From ‘thinking outside the bookbag’ to reading for a purpose, children’s author and mum of three, Isabel Thomas shares some great advice on helping reluctant readers get excited about books.
You can spot a reluctant reader by putting a book in their hands. Five minutes later they’ll be gazing out of the window, wriggling on the floor, or building an intricate paperback tower – anything but read the words on the page.
It’s not that they struggle to read (for information and advice about how to help struggling readers, visit Oxford Owl). And it’s not that they can’t sit still – give my sons a screen, and they’ll demonstrate Olympian levels of concentration and stamina. Reluctant readers have the skills needed to devour books, but don’t – or won’t – use them.
Does it matter? There’s more to life than books, and children can also learn by climbing trees, making junk models or playing sports. But research consistently shows that children who read for pleasure do better at school, and we all want to give our children the best chance of unlocking adventures and opportunities in the future.
Here are some ways I encourage my sons to feel excited about books, which also come in handy when I’m writing for reluctant readers.
1. Reading for pleasure
Levels and book bands are useful tools, but it’s most important to focus on making reading fun and exciting. To avoid making reading feel like a chore or a race, I learned to be interested and impressed by whatever my sons are reading.
For most children, reading for pleasure starts with snuggly bedtime stories. There’s no need to stop this daily ritual once children can read the words themselves. Listening to stories is a great way to nurture a love of books. It also helps a child to access interesting content above their reading level. As they get older, take it in turns to read a sentence, page or chapter each.
Brilliant book suggestions from Oxford Owl
2. “Make it funny”
My sons love it when we subvert a traditional story – adding jokes and misinterpreting the pictures for comic effect. Hearing The Hungry Caterpillar be rude about his meals, or Cinderella joke about the prince’s fashion sense, helps them associate books with laughing as well as learning.
Luckily you don’t have to improvise – there are LOADS of funny children’s books out there. Some children will enjoy snot jokes and slapstick; others will like tales of naughtiness that turn familiar rules upside down. Experiment, and see what sticks.
Football School by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton
The World of Norm by Jonathan Meres
Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
Badly Drawn Beth by Jem Packer and Duncan McCoshan
The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff by Andy Seed
Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face by John Dougherty
Visit: Laugh Out Loud Book Awards, Oxford Owl’s list of funny stories
3. Think outside the bookbag
My middle son used to run in the opposite direction if he saw me brandishing his school reading book. He hated the pressure of reading aloud. At the time I was working on eBooks for Oxford’s Project X series, and showed him how to access books on screen. Suddenly he was gobbling up two or three books in one sitting.
I wasn’t surprised when National Literacy Trust research found that eBooks make children keener, more confident readers, with the most potential to engage boys who don’t enjoy reading. Look through the library of 250 free eBooks on Oxford Owl.
If you are reluctant to add more screen time to the day, try graphic novels, poems, joke books or magazines and comics – bite-sized texts can be more appealing than a traditional book. My four-year-old even enjoys reading letters and words chalked on trees during walks!
Project X Origins Graphic Texts
What Do You Call a One-eyed Dinosaur? by John Foster
Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots by Michael Rosen
Magazines such as Whizz Pop Bang!
Comics such as The Phoenix
Visit: Oxford Owl free eBooks
4. Read for a purpose
My eldest son is always reluctant to start reading a new story, but happily dips into books that mix reading with hands-on activities. From coding to origami, non-fiction books that give him a clear sense of purpose are always a big hit, and can be enjoyed without the pressure to read them from cover to cover.
Attention-grabbing content is vital – reluctant readers will abandon a book in seconds if they aren’t hooked. Seek out non-fiction books that link to your child’s existing passions, from fossils and football to snakes and space!
Don’t Eat This Book! by David Sinden and Nikalas Catlow
Create Your Own Alien Adventure by Chris Judge and Andrew Judge
My Book of Bike Activities by Catherine Bruzzone
Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes
Self-Destructing Science by Isabel Thomas
World Book Day’s list of 100 Brilliant Non-Fiction Books
Gary Wilson’s tips on encouraging boys to read
5. Copy and collect
If your child loves collecting things, they might get a buzz from working their way through a series. The best recommendations come from other children – ask around on the playground, or find out which books have a waiting list in your local library. Books linked to films or TV shows can be a good starting point. My son had chosen his Hogwarts house long before he picked up a Harry Potter book. It’s taking him months to work his way through the story, but it’s the joy of sharing details with friends that keeps him coming back to the book.
Beast Quest by Adam Blade
Dinosaur Cove by Rex Stone
Football Academy by Tom Palmer
How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
Tom Gates by Liz Pichon
Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 by Steve Backshall
Federation of Children’s Book Groups
Booktrust Book Finder
About Isabel Thomas
Isabel Thomas is a science writer and children’s author. She has written more than 120 books for children, including Self-Destructing Science: Space (Bloomsbury, 2016), shortlisted for the ASE Book of the Year, and How To Change the World (Oxford, 2015) shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. She also writes for children’s science magazine Whizz Pop Bang and is a primary school governor and zookeeper for three sons. www.isabelthomas.co.uk