Kicking it Up a Notch: When Children are Stuck in a Reading Rut

Imagine this scenario:

Your first child is a precocious kid. She asks you to read aloud books like The Secret Garden or House at Pooh Corner when she’s barely four years old. She’s a bit of a slow learner when it comes to reading (which you happily blame on the school system in Mississippi), but by the end of first grade, she’s reading books like Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse series to herself. She seriously takes off in second grade, and by third grade she’s devouring Harry Potter (all of them that were printed by that date, anyway) and anything else she can get her hands on. She progresses increasingly as she gets older; nothing is too difficult, to obscure, or too big for her.

Then along comes your second child. She’s not as precocious; she’s happy to have you read picture books aloud to her well into kindergarten. Eventually, she asks you to read Wizard of Oz aloud, but that’s pretty much all. She dabbles in Narnia and with Harry Potter, but is not enthusiastic about them. She learns to read faster than her older sister (different school system), and is also able to read Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse books (as well as Clementine) by the end of first grade. And then… she stalls. Second grade, third grade go by and she really shows no sign of being interested in longer books. That’s not exactly accurate: she has discovered that she loves having longer books read aloud to her: Matilda, the Ranger’s Apprentice, Sisters Grimm and so on. But, she shows no sign of desiring to read ahead in the book (unlike her sister), to pick up the book on her own after you close it every night.

Sound familiar?

Obviously, this is based on personal experience, here: M is our “reader”, devouring books, sometimes as many as one a day. C is our extrovert: it’s not that she doesn’t like reading, or that it’s difficult for her. Rather, there’s better things that she wants to do with her time. And, to tell the truth, long books intimidate her.

I have thought about pushing C; M and I have thrust books at her, telling her that she’d LOVE this, that or the other. We’ve bribed her: the only way she read Order of the Phoenix was that we wouldn’t let her see the movie until she finished. But, I wonder about either of these approaches: I want C to love reading, and she’s not going to love reading if she’s forced or coerced or bribed to do it.

So, what to do? I’ve thought long about how to get C to enjoy what she’s reading, to be excited about books — long or short — and these are some of the ideas that seem to have worked for us.

1. Find a genre that your child is interested in. For M, we let her read the Harry Potter books over and over, and threw fantasy books at her as often as possible. Sure, we gave her other books to “branch out” but mostly we let her read where her interests were. For C, however, it’s not been so easy. She enjoys picture books, and still pilfers through our picture book piles every library day. So when I’m at the library, I pick up a few picture books with longer stories that I know C will pick up and read. Fairy and folk tales, books about girls her own age (Moxy Maxwell or Bobby Versus Girls, Accidentally), and general non-fiction, are also all things that she likes.

2. Try Graphic Novels. This was the big winner in our house. Graphic novels like Babymouse and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Dork Diaries and Ellie McDoodle, bridged the gap between early chapter books and more difficult middle grade books for C.

3. Don’t push it. You know the saying “at least they’re reading”? Think about that. Reading is not supposed to be a chore, it’s supposed to be fun. And if they LOVE reading Magic Treehouse (even though you think it’s crap), then let them read Magic Treehouse. Besides, if you push a kid to read something they’re not ready for they’re going to end up hating it (or at the very least, not getting much out of it). And that would be worse, I think, than them reading under their grade level.

4. Have someone else — a librarian, a friend, a teacher — suggest books. Sometimes, the reason your child isn’t progressing is because it’s coming from you, the parent. (Sad, but true.) There are other sources to get book recommendations. Have your child (not you!) talk to them, and get some ideas there. They might find something they really like. Included in this are fads, which are not always bad. Perhaps part of the reason M read Harry Potter was because everyone around her was reading Harry Potter. Likewise, C willingly reads and loves the Percy Jackson books because they’re popular right now.

5. In that same vein, try a parent-child book group. I’m not going to go into details, but rather send you over to Imagination Soup for some great ideas and reasons why this works, and works well.

Oh, and 6. Keep trying. Just because they don’t love Saffy’s Angel right now, doesn’t mean they won’t love it later. (We handed the book to her at the end of third grade; she could have read it because she read well enough. But she didn’t actually read the book until a month ago, and started it only because she couldn’t find anything else to read. She did like it, in the end.) Time and patience, as with everything, is the key.

Because, in the end, you don’t want to raise a precocious reader. You want to raise a child who loves books. Right?

15 thoughts on “Kicking it Up a Notch: When Children are Stuck in a Reading Rut

  1. Laurence is a reluctant reader. He was our earliest reader, the one who said he wanted to read earliest. He started at 3.5 yrs old and by the time he started pre-k he was reading Magic Tree House alone. But he doesn't like longer books and he would rather do just about anything but read. It's not that he doesn't enjoy reading, it's just that he loves doing other things more. We don't really push him. Instead, there's required reading time in our house. The schools make all the kids sign a contract to read 20 mins each night but we extend that to half an hour at the same time every evening. Then, Jason gives the boys extra homework during the week, where they have a choice which assignments they do, and he always includes some extra reading on there. Often Laurence will pick the extra reading because it's easy for him.

    I like the Magic Tree House books, btw. My boys have pretty much all outgrown them, but those books are what really got Ambrose to enjoy reading. He is a very slow, methodical reader and we could never find books he liked until we came across MTH. Now he's branched off into MTH Research Guides and longer nonfiction. Turns out he just isn't very interested in fiction. He devours nonfiction, especially science books. We still have him mix it up with fiction, the same way we have Morrigan mix his fantasy books with non-fantasy, but it's funny to know he didn't really take off reading until he discovered nonfic.


  2. Thanks for your input, Amanda. I like the idea of having set reading times; reading isn't scheduled at our house, and perhaps that's some of C's problem? I don't mind the MTH books, either. They're actually really well researched, which I appreciate.


  3. Great post. I have three children who are reading; all of them very good at it but they each have varying interests in reading. My oldest reads a lot but I've had a hard time getting her to read more worthwhile books. She could read The Boxcar Children over and over but I would love to see her read something a little more difficult.

    My second daughter had a slower start but is doing really well now. She's in 3rd grade and has really gotten into Nancy Drew lately. It's surprised me because I thought my older daughter would like Nancy Drew before #2 but she doesn't like them. Now that she's found something she likes I'm not too worried about her future reading. We'll be able to find something.

    My son, however, is in the 1st grade and is one of the best readers in his class. He can read MTH by himself but it's like pulling teeth to get him to do it. My only hope is that #2 was a little like that too and now she's reading a lot. Hopefully we'll be able to find something for him soon.

    Thanks for all the great tips.


  4. Great post Melissa. My oldest was a bit like your second, although for different reasons. What worked for us was audiobooks. He'll listen to (and retain) almost any audiobook. I'm happy with a child who loves audiobooks.


  5. OMG, Melissa! This is exactly my situation with my two girls. First one didn't set the world on fire with early reading, but now can't stop. Second one did well for a while, but is completely stalled out. She's a slow, methodical reader so I see that she doesn't find hitting the longer books as appealing. Like, at all.

    I've done a lot of the same things that you suggest, but honestly, it's just helpful knowing that there's another family out there like us.


  6. You are so right – pushing doesn't help, I learned that the hard way. I love your ideas – graphic novels are a great suggestion.

    And, for mentioning my parent child book club post on Imagination Soup!



  7. These are great ideas, Melissa. We have both readers in one little person! She LOVES LOVES LOVES reading, when it's on her terms, but ask her about the 20 minutes she needs to do for her reading journal (don't bet me started) and you'd think the world was coming to an end.

    Thank you for the reassurance AND the ideas!


  8. This is great stuff, Melissa! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Clearly your words have resonated with a lot of other parents. And I LOVE your last paragraph. If that message could get out to all parents and teachers … we'd be in good shape. Thanks for participating in Share a Story!!


  9. Cami — that's interesting: I wonder many kids are out there like that.

    Jen — thanks for thinking of me. I don't assume to have lots of knowledge about literacy, but I had a good time thinking up this post!

    Pam — I know the feeling: just knowing you're not the only one is almost half the battle!

    Amira — audio books are a good idea; I don't often think of those as resources, but they are good ones.

    Kim and Terry — you're welcome!


  10. I'm sure many people have this same story. Just wanted you to know there's hope. I'm a librarian, and it killed me to see my son (2nd child) was such a reluctant reader. He is now 20 years old and in college — and he's reading more for entertainment than he ever has. Long, non-fiction books mostly about war. But he's also trying to finish the Harry Potters — he stopped after book 4 in middle school! There was no way, as you said, that I could have forced him to love reading, but now that he has time (not so busy with high school extra-curriculars) he has decided on his own to seek out books he's interested in and read them!


  11. These are some great ideas! I especially loved the idea of using graphic novels to bridge the gap! I don't think they get the attention they deserve and am discovering they have a lot to offer!! Love it!


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