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“Reading is boring! I’d rather do something else,” laments a preteen who used to read for pleasure.
“I don’t want to read this, it has no pictures,” complains a 9-year-old, shying away from longer chapter books.
These are the groans of a growing generation of reluctant readers, kids for whom reading has become a chore instead of a pleasure. As parents, how can we pave the way and help kids discover the joys of reading?
Memphis Parent turned to reading expert Rene Friemoth Lee and best-selling author/illustrator Jeff Kinney to learn how to hook kids.
Understanding your reader
Rene Friemoth Lee, an educational consultant and adjunct professor at Christian Brothers University, has long focused on ways to help young children read. During our interview she talked elaborately on the subject, drawing from her professional experience serving as executive director at the Bodine School for children with dyslexia.
Memphis Parent: As we see more children diagnosed with learning disabilities, we know not all children are gifted readers. How can we show them that readers are made, not born?
Rene Friemoth Lee: When we talk about reluctant readers, we have to try to figure out if there is an underlying reason why they are reluctant. It could be because they come from an environment where reading is not emphasized, their self-perception of reading skills is very poor, or they have some issues that could impact their ability to read fluently and effectively.
We know 95 percent of the population can learn to read. There are children who are neurologically reading impaired and there are ones who are functionally reading impaired. We need to treat them all the same. If we can get on-board on how to teach all the skills required for reading, we would lessen the diagnosis of reading disability.
MP: National studies indicate boys read an average of 1.5 grades behind girls. Why? How can we help boys become better readers?Lee: The topics boys like to read are much narrower than girls. Boys tend to be more activity oriented, reading is passive.
The important thing, particularly with boys, is to recognize that reading is a sales job and you’ve got to sell it. You have to get them excited about a particular topic or theme. Reading aloud to reluctant readers is one of the best tools you can use to try to hook them.
MP: Stories Connect Us. This is the main platform of author Kate DiCamillo, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Reading together deepens our relationships. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook also insists on reading aloud even after the children can read independently. What benefits are reaped from continuing this tradition?
Lee: I totally believe in Trelease’s philosophy. When kids start to read, we tend to pull back and just let them read on their own. There are so many reasons why literature should be shared. That’s why many adults belong to book clubs. They are totally capable of reading alone but they also like discussions. Reading can be such a powerful, shared activity — especially among students, between teachers and students, and particularly between parents and children.
All my children in middle school read To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a family tradition and it became our dinner conversation. Think about all you get from sharing a book like that – you get this incredible amount of historical information, empathy, and an idea of what justice is. When we talk about shared reading, we should be talking about it at an early grade from the perspective of an adult reading to the kids, to excite them about the background information, to get them the vocabulary, and then let them deal with informational text on their own. That’s crucial. Adults should model how to handle informational text in particular before we turn it over to children to handle on their own.
MP: It is easy to blame technology for the failure to stimulate a literate life. How should kids be reading, from a physical book or e-book? What are the benefits of deep/slow reading versus online reading?
Lee: Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, says people do so much skimming and scanning on the Internet that it impacts all of our ability to read in-depth. I think in most schools, the book in the hand is very much a part of traditional education. I think children are having both experiences. Again, it is the teachers’ and parents’ responsibility to put value on that book in the hand and give high priority to the passive activity of reading.
Deep/slow reading gives you time to really process information, connect it to those themes you have in head, and relate it to those topics that call for more reflection. We all do online reading, though it tends to be very fleeting. We don’t necessarily read it with the idea of whether it’s truthful. It’s just there. So I think we all need to do deep reading to keep alive that skepticism of online reading.
MP: Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series is huge among reluctant readers because of its layout, style, and content. What motivates readers to pick up these kinds of books?
Lee: Boys, in particular, connect with series such as the Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants. Some kids have a hard time transitioning from picture books to chapter books. It can be a tough sell. All they see on a page is text and that can be overwhelming. It is like eating an elephant. The great thing about pictures is that they give you some reinforcement and relief. So having something in between picture books and chapter books can be really very helpful.
Ways to Hook Them
- Find out what interests your child
- Make reading fun
- Share the task of reading and take your turn with enthusiasm
- Promote reading by sharing books — remember: sell, sell, sell!
- Explore different genre (graphic novels, comic books)
A conversation with Author/Illustrator Jeff Kinney
Jeff Kinney, author/illustrator of the best-selling Wimpy Kid series, has been successful in turning kids on to reading using humor. In a recent email interview, Kinney elaborated on his work.
Memphis Parent: What makes your books so irresistible to readers?Jeff Kinney: I think the reason kids connect with the Wimpy Kid books is the relatable humor. When I was a kid, my favorite stories were realistic fiction like Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, because I could see myself in the characters.
MP: How do you use humor as a tool to hook readers?Kinney: I think kids read on their own for the same reason adults do: for pleasure. It’s important to remember to give kids books they’ll actually enjoy reading. Humor is something that defies genre, and I think just about everyone who has a family can relate to my stories.
MP: Walter Dean Myers said: “I am what I read.” What books helped shape you as a kid?Kinney: I read lots of Judy Blume books, but I read even more Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. Those taught me that comics could be great literature.
MP: You pioneered the comic-book format concept. What was your inspiration?Kinney: I set out to become a newspaper cartoonist but couldn’t make the grade. So I snuck my comics into books. I think that to reach kids, you can’t write down to them.
MP: You are planning to open a bookstore in your hometown in Massachusetts. Why do you want to venture into this territory? Kinney: I wanted to create something real out of the success of the Wimpy Kid series. I wanted to invest in my community. I feel ambivalent about reading on screens. I think you need to put a real book into the hands of a child. That’s the way a kid can connect in a tangible way to the words and ideas on the page.