Monday, May 30, 2016

Can You Help Me With My Struggling Reader?

This is the kind of question that apparently wakes mothers early in the morning, or keeps them up nights, since the following was sent to me at 5:50 a.m., the day my “Summer Reading” query was posted. I had asked, what questions do you have about keeping your kids reading through the summer:

“I'm glad you asked about reading dilemmas-- I've been brooding over one this weekend. My almost 7 year old is a struggling, reluctant reader (despite having parents who read, being read to every day, and living in a house stuffed with books). He has responded well to the Dan Frontier and Jim Forest books, but I'm not sure where to go with him after that. There don't seem to be a lot of outdoorsy/action boy easy readers. Everyone always suggests Magic Tree House, but surely there must be something better than that. If you have any suggestions or a nice book list handy, I'd be overjoyed! Thank you!”

First, I commend you for doing everything right to ensure your son loves to read: reading yourself, reading to him, and having a houseful of books. The atmosphere is there and the reading culture has begun.

Next, let me also assure you that just because children begin learning to read at six, and some of them can read well by seven, most of them are barely toddling in the book world at six, and most of those are boys. At nearly seven, there is no reason to panic because a son is not reading well, or reading independently, let alone for pleasure. His lack of prowess does not indicate struggle or reluctance on his part. He is still learning, that’s all.

My mother said I was walking at eight months old and she was concerned because my children didn’t go solo till they were around a year old. I don’t know if it’s the American way particularly, but we do seem to measure our children by those who are first or best in any accomplishment. I had a daughter who wrote her name in cursive at age three, but I would have been remiss if I had consequently insisted she write notes, or book reports or essays in cursive by age four. Children show sparks of precocity and display intermittent bursts of progress all through growing up, but those advancements are not necessarily indicators of future success in a skill; some are tortoises, some are hares. Development is individual, not uniform. Your desire for your child to acquire the habit of reading is admirable, but don’t let it become an anxiety in your life. That anxiety can subtly communicate itself to the child as pressure to perform and create feelings of failure and discouragement in him. Walking, talking, reading, and managing math are enormous skills and require time and patience on our part. It is possible that our children’s “struggling” or “reluctance” result from fear we have inadvertently conveyed to them.

Because enjoyment of independent reading takes time, we not only need to curb our impatience, but also keep some other things in mind while aiming at that eventual goal. Reading frequently and widely from living books is the foundation on which to build. Living means narrative, story books written in vivid, mind picture-making words and ideas. This takes good books and lots of time and consistent devotion. The rewards for this investment are incalculable and should begin to create the appetite in our children for books and a desire to feed themselves by reading for themselves.

After a child has mastered reading—and there is no “right” way that happens whether by phonics, sight reading, or simple osmosis—all of which are possible—most children still need years to climb the literacy mountain and reach the summit alone. True, some children read without prompting almost instantly. Others take years. But, once reading, whether fluently or haltingly, children still need a progression of steps to make it up that mountain. Never stop reading aloud to them, even after they are consuming books alone. I also believe it is a mistake to turn a child loose overnight to read all their schoolbooks independently just because they can. Most elementary school children need to read something aloud to you every day. First, the auditory input benefits comprehension; second, they learn better oral skills; third, they still need correction of mispronounced and misunderstood words; fourth, this prevents a common habit of skipping unknown, unfamiliar, or uninteresting words. Basically, don’t make abrupt changes in the reading process, but gradually build up their stamina and confidence with a slow transition from dependence to independence. Remember, just because they know how to start the car, or understand traffic rules, does not mean they are yet ready to drive.

One way to make the transition is to share the reading. In the beginning, while you are reading aloud, point to words he knows and have your son supply them. Have him watch your finger tracking the words line by line as you read aloud. Then have him try a sentence, while you finish the page. Move to having him read a paragraph, then you finish the page. Eventually, alternate him reading a page and you reading a page. Once you know your child can figure out words, don’t make him stop to figure each word that blocks his way, but have him read and point to any word that he comes across that he can’t say immediately, and just tell him what it is. Usually it is not too long before he will remember that word when it crops up again and he will not be asking so often.

Remember, always read aloud from books above his own independent ability, have him read a little to you at his current reading level, and give him many books below his reading level for pleasure reading to build his competence and confidence.

I cannot more emphatically agree with you about the lack of great boys books. The proliferation of boys reader series’ in the 1950’s and 1960’s indicates that this is not a new challenge. The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre (2009) is a terrific report on this increasing problem and some possible solutions. Still, there are good books for boys if we are willing to look for some books not on the public library shelves, but in some more out-of- the-way places.

Perhaps your son is ready to move past these series, like Dan Frontier, and out into a wider world of real books. Boys don’t like being coddled, so maybe the key may be in finding simply written, but engaging books for him on appealing subjects, as well as “outdoorsy and adventure” stories. Robert McClung has great nature books about animals. Look for the World of Adventure, Three Boys, or Danny Dunn books.

My all-time favorite recommendation, however, for boys who do not like to read are those by Clyde Robert Bulla. Try Pirate’s Promise, The Sword in the Tree, or A Lion to Guard Us. Bulla used the easiest words in the most exciting ways and you can read more about his contribution to male literacy here.

This was such a great question and I hope I haven’t tried your reading patience by getting carried away with the answer. Please continue to check back weekly as we recommend summer reading for further ideas that keep even the youngest readers reading.

For the joy of reading,

Liz

8 comments:

  1. Hi Liz, thanks so much for answering my question! I really appreciate the philosophical points and the practical advice. I just want to make sure I do everything I can to avoid him labeling himself as somebody who hates reading (something I hear him say sometimes). Hopefully time, maturity, practice, and the right books will work their magic! I'll be re-reading this post and sharing it with my husband.

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    1. Ivy Mae,

      You are welcome, and remember, boys also often say what they do not mean just to get a rise out of us--he knows it's what you want and he's asserting his right to think otherwise. Try to be lighthearted about the whole thing and that attitude will lose its ability to rattle you for him.

      Liz

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  2. Liz, Thanks so much for this common-sense approach to reading. As always, I am so grateful for your words. I have two boys who will be six this summer, so the learning-to-read excitement is before me yet again. With my older kids, it felt like watching a flower unfurl its petals as they learned to read. So amazing, our ability to turn little marks on a page into words into stories.

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    1. Kimberlee,

      It is exciting, and sometimes challenging, but the rewards are worth it all. Have fun doing it again. I always joke that I've taught six children to read and cannot even read myself.

      Liz

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  3. I understand your problem and when I need a help with my proof reading I ask http://college-writers.com/ and they do it well! You can try it too and I'm sure that you'll be glad! :)

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  4. Oooo...thank you! I recently found The Pirates Promise had a book sale! :)

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  5. Oooo...thank you! I recently found The Pirates Promise had a book sale! :)

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