel important and valued in our classroom community. Everyone brings some unique skills and experiences to the table. So, why is this important when choosing texts? For example: You can read about Christmas and talk about it as a holiday, but you have to acknowledge that not everyone in the classroom celebrates Christmas. It’s as simple as that. This applies to anything you talk/read/write about in class. If, for example, you want your students to read about education, maybe you want to introduce books like I Am Malala written by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. We know that education (and the right to it) is perceived differently in various parts of the world, so we must acknowledge that. Be sensitive to the needs of others. Make everyone feel welcome and equally important by choosing texts that represent them. Teachers, please choose culturally responsive texts. Your students will appreciate it.

Written by Vedrana Vodopivec
October, 2020