By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
The following advice is based on my Montessori and teaching experience, psychotherapy experience, and my experience educating my own four boys. As I became fluent in three foreign languages as an adult, I am familiar with the challenges of tackling new language material. It was through enjoyment of the beauty of those languages that I saw that enjoyment was the surest path to appreciation of language and reading.
So when asked, “How to get my child to read?” I answer, through teaching him to enjoy it!
Making It Pleasant
Some children seem to dislike reading. They never want to read books, preferring video games, TV and other activities. Their parents are very frustrated and worried and despite all their efforts to have their children read, they are usually met with stiff resistance.
Yet, some children seem, from a young age, to love reading. They devour books on their own all day. They read and read and never need to be asked to pick up a book. How do we turn our child into this kind of reader? The answer is by starting at a very young age to teach and demonstrate the joy of reading. We should be exceedingly careful to always make reading a pleasant, enjoyable experience, without pressure or criticism of any kind. Then the child begins to think “reading is fun and pleasant” and will be encouraged to seek more on his own. We might do this by reading ourselves in our children’s presence, and by reading story books to him or her from a very young age, never forcing or pressuring him to read on his own. He will be looking over your shoulder and gradually learn to associate the word you say with the word on the page. We should never say that a particular book is too ‘babyish’ for a child. Reading the simplest children's book is just as great an accomplishment and joy as reading a more advanced book, because accomplishment in reading is measured according to how much the reader enjoys the experience. If he enjoys simple picture books, comic books or magazines, then that is fantastic. His enthusiasm for reading those things will gradually move into other materials.
What If He Or She Is Late To Read?
If a particular child is late to read, we need to avoid getting frantic and pressuring him. (One must, of course, always rule out a medical, physical, or other developmental problem. Discuss the matter with teachers, and consult a health care professional in the appropriate case.) Normally, however, pressure will just create a negative association between the unpleasantness of the pressure and the reading itself, and he will get ‘turned off’ to reading and will thus read even less. Reading ability is like a small fragile plant that needs to be carefully nurtured. We need to have patience for this child to find his bliss in reading in his own time. It is much better if he starts to read a little later but learns to enjoy it, than if he is forced to read as early as possible. If a child does not enjoy reading and needs to be forced to do his reading work, it might be wise to give him a reading holiday. We might need to lose the battle in order to win the war. By not forcing him to read now, you're making it much more likely that he will read of his own volition in the future. For a certain period you might avoid pressuring him to read completely. This will allow his resentment to dissipate and will end the negative association between experiencing pressure on the one hand, and reading on the other.
In addition, forcing a child to read takes away his sense of self determination, which he tries to restore by resisting and by not reading. Therefore a reading holiday will give him a chance to choose to read on his own and he will be then making his own choice. He will be much more motivated through self determination. After some time has passed, gradually reintroduce reading to him by presenting to him very attractive, pleasant picture books, magazines and comic books. Don’t pressure him, wait patiently for him to develop his own self motivated interest.
How To Get My Child To Read:
Never denigrate comic books, as they are a fantastic and proven way of teaching enjoyment in reading. Never criticize any material whatsoever as being beneath his level, or not “real” reading. The point is to get him into the habit of enjoying reading. If he only enjoys magazines about video games and comic books, so be it. Let him read that and enjoy it and gradually his interest in reading will include other topics.
Another important rule is to set an example. In order to encourage our children to read we must, as much as possible, become readers ourselves. We can’t expect our children to read while we’re always watching TV. Fill your house with beautiful, attractive books, turn off the TV, and spend time enjoying reading in front of your child. He will then learn by example.
If a child asks you what a word means, always tell him right away, and never say, “Look it up” as though the dictionary is an enemy. You might even look up a word in his presence. This demonstrates that you take pleasure in using the dictionary and in learning new words, and that one should never be ashamed of not knowing the definition of any word. Express an interest in whatever they are reading and show enthusiasm for the topics they are interested in. If you are observing the child reading or you reading with him, avoid correcting him. That feels like criticism and is discouraging. Rather, ignore minor errors and allow the child to enjoy the flow of uninterrupted reading. This is very important. When in the flow of reading, there is great pleasure and absorption. Eventually any errors will correct themselves. But calling attention to his mistakes can adversely affect his confidence and enjoyment of reading. Remember the only thing that counts is his or her enjoyment of reading, and not necessarily getting it perfect!
Be Careful With Praise
If a child reads, avoid blanket praise such as “Good boy” or “You’re such a great reader” as this causes the child to focus on the pleasure of the praise and not the pleasure of the reading. Saying ‘you’re a great reader’ puts too much pressure on him to always read well, and if he has trouble he will get discouraged. Even worse, he will forget to enjoy ingesting the subject matter of his reading, which after all is the purpose and utility of reading in the first place. The general rule is that evaluative praise makes the child’s self-esteem dependent on others. Therefore, instead of praise, describe what he did. “You read the whole sentence. You did it” “You read the whole page.” “Looks like you just enjoyed your story” This encourages the child to focus on and celebrate the enjoyment he is getting out of the reading. Describing further allows him to evaluate himself and creates true self-esteem and self-satisfaction. For a discussion of the pitfalls of praise, click here.
Never Say “It’s Easy”
As with any task a child is struggling with, never say, “It’s easy you can do it.” This discourages the child because if he can’t read it he feels bad because it was so easy and he couldn’t even read it, and if he is successful he doesn’t feel a sense of accomplishment as it was anyway so easy. Rather reflect an appreciation of the depth of his challenge by saying, “It can be hard reading sometimes” and “That’s hard to read”. This encourages the child, as if he is successful he feels a great sense of accomplishment over something that was hard, and if he can’t read it he is consoled by the fact that it was very difficult anyway.
One more tip which goes for homework as well it to give snacks and treats while they’re reading. This creates a positive association between the pleasure from the treat and the reading. A well placed treat can make his reading much more pleasant and go much more smoothly.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting and education ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to be able to fulfill it perfectly. Therefore have patience with yourself and try to implement these new ideas gradually.
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