Dear Mr. Dad: My 10-year-old son is quite smart and perfectly capable of reading, but it’s always been a challenge for him. And unfortunately, his teachers aren’t doing very much to help the situation other than send home notes and report cards saying that he’s reading below his grade level. My wife and I both read a lot and we’ve tried encouraging him in all sorts of ways, but nothing seems to work. How can we help our son become a better—and more frequent—reader?
A: It’s sometimes hard for those of us who love books to understand that reading doesn’t come naturally or easily to everyone. But the fact is that a lot of children—even smart ones who have plenty of good role models around—struggle with reading. However, because so many factors (including learning disabilities, not being ready, or a simple lack of interest) can cause reading problems, overcoming them can sometimes be a frustrating process for everyone. That said, here are a few things you can do to help.
• Read to him—and have him read to you. Reading to a ten-year old might sounds odd to some people, in part because we have a tendency to associate bedtime stories with little kids. But novels, movies, and plays are stories too. And humans have been telling stories around campfires for thousands of years. So I suggest that you grab one of the books you loved when you were your son’s age and read it to him or take turns reading it to each other. If he stumbles, be patient and don’t judge. Make reading a regular part of the night-time routine, even if you need to extend his bed time by 20 minutes or so. Just make sure you pick something that will hold your son’s (and your) attention.
• Don’t be pushy. It’s natural to want to share the books we love with others. But just because you’re a mystery fan, a steam punk aficionado, or read only history and other non-fiction doesn’t mean your son will be remotely interested in any of those things. In fact, if you’ve been pushing your tastes on your son, you may have inadvertently contributed to his reading problems rather than helping resolve them.
• Don’t be a snob. Most kids love movies. Did your son like the “The Fault in Our Stars” of “The Maze Runner”? How ‘bout “Hugo,” “Ready Player One,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” or “Ender’s Game”? And let’s not forget about series such as “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” and ”Percy Jackson.” All are based on books. Starting with something your son is already interested in could help draw him into reading. And don’t rule out graphic novels. If your goal is to get your son interested in reading and improve his skills, what he’s reading is less important than how much time he spends doing it.
• Get his vision checked. A lot of kids have trouble reading because they can’t make out what’s on the page. Vision problems can make reading not only a chore, but also a physically painful experience. The answer could be as simple as getting glasses or, if he already wears them, getting a new prescription.
• Celebrate small steps. Kids who have trouble reading often feel that there’s something wrong with them. Getting made fun of and being called names by their peers only makes things worse. The natural reaction is to avoid reading. So work with your son to come up with manageable goals (finish a 200-page book in a month, etc.) and make a big deal every time he accomplishes one. With time, gradually make the goals more challenging.
Previously published on Mr. Dad