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How to Encourage a Reluctant Reader

Private tutor Rebecca Stonehill,  author of The Poet’s Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird, and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, discusses how you can encourage a reluctant reader and discover a secret trail of books.


You’re really tired; you’ve had a long day at work and when you get home you have a multitude of tasks you need to be getting on with. One of your children has brought home a book from school that they’re meant to read out loud to you every day. This should be a lovely, calm time together for the two of you, but you approach the task with a sense of resigned dread. Why? Because your child hates reading.

If this sounds even vaguely familiar to you, rest assured that hundreds of thousands of parents the world over are faced with the exact same quandary. I know, because I’m one of those parents. I assumed that as I’m an author and a voracious reader, that all three of my children would also love reading. Turns out, I was wrong. While my elder two children are keen readers, my youngest (age 8) will go to great lengths to avoid having to get a book out. The greater reluctance of boys to read has already been well documented, but the question remains: how do we get these children, male or female to pick up a book and truly begin this incredible and gratifying literary adventure?

Let’s start with what we don’t do:

Tempting as it may be, if you are in a bookshop or library with your child, don’t pick out books for them. Let your child choose their own books, and yes, even if that means they take home Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People.

I don’t believe that forcing a child to read can ever be a good thing. Of course, you can take that path, but it will probably come back to haunt you and your child in later years. Take heart from the words of author Ben Okri, that ‘There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.’ If your child is refusing to read, it means that they haven’t yet found this secret trail, and this can never be enforced as the child needs to scent it out for themselves. As a parent, we cannot make our children love reading, but thankfully there are a number of things we can do to up the stakes for our kids to begin their own exciting reading journey.

Tips for encouraging the reluctant reader

1. Find a variety of reading material for your child

Jokes, riddles, magic trick books, child-friendly magazines, graphic novels, comic books, books of the films your child has enjoyed. Does your child love Minecraft? There are even fictional diaries now of Minecraft Zombies. If the very idea of this book makes you shudder, remember it’s not for you, it’s for them and it could just help get them into reading! Think hard about your child’s unique interests, whether it’s baking, football or computer games and locate reading material around those interests.

Find Minecraft Zombies Diaries

2. Play games!

There are so many games you could play with your child (and any siblings they may have) to help make reading fun and if you frame them in the right non-didactic kind of way, they will think of this as a game rather than a reading activity. The world is your oyster with this, but here are a few ideas:

3. The Magic Word Game

You’d be hard pressed to find a child who doesn’t love a treasure hunt. Leave a series of simple, hand-written clues around the house and tell your child that they all lead towards a ‘magic word’ at the end of the hunt and they need to bring you that magic word.

4. Pass the Envelope Game

Prepare multiple slips of paper with simple instructions on them for e.g. Stand up, turn around, hop three times and sit down again. Each round, place a different slip of paper into an envelope and with other siblings or friends, sit in a circle and play some music. Just like Pass the Parcel, when the music stops, the child opens the envelope, pulls out the slip, reads it and has to follow the instructions. For increased fun and enjoyment, make the instructions silly!

5. Word Passing Game

Again, sit in a circle with a few children, paper and a pencil. Start off by writing a single word in the top left corner then pass it on. The next child adds to the word and so on, along the circle so that a sentence is slowly built. When a sentence comes to an end, take it in turns to read it out and ask for suggestions how it could be improved. This game has the added bonus of practising both reading and writing at the same time.

6. Model Reading

In your spare time, are you picking up books, magazines or newspapers to read? Children naturally model our behaviours, so be aware of how much time you spend on your mobile phone or computer around them and make a point of letting them see you read for enjoyment and relaxation on a regular basis.

7. Keep reading to your child

This may sound counter-intuitive if you are trying to get your child to read for themselves; however, one of the key things we need to encourage as parents is a love of storytelling. I still read to all three of my children every evening (age 8,10 & 12. More about that in the link below) and not only is it a lovely, calming way to finish a busy day but it is also modelling positive reading habits and nurturing a love for books.

Read Why I Still Read Aloud to My Children 

8. Playing by the Book

This is a fantastic blog that includes book reviews for young people as well as a plethora of ideas for fun, book-related activities. For a taste, take a look at making ice cream books with your children. Don’t worry about this not being a direct activity to get your child reading; why not ask your child to collect a pile of books from their room and use those particular book titles to write on the wafers? You just never know where this could lead.

How to Make Ice Cream Books

9. Barrington Stoke Books

Sometimes it can be a simple matter of font or the look of a page that puts children off reading. Described by The Times as ‘outstanding’, Barrington Stoke books have been created with just this in mind. Whilst tailored for dyslexic readers, the books have also had fantastic results with reluctant readers for their ‘super-readable’ books.

Visit Barrington Stoke

On some days, when I am feeling particularly frustrated that my eight year old won’t pick up a book and professes to hate it, I wonder what on earth has gone wrong and if this will ever change. But during these times, I think it’s really important to keep everything in perspective. He is only eight. He has the rest of his life to read and we are not carbon copies of one another, so there is no ‘right’ time to start loving books. As long as we keep dropping those breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel did, they will eventually start to gleam in the moonlight. And once that ‘secret trail of books’ has been discovered, there will be no going back.