There are many reasons why children get to be what we sometimes refer to as ‘reluctant’ readers. Some of them include:
Learning difficulties which can make the act of reading difficult and tiring for a child. Dyslexia is only one problem of many which can affect a child’s ability to read fluently, and dyslexia itself can manifest in many ways, so it can sometimes be tricky to identify when a child first sets out on their journey towards being a fluent reader. Because of this, sometimes a child will slip through the net at school, at home or both. If they do not receive help at an early enough point, problems like these can often be worsened by the child covering up their genuine inability to read by listing some of the reasons below rather than dealing with the embarrassment of admitting that they ‘can’t’ read.
Lack of exposure to books, which means that books are often perceived as ‘alien’. Sometimes reading for pleasure in particular is perceived as something posh people do, and therefore not accessible to a ‘normal’ person. If a child does not see books in their home, or in the homes of their friends or relatives, if they do not have regular access to books as a ‘normal’ activity, they can struggle to cope with the demands school makes of them to read, particularly when they are encouraged to take reading books home and read for pleasure.
Sometimes, in cases like these, the onus is put entirely on schools by families of children with reading difficulties, as the common perception is that parents/families should not have to take responsibility for teaching a child to read or write, otherwise what is the point of sending them to school? There is a certain amount of truth in this, but schools are obliged to teach an entire curriculum, which is increasingly squeezed by government demands on what children ‘need’ to know, and time at school is pressured and relatively short. Only 15% of a child’s life is actually spent in school. If there are issues with a child who cannot or will not learn to read, some support must come from outside the school in order for the child to make the best progress possible, if that is what the family wants.
Lack of role models, so that reading books is not ‘cool’. This can be either because of their peers, or influential adults in their lives. It has been proven scientifically that children learn best by emulating or copying adults and their peers. This is basically what ‘play’ is. A child learns by copying scenarios they have seen in adult life, or observed through interaction with their peers and exploring it through play. The most successful readers are those who are surrounded by others who read, particularly those who they look up to. If a child learns from an early age that mummy or daddy or older siblings take pleasure in sitting and reading books, they will aspire to emulate them if there are no other learning difficulties or problems in their path.
Books only being available in school, which means that they are not codified by the child as something which they could read for pleasure, but as something which is to do with education and learning. For children who have no books at home, and for whom going to their local library is not an option for one reason and another, the only real connection they will make with books is through school. If they dislike school or have difficulties at school, or even if they just aspire, like most children do, to leave school well behind at the end of the day and get on with their real lives, books and reading will be forever associated with feelings of duty, necessity and time that they are obligated to do things that they would not ordinarily choose to do. It is sometimes very hard for a child to break away from this mindset and understand that reading can be a pleasurable experience that people actively choose to do.
Lack of exposure to a wide range of books, which means that the child may not have found the book or type of books that excites them and awakens in them a thirst to read more. If there are no books at home, and visits to the local library are few and far between, and often limited to school hours, a child will only have available to them books that are in school. Schools have limited budgets and space to provide library facilities, and are often, despite best efforts, woefully lacking in choice and range of books that are available. In primary schools there is also more of an issue with having to be very aware of what books we provide in terms of what is suitable for children. Books that might suit higher level year five and six readers, graphic novels etc, are often unavailable because the material is slightly too adult for primary aged children and it is not always possible to stop younger children picking these books up from the shelves.
The term reluctant readers doesn’t always apply to children who simply won’t read. Sometimes it also applies to children who do read, but who are stuck in a literary rut. They might, for example, only read Anthony Horowitz books, or might only read books about ponies. If their supply of acceptable books runs out, either because we cannot supply them fast enough, or they have read the entire output of a particular author, it can be very difficult to persuade children to try something new.
Time is also a feature of reluctance. Children have very busy lives these days. There are hundreds of activities available for children these days, both inside and outside of school. There are hundreds of television channels, computer games, films and other leisure activities that fill the hours that in earlier years, children would perhaps have been more likely to spend reading. If you cannot get a child to be genuinely enthusiastic about the world that reading books can open up to them, it can be very difficult to make the case that a paperback holds as much allure as an X Box, or karate lessons.
There are undoubtedly other reasons for children’s reluctance to read for pleasure which I have missed, but these are some of the main ones we encounter within school.
The next post will deal with some of the ways we try to engage children, and wake up their enthusiasm for reading.