Strategies or resources for a reluctant reader?
January 12, 2018 2:22 PM   Subscribe

A dear friend is having some difficulty with her 6-year-old daughter, who is very reluctant to do anything that has to do with reading. She will be getting her daughter's eyes checked, and has inquired with her school about resources for possible dyslexia, but until that all plays out, we are wondering if anyone has any advice or recommendations.

This is a girl who loves stories, communicates excellently, loves art and does well with visual math and counting. She thinks very deeply, and is curious and wants to learn. She is high energy, but is fully able to focus on a worksheet of addition/subtraction problems or similar tasks. Until it's time to work on spelling words or reading. Then, she practically turns into Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. She bounces around in her seat, whining, flopping herself over like it's the end of the world to write the word "stood." She refuses to read aloud without a fight, because "what if it's too hard?" and she has minimal interest in even looking at books when her mother is not in the room. Word games on her tablet are quickly abandoned as not fun.

Her mother is at a point where she's at a loss: "I have been reading since I was 4, and loving it. I love writing. I just don't know how to encourage reading and help her improve without forcing it. Either I keep just reading *to* her, and hope she starts learning by osmosis but I risk letting her not learn/improve, or I force it and she ends up hating reading."

Any suggestions as to resources or strategies would be greatly appreciated. This in upstate NY, if that is relevant.
posted by sueinnyc to Education (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe introduce her to text adventure games?
posted by Sophont at 2:31 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

This doesn't really work for a kid in school expected to follow a specific timeline, but among homeschoolers late reading is a pretty well-known phenomenon. My own 16-year-old was almost 10 when he started reading, and he is one of many homeschoolers whose story is basically, "He went from not reading to reading Harry Potter in a month." My son can tell you what that felt like--he remembers it vividly. He is now a voracious reader who goes through 700-page novels in a couple of days.

Your friend's concerns sound really familiar to me. I fretted like crazy all that time, as I was also an early reader. I worried that I was doing something wrong if we did phonics or something, and that I was doing something wrong if I just let it go. But there are definitely a subset of kids for whom it's just normal to read later. The problem is, it can be hard to tell whether your kid is one of them until after the fact. The advice I tried to follow was from reassuring friends who said to keep reading with him, but I still worried.

Whenever we worry about the kids knowing certain things, or when one of the kids worries that they haven't learned something they "should" have, my partner likes to point out that except for language acquisition, there are no windows that close. They can always learn.
posted by Orlop at 2:33 PM on January 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

Is Reading Eggs available in the States? It's a kind of gamified online thing that kids seem to love.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:33 PM on January 12, 2018

Didn't answer your question. My kids all enjoyed The Bob Books, which are little minimally-illustrated books, each of which introduces a single phoneme. They're fun.
posted by Orlop at 2:41 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding that six is still very young, and this attitude can change very quickly. If she enjoys being read to, IMO (as an elementary school librarian), that's way more important at her age.

Will she read favorite books out loud with mom? If it's a book that she has pretty much memorized, have her read along at the same time. (Or have her read one character's dialogue, or just the repeating bits, etc.)

Will she read to a pet or stuffed animal? (I hear that dogs love listening to dog books.) Kids who are nervous about reading ("what if it's too hard") will sometimes do well when they have a totally nonjudgemental audience.

Is she interested in books about favorite characters from other kinds of media? I spend a lot of time reassuring parents that it is perfectly okay that their first-grader only reads Pokemon books. It really is! Books based on favorite TV shows, movies, fairy tale characters etc. are a great way to get kids to love reading. Ditto nonfiction on topics of interest. It is 100% okay for kids to strongly prefer nonfiction, and it is really common, especially among kids her age.

Since she enjoys art, wordless picture books or graphic novels might be good for her. She can tell the story using her own words, based on the pictures. This might also be a good "writing" activity -- she can draw the pictures for a story, then tell Mom what happens so that Mom can write down Kid's words.

Also: have books everywhere. Books in the bathroom. Books in the car. Books in Mom's purse for emergencies.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:53 PM on January 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

Has she always felt this way? A close friend of mine had a self-described 'reading block' well into adulthood; like your friend's daughter, he has always been a huge fan of math, science, visual arts, and all creative pursuits that are not specifically related to books or reading. In his case, a stressful classroom experience in very early elementary school convinced him that he 'wasn't good at reading' -- because other kids were reading faster, he felt self-conscious, and because he was great at everything else, he thought it meant he was a 'bad reader.' (He's still at least partly convinced of this, although it hasn't impeded him at all educationally or career-wise.) I had the same thing as a kid, but with math, and believed I just inherently 'sucked at math' for years. I didn't, but I was better at reading, so I stuck to reading. And also, I was scared to try. (It took me til college to really work up the nerve to try!)

Kids can really latch on to a small negative experience, even one that might seem insignificant to an older/more experienced person, and the fallout can influence them for years. Or it may not be something specific -- the 'what if it's too hard?' question suggests she might feel insecure, which is not an uncommon thing, especially for bright kids. Having her evaluated for learning or sight issues is a great step. Working to help make sure she feels secure in learning, and maybe exploring some tools for developing resilience, might help if those evaluations all come back clear.

Or she'll eventually fall in love with a book series on her own and become a devourer of books, as many kids do. Or she'll discover that she loves other forms of media more, which is also okay, as long as she's happy and learning!
posted by halation at 2:55 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd be remiss if I didn't also plug Owly, an utterly delightful graphic novel series that is a great entry point for young graphic novel enthusiasts or anyone who loves friendship and/or adorable woodland creatures. It relies on visual storytelling, so she doesn't have to 'read,' but it's in book-format. (Free PDFs available at that link to see if the series might appeal to her!)
posted by halation at 3:01 PM on January 12, 2018

I would focus on books and not reading. Owly is a sweet series that has ZERO words. I would fill the house with interesting fun picture books. I wouldn't push reading and keep books fun.
I would encourage loving books and not reading and think the reading will come very soon.
posted by beccaj at 3:38 PM on January 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

My daughter is 7 and until last summer, didn't like to read and didn't choose it as an activity. I was very concerned, like your friend, I love to read. My child didn't seem as reluctant to read as your friend's so I don't know if these things will work as well for this child. But what did it for her was a couple of things. We found a bunch of books about Star Wars and suddenly she couldn't get enough. Sometimes a kid just needs to find something that interests them especially in order to turn on the light. The other thing that worked was reading to dogs. Our county library system has frequent events where kids sit and read out loud to dogs and she loved that. After a bunch of visits, she suddenly loved to read and she still does. Your friend should pursue the eye tests and dyslexia check but if those don't turn out to be the problem, there are a lot of good suggestions in this thread.
posted by bijou243 at 3:40 PM on January 12, 2018

The age a child starts reading has nothing to do with later reading comprehension or enjoyment. If she's surrounded by people who read and like it, she'll absorb the idea that Reading Is Fun, even if that makes little sense to her right now.

Children who learn to read at their own pace usually show no problems later: Beatrice reports that the daughter who didn't read until age 8 is now 14 years old and "reads hundreds of books a year," "has written a novel," and "has won numerous poetry awards." Finland doesn't teach reading until school starts at age 7; before that is preschool, where books are available but reading isn't even particularly encouraged.

Your friend's child sounds like she's been pushed harder than she knows how to cope with: She refuses to read aloud without a fight, because "what if it's too hard?" says she knows this is something Very Important to grownups, and she knows she's not good at it, and it's less stressful to say "I can't" than to worry about getting it wrong.

Remove the pressure; let the child figure out on her own that reading is something she can find useful and fun, not just a nerve-wracking task that adults assign to her. Get her some picture-heavy books that are relevant to her interests: comic books, or Dr. Seuss (I loved McElligot's Pool because of the fish who liked flowers), or something related to a tv show she likes - and don't push her to read them. Let her enjoy just looking at the pictures, as long as she wants. Read them to her, if she wants; let her figure out that she likes the words on the page and come to her own realization that she can have those words any time she wants if she learns to read.

That awareness can't be forced; she has to make the connection between "text" and "stories I care about" on her own. After that, she'll be motivated to sort out the mechanics of reading.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:17 PM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Keep reading to her, go to the library with her and have her pick out books she wants to hear, and don’t push her. She’s clearly stressed about getting it wrong. Until your friend understands the source of that stress, adults can’t effectively help alleviate it except by backing off.
posted by epj at 4:54 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

My story and response aren't particularly different from the previous answers, but wow, I wish I had heard all of them when my daughter was six. I'm an English professor, my husband's a Communications professor and we had angst about her struggles with reading and her refusal to Just. Sit. Down. And. Do. It. Of course we tried to keep our anxiety to ourselves and swallow our pride, because we realized that the "problem" was us, not her. I was just so worried that she'd lag academically, never catch up and worst: she'd hate reading. Aaack! So we decided that maybe what we needed to do is continue to live as happy, curious readers. We continued to read all the time ourselves, trust that the books (of all kinds) that cover every surface of our house might eventually be of interest to her, and when we read with her, stopped immediately when she got frustrated. I believe that if a child doesn't come to reading as a pleasure, it will always feel like work. The exact last thing I want is for reading to be misery for her. And she just did it! It was sudden and I think it was linked to regular visits to her school's library and a wonderful librarian who showed her the enormous treasure trove she could dig into. The whole process has me thinking deeply about why I read, and how I could help my students discover pleasure in reading if they never had it. Yikes, raising a kid seems to be about 98% an examination of my own issues. TL;DR: she'll be okay. Demonstrate the pleasures of reading, explore the library.
posted by Poeia8Kate at 5:00 PM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Hi all, I'm the friend in question! (But I'm new to metafilter, so couldn't post)

Thank you all so much. I'll look into the wordless story books...that's an excellent idea. I've tried seeing if she wants to read to the cat, but she's not particularly interested in trying. I'll keep asking, though. And we'll increase our visits to the local used bookstore and library.

I definitely understand kids having different learning curves, I think most of my concern started with the fear (paranoia?) that she might have problems with dyslexia (in which case early intervention is a big deal). Once I emailed her teacher about that, I was just concerned that I wasn't doing enough. Isn't that how being a mom works? We always worry we aren't doing enough! Sueinnyc was kind enough to listen and suggest posting here :).

I generally don't push her too much, and we read for at least 15 minutes most nights. It's a balancing act, though, to try and get her more involved while I'm reading with/to her because she gets bored with books closer to her reading level (Dr Seuss, for example), and the book she currently is enjoying is definitely above her level (Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls). Sueinnyc did get her a new book that might bridge that gap, though, once we're done with the Rebel Girls book. I asked her tonight if she could look through it this weekend and use the pictures to tell me what she thought the story would be...*shrug* idk, she seemed to like that idea.

I recognize a lot of this is my problem, lol. Unfortunately, her father is not interested in reading at all, probably undiagnosed dyslexic, and lagged behind his peers in school...and after...*sigh* I am glad she seems to have gotten plenty of my genes in terms of desire to learn and explore. It's just hard for me to see her struggle, and I know she's sensitive and doesn't want to disappoint me, so I keep most of my paranoia to myself, lol.

It helps that the teacher isn't concerned either. *phew*

Eye exam tomorrow! Thank you all again! I'll keep checking here for more thoughts :D
posted by Musichick2004 at 5:53 PM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm a special education teacher. You need to drop this. You're saying you don't push her too much, but you're pushing her too much. She will read at her own pace when she's ready. If she's capable of focusing on a math worksheet, then her eyes are fine and she doesn't need glasses.

But I sort of get there's something going on between you and her dad. That appears to be the problem. You're glad she has your genes? Unfortunately her dad isn't interested in reading (and therefore must be dyslexic)? So what if her dad isn't a reader? And why assume that means he's dyslexic?

The way you're phrasing this--that you're not doing enough, that this is your problem, the stuff about her dad, this is making you paranoid which you're trying to hide from her---this seems a lot to do with something other than reading.

But hey, if I'm wrong, in any case--you need to stop pushing reading with your kid or you're going to have a really terrible struggle on your hands (and you may already have pushed her too much). You need to back way off on this, as in dropping it completely.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:23 PM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe she is more interested in being visual, or musical? Just as important, so it’s ok, of course, and that might be her avenue in.
posted by Vaike at 7:42 PM on January 12, 2018

My son had problems with convergence insufficiency that made it difficult for him to make the jump from large print picture books to more advanced books. He resisted reading at what I knew was his reading level. However, he had a lot of other concerning symptoms, including an utter lack of ball skills. So, ask if they are testing convergence as part of the eye exam. He did vision therapy and it was a huge success, but I got the sense in researching it that vision therapy is maybe recommended to more kids than really need it. In the event that the topic comes up and you have any questions, you are welcome to memail me.

Assuming that there aren’t any vision problems, I’d then have a chat with her: “It seems like reading practice has been stressful for you lately. So we’re going to take a break from that for a little bit. I love books more than anything and I hope you will too. You’ll learn to read one of these days, when your brain is ready, and for now let’s just enjoy books for a little while.” Then read her what she wants to hear! If she wants to hear hard books, read them to her! Make special trips to the library together; investigate some graphic novels. Would she like to look at Owly together and you take turns narrating the pages? Or would she prefer to read it on her own? After you’ve hit the reset button a little bit, you can try to reintroduce reading practice, and see if it goes a little better. You can also try asking her what age thinks makes reading hard - conversationally and sympathetically, not in a what is wrong with you sort of way.

If you’d like more scripts for working with an anxious kid, also feel free to memail me - I have lots!
posted by telepanda at 8:20 PM on January 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was around 6-7 when I first figured out how to read. I still remember it -- at the start of the school year I struggled at reading aloud and had to sound out words in my head and it was frustrating and hard and doubly so because I did enjoy stories and every night my mom would sit us on her lap and read to us, too -- and then all of a sudden it clicked and I could read, faster than everyone else in my class.

Years and years later my mom told me that, yeah, she'd been worried when I seemed to not be getting how to read, but my kindergarten teacher had told her not to worry -- that one day I would figure it out for myself, and when I did, I would fly. And she was right.
posted by Xany at 8:53 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

My son is a little younger and had pretty close to zero interest in letters and reading until I bought him a set of upper and lower case alphabet fridge magnets. Suddenly, he knew how to put them in alphabetical order, he was laughing about how Q was almost an O, he started trying to write words and even a few sentences.

Is your daughter also a kinetic learner who might need more physical manipulation? What does she find overwhelming/frustrating? For my son, he was finding it frustrating to have to write the letters and also wanted the freedom to be creative.

I feel I should also point out that my son is 5.5 and not reading books. Where I live, it's standard not to be reading until 7, so teachers aren't concerned.

Finally, I feel for you and have the same worries myself. It is really hard to find the right balance between helping and pushing!
posted by brambory at 10:43 PM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a very small chance here but I just wanted to encourage you to be sure to keep that eye appointment! My son hated books and...he had cataracts and both was vision impaired, and even after he couldn't coordinate his eyes together for depth perception or tracking words/letters. All is well now, but yay getting the physical checked out too.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:40 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Either I keep just reading *to* her, and hope she starts learning by osmosis but I risk letting her not learn/improve, or I force it and she ends up hating reading.

Primary school teacher here. I just wanted to suggest you reconsider the first horn of your dilemma which I'll reconstrue as:

If I read to my child exclusively, then she will not learn/improve.

You have already made a substantial, potentially long-term, impact by reading to your child in her early years.

Reading to/with your child, particularly when you talk about what you read, does make a difference to your child's literacy levels. It can make a big difference. So you haven't risked letting your daughter not learn/improve; quite the opposite.

Now to the second horn of your dilemma:

If I force my daughter to read, then she will end up hating reading.

That's a strong statement, but you're not there yet because you have a strategy that does work: reading to your child and discussing/talking about what you read together. This is known to have a positive impact so you don't have to make your daughter read just yet. I can't speak to your specific circumstances, but it does seem that trying to push your daughter to read at the moment is going to end up with unhappiness for the both of you. She is communicating that this isn't something she wants to do. It might be dyslexia, it might be something else or simply that she's not ready. So consider focusing on positive, high-quality interactions centered on talking about books you read to her.
posted by mkdirusername at 7:15 AM on January 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I also like the idea of having your daughter help make a book of her stories (if she's interested in storytelling at all). She dictates a story to you or a microphone. You later type them up. She gets the opportunity to illustrate… Drawing a picture, finding images from magazines or clip art, etc. you assemble the story and picture into a notebook or journal, and end up with a book that she wrote herself.

Then leave the book around where it's easy for her to find and look through again.

This is a fun activity for both of you. Gives her something she'll be subtly self-motivated to try to read, AND gives her a positive jump start into reading's related (and also sometimes problematic) activity, composition.

My main concern at this age would be to keep books a positive experience. My son entered kindergarten reading at second or third grade level, , but had such a miserable boring experience with their reading activities that he stopped reading. He went from chapter books back to picture books for two years. I started educating him at home, and let him read what he wanted. STACKS of picture books. But I kept big stacks of library books of all sorts around. He finally got curious about a lightly illustrated book about toilets through the ages, and jumped himself back in. So nthing what's been stated above: check the physical, set a good example, keep it fun, and relax.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 7:34 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

My daughter (now 7) is in the same boat; and I've had some success with an app called "Teach your monster to read". Thanks for this thread, it's gone along way in alleviating my concerns as well.
posted by dhruva at 7:53 AM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi there.

I’m a high school teacher who specialises in reading challenges in adolescents. I’m also dyslexic and spend a lot of time with kids who have undiagnosed issues that have impacted their reading for their entire school career.

So I applaud you for testing for dyslexia and vision problems because that’s a good first step. But the majority of the kids in my reading class don’t have those issues. They just hated reading. Some of them had been pressured into reading books they hated, some couldn’t hit AR targets and gave up, and some just struggled with the mechanics of reading to the point they felt stupid and gave up. That was the feeling almost all of them shared: giving up because of feeling stupid.

It sounds like that’s the path you’re on if you keep doing what you’re doing. Kids learn to read at different paces and in different ways. Hell, we don’t even really know HOW learning to read happens in the brain. But what doesn’t work is pressuring a kid to read who is communicating her discomfort.

I’m a huge fan of Ross Greene and his work on Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. What he would say is that we really don’t have enough information from your child to figure out what’s getting in her way. You have some but you’re also taking lots of shots in the dark and making assumptions. Adult assumptions are almost always wrong when it comes to difficulty kids are showing through maladaptive behaviours. So I’d sit down with your kid when you’re both calm and it is nowhere near reading time and say, “I’ve noticed that you are having all of difficulty reading books out loud to me. What’s up?”

Then listen. If she says “I don’t know” and it seems like she genuinely doesn’t, then introduce the five finger method. Tell her you have some guesses and you wondered if you could tell her a few of them and she could tell you from one to five how true it is. Then follow up with questions about her ratings.

They key here is to listen well and be empathetic. I say “Oh, I see” a lot. Or “So you feel frustrated because the letters going in to your head don’t sound the same as when they come out of your mouth. That must be so frustrating to you!” etc.

Dr. Greene has tons of tips for having these conversations on his website:

Reading is a skill so tough we forget how challenging it can be to learn. I’d recommend spending a few minutes trying to learn the characters in a language like Hebrew or Japanese and remembering how overwhelming it can be to learn something that new and different.

TL;DR - let it go for now other than trying to get information from her and ruling out dyslexia and vision issues. Pressure early on does not end well. Ask me how I know.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:03 AM on January 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

I appreciate all the responses! (Though being told I've already damaged and pushed my kid too much by being concerned that she's not keeping up in school, and asking her to do her homework wasn't particularly helpful, especially from a teacher...but I digress).

I've added some books to my Amazon wishlist, and I like the idea of making her own story, and so many other things from here, lol...I'll definitely read through the bulk of these again when I can print them out! Thank you!!
posted by Musichick2004 at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

My six-year-old didn't read until she was almost seven, and developmentally reading is all over the map. We often try to teach it too early, though I myself was reading by 5.

Now she has a PhD in English, poor child, at 35 (and had perfect verbal SATs), so I think that the model of her parents' voracious reading habits, her and my mutual enjoyment of reading time, and my own patience due to my knowledge of normal literacy development* overwhelmed any so-called "lateness" in reading. By all means do diagnostic work but also remember that literacy is complex and doesn't happen on a timetable.

*career elementary/middle school teacher
posted by Peach at 3:39 PM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here. Just wanted to jump in and say that the question of how to help your daughter learn to read and the question of how to get her through her homework are distinct. You may end up thinking of different solutions if you frame the question to yourself as “ok, I want to back off as far as I can right now with the reading. How do we therefore do what it takes to get over the homework threshold?” That might involve talking with the teacher about having her do -less-, not more, or about doing alternate activities, or whatever. I’m sure the teacher will have ideas.

(I’m the mom to a 6-year-old who isn’t reading much, and also with some dyslexia in the family. I feel fortunate that my son’s school is really low-key about reading at this age and doesn’t do homework, so we don’t have this additional pressure you are dealing with. Even so, I’m heartened by all the advice here to not be too worried, as I’m sure you are!)
posted by wyzewoman at 6:17 PM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also: welcome to metafilter! :-)

You will generally find people friendly here, although they can sometimes get a bit forceful if they think a poster isn’t getting what they are trying to say. In your case, it seems like the homework is making it so you -can’t- simply back off like people are suggesting (hence my post above.)
posted by wyzewoman at 6:24 PM on January 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

My older kid spent a couple of years doing this from ages 5-6 and I agree that there's just a big leap to be made between "I know my letters and can piece phonemes together" and "I am capable of reading this story to myself with a fluency and understanding that makes it enjoyable." I think in some cases it's harder for kids whose oral vocabulary and enjoyment of complex stories means that books that are written at their reading level are kind of dull.

For my kiddo the thing that spurred the transition was finding something he wanted to pore over long enough to really get it. In his case it was Star Wars readers and a kids' graphic novel version of the original movie trilogy. He's finally made the leap into "avid reader" at age 7. I had to let go of all of my preconceptions about what he "should" be reading or what "good" books for that age group were and just follow his lead, which meant that for about six months we were coming home from the library with nothing but kids' Batman comics. I would read them to him first and then he would read them over and over to himself.

I don't have a lot of advice for getting her to do her homework but I do think it's likely that a bright young kid who likes stories will make the connection pretty soon.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:39 PM on January 13, 2018

Thank you all so much for the answers. I'm hesitant to mark any as "best answer", since so many of the comments are so helpful in different ways. There are some wonderful suggestions, though, and it is also really helpful to hear about other children who have become enthusiastic readers later on, at their own pace.
posted by sueinnyc at 1:06 PM on January 14, 2018

An update in case anyone is following this:

Her school said she has a harder time visually following the reading pattern, but not in a way which would cause concern in terms of learning delays or things like dyslexia. A few days later, the eye doctor confirmed she is farsighted. The prescription isn't bad, but it takes much more effort for her to focus on things close to her (like reading), so she avoids it altogether. Glasses purchased (in the awesomest hot pink she could find), and we're working on remembering them day-to-day, lol. Her eye doctor said this commonly causes reluctance to read, and headaches with prolonged eye strain, so hopefully, as she feels more comfortable, she'll be a bit more interested. She's already said writing and art and worksheets are easier (when she remembers the glasses), so yay!

Thanks again :)
posted by Musichick2004 at 5:23 PM on January 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

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