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Help! My Kids Don’t Like to Read

This article is part of the Help! series.

Instilling a Love

How well I recall my anxious and helpless feelings when my son struggled with reading! He simply didn’t like it. As an avid reader from an early age, I found this difficult to understand. His struggle frustrated both of us for a very long time. But he’s now an enthusiastic and engaged reader, sharing literary joy with his children.

This memory remains vivid and emotional, although it occurred over thirty years ago. My heart aches for today’s parents, who face far more challenges in helping their children enjoy reading. I'll begin by identifying major obstacles and conclude with some practical suggestions for helping to instill a love of reading in your children.

Identifying Obstacles

Realize from the start that individual children learn to read in different ways and time frames. Learning disabilities such as dyslexia and attention deficit or processing disorders require special attention. Underlying binocular vision problems, such as eye teaming deficiencies and eye movement function, can also make reading arduous for kids. If you suspect any of these problems might be factors in a child’s aversion to reading, you may want to seek professional diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading

Leland Ryken, Glenda Faye Mathes

In today’s technology-driven culture, reading has become a lost art. Recovering the Lost Art of Reading explores the importance of reading generally and of studying the Bible as literature, while giving practical suggestions on how to read well.

Whether or not it’s necessary to address physical problems, parents should be aware of the major competitors vying for children’s time and attention. They’ll also want to assess how life’s hectic pace might create stress for the entire family.

Technology

The largest hindrance to reading delight is the technology octopus, whose size and strength surpass even Jules Verne’s giant squid.1But technology also shares the insidious and tenacious characteristics of a brain tumor. Tech addiction grows at an exponential rate, and screen time can cause physical and emotional changes that strangle creativity and contentment.

While many parents recognize gaming dangers and social media threats, few people realize that technology intentionally targets children. Richard Freed warns how “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids”2 deploys “the weapon of psychological manipulation” to open “a window into kids’ hearts and minds” and exploit “their particular vulnerabilities.” Realizing manipulation occurs is chilling. Knowing it targets children freezes the heart.

Many people believe technology stymies reading skills in young brains. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf writes about the loss of “skills honed by the reading brain” for the many “digital natives” who sit “transfixed before a screen.” These young people “may never become true expert readers.” During the phase when critical reading skills are developed, “they may have not been challenged to exploit the acme of the fully developed, reading brain: time to think for themselves.”3 Screen scanning hampers the brain’s ability to move beyond simple decoding to thoughtful reading.

Digital media promotes instant gratification and short-term attention, while reading requires more prolonged and thoughtful mental engagement. Technology deadens creative engagement and critical thinking. It may be the most destructive factor stealing children’s delight in reading.

Busyness

The busyness of modern life can hinder reading joy. Many children spend hours in a classroom followed by homework in the evening. They participate in wide-ranging activities associated with school, community, and church. Families rush from one thing to the next, often catching fast food in between. Too many children have little time to relax their bodies and refresh their minds.

When pandemic restrictions temporarily prohibit activities, families face different stresses with adjusted work schedules and online schooling challenges. Children may have fewer outlets for energy and creativity, while the entire family suffers emotional distress caused by the loss of renewing rhythms of fellowship and worship.

Most teachers want to help children enjoy reading, but their classroom time and focus is limited (additionally so in virtual learning). Required assignments may be aimed at broadening a child’s horizons, but they sometimes turn a kid off from reading.

Every family deals with additional situations or circumstances that complicate the major factors described here. Despite an array of competing factors conspiring against parents’ efforts to help children enjoy reading, the situation is far from hopeless. If you feel discouraged, as I did many years ago, take heart! Challenges may be daunting, but strategies and resources exist for finding help and hope.

Discovering Strategies

What can parents do when their child doesn’t like reading? This problem, like every parental struggle, ought to be bathed with patience and prayer. Our culture fosters an expectation of immediate results, which is rarely realistic. Parents also need to realize how much they must depend on God for their own equipping and for their children’s changed behaviors. As you pray for guidance toward effective strategies, remember to pray for patience in the process.

Cultivating Perspectives

Changes can begin by cultivating positive perspectives in your family. Rather than labeling anyone as a poor reader, encourage every family member (maybe even yourself) to think, “I am a reader.” Instead of stressing about finding time to read, learn to think in terms of having freedom to read. Practice show and tell. Let kids see you enjoying books, and take time to share meaningful insights or humorous lines.

Surround children with good books. Indicate reading’s priority by filling bookshelves or baskets, and placing children’s books within easy reach. You may want to help each child build a personal library. The presence of books in the home increases literacy and other skills into adulthood.Visit libraries regularly, making the experience a fun outing. Discussing expectations and book limits beforehand can help keep the visit calm and enjoyable for children and parents.

Controlling Technology

Assess your own dependencies and put down devices to be fully present for your children. Rules and accountability methods may benefit some families. But I believe the best way to wither Big Tech’s tentacles is to make integrated nurture second nature.

Deuteronomy 6:6–9 describes an integrated parenting style. We first must know God’s Word and take it to heart. Then we can convey biblical truths to our children while sitting at home, putting them to bed, walking uptown, or driving to soccer practice. This consistent nurture helps parents and children recognize God’s truth, goodness, and beauty in our world and in all words. Andy Crouch promotes a similar lifestyle in The Tech-Wise Family.5 He suggests specific commitments and explores ways to help families build wisdom and character.

Reading Aloud

Reading to your children fosters joy while enhancing child development and family bonds. Benefits for infants to teens surpass language and literary skills, but the primary reward is delight. Sigmund Brouwer writes: “Reading aloud from the time your children are very young will introduce them—whether reluctant or eager readers—to the pleasure of written words.”6

Reading aloud helps families wind down before bedtime. Create a circle of love and light, turning off other lights and all electronics. Allow children to cuddle if they like, but don’t insist on motionless sitting. Some kids listen better while coloring or playing. Exude enough fun to woo teens into the story and the family circle.

Revel in the experience. Release your latent actor by reading expressively. Ask and allow questions or comments, explaining puzzling words or concepts. Conclude before interest wanes to set the stage for the next session.

Picture books suit short attention spans, yet even young children can follow plots with short chapters and interesting characters. Initially, you may want to avoid classics containing archaic language and unfamiliar concepts. Better choices might be a simple mystery or a fun fantasy. Don’t expect your kids to love your childhood favorites. If a book isn’t capturing attention, try another.

Reading to your children fosters joy while enhancing child development and family bonds.

Listening to audiobooks while traveling or working together makes boring activities fly by. And it can introduce reluctant readers to the joy of great stories.

Choosing Good Books

When choosing a book, be aware of both content and quality. Ask two questions: “What is this book’s view of life?” and “Is the writing good?”

Many books and online resources can help. Gladys Hunt set the standard with Honey for a Child’s Heart,7 but similar books exist. It’s easy to search recommendations for reluctant readers at the Read-Aloud Revival8 and the Redeemed Reader9 websites. Such suggestions often include graphic novels, which may be an effective strategy for some kids.

Consider interests and abilities. Children become easily frustrated when trying to read something they find boring or beyond their skill level. But they’ll put extra effort into reading about a current passion.

Choose books with main characters a little older than the intended reader. Books with younger protagonists may seem condescending, while those with much older characters are likely too difficult or mature.

Read a page or two. If the writing doesn’t draw you into the story, it probably won’t capture a kid’s attention. An appealing series can be an excellent strategy. After kids complete and enjoy the first book, they’ll want to read subsequent ones. The Boxcar Children series, stories about close-knit siblings solving mysteries, was the key to unlocking my son’s enjoyment.

May you and your kids soon discover reading’s rewards and delight.

Notes:

  1. A terror of the deep in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
  2. Medium.com, March 12, 2018.
  3. New York: HarperCollins, 2007; 221, 225.
  4. psmag.com/education/home-libraries-confer-long-term-benefits
  5. Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
  6. Sigmond Brouwer, Foreword, Lindskoog & Hunsicker, How to Grow a Young Reader (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002), xi.
  7. Gladys Hunt, Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life and Honey for a Teen’s Heart: Using Books to Communicate with Teens (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
  8. readaloudrevival.com.
  9. Redeemedreader.com.

Glenda Faye Mathes is coauthor with Leland Ryken of Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.



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