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Getting a Child to Read

A while ago, I was a little concerned about my five-year-old daughter’s attitude to reading.

She came home from school each day protesting the very idea of having to read, and when invited to read at home, she would groan and moan and find any number of other activities to pursue which were immediately more interesting to her. When cajoled into finally sitting down with a book, all kinds of things would arise to prevent anything from happening, from questions about unrelated things, to complaints of hunger or thirst, or needs to go to the toilet (several times) or desires to play with certain toys, on and on. The process of getting her to read was laborious in the extreme: sounding out one letter at a time, she would eventually get through a word, then another, then at last a whole page - after stopping numerous times to see how many pages were left, and to indulge in a recurrence of all of the above. What was perhaps even more disheartening to a former English Literature teacher and writer like myself was that, on struggling through to the end of a story, she possessed no comprehension of it as a story at all and no interest in gaining such comprehension.

Clearly, this was a non-optimum situation and as parents we didn’t allow it to go on for long. The first thing I examined was the reading material from school: I found it to be dull, flat, uninviting and occasionally containing errors. But majorly I found it to be too difficult, meaning that it contained words and sentence structures slightly above the level that my daughter was able to grasp.

So we did three things (four, if you count speaking to the school about all this): we found reading material at a simpler level; we found reading material that was fun, engaging and attractive, with a good balance of words and pictures; and we put in place a reward system, a game in which my daughter could earn small prizes for every book she managed to successfully complete.

Within two weeks, her attitude had completely changed: she began to reach for the books at almost every opportunity, to try to read them on her own, to begin to read other things around her - street signs, labels, things on the TV screen, anything which had words on it - and we noted something remarkable: her actual ability to read, well and with full understanding, shot off the scale. She began to ask questions about what she was reading, as opposed to questions about anything but; she began to laugh at the jokes, to piece together plots and characters, and even to question what the author was doing within the story. Her collection of small toys grew rapidly - but the fact was that, though the reward of the toys played a part, her attention was not solely engaged because of the reward. Reading had become a reward in itself.

In the book How To Get Children To Read More, I describe a programme which can be used in almost any context to similarly excite and engage children with stories and words. It is based on the same principles as above: finding the right level of materials, rewarding progress heavily and removing obstacles.

Almost any child can be introduced to the wonders of fiction (and non-fiction) using these tools.


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