Alumni Experts: 6 Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would be scolded for bringing a book to the supper table. On car rides, I would get lost in a book and often times not hear the conversation happening around. If the road trip was at night, I would hold my book up to the car window trying to catch the cones of light cast by the streetlights, reading as many words as I could before being plunged back into darkness.

Needless to say, I’ve loved reading from a young age and as I’ve gotten older, I find that I enjoy reading a wide variety of authors, stories and genres.

I have consistently surrounded myself with friends who also read as voraciously as I did/do, and it wasn’t until I became a parent that I truly came to understand that not everyone enjoys reading the same way or to the same degree as I do. Our youngest child is a reluctant reader, someone who is quite skilled at reading, but who would prefer other activities to engage her mind and certainly doesn’t like to be told what to read by anyone. When I opened Adventure Bound Books in 2018, I began to meet other reluctant readers and their families who would ask about best books or strategies for their hesitant readers. And while the list of “best books” for reluctant, hesitant and emerging readers is as diverse as the readers themselves, there are a few tips that can help draw readers into stories and new adventures.

Below are a few considerations for engaging reluctant or emerging readers and helping them find stories that connect to them, which can lead to more enthusiastic reading.

1. Reading is reading is reading is reading.

Reading non-fiction books that are structured more like an encyclopedia or fact book, as well as reading magazines and newspapers, is very much still reading. “Counting” this reading time can be a game-changer, especially when your young reader has to log a specific amount of time reading throughout the week for school. If your reader naturally gravitates towards these types of materials, allowing them time to read what they are already connecting with can build confidence and joy in reading that can carry them into different types of books as they get older.

2. Graphic novels (and comic books) are real books.

The writing advice “show me, don’t tell me” takes on a deeper meaning when you’re talking about graphic novels. Illustrators have to show you the parts of the story that the narrative and dialogue do not. This is marvelous practice for young readers. By reading and seeing a story unfold in a graphic novel, readers develop reading skills and can learn to read a situation based on someone’s facial expressions and unspoken clues. Graphic novels encourage readers to consider context clues and appeal especially to visual learners. And the illustrations are an engaging way to get readers excited about stories!

3. Consider the face-value of a book based on your reader’s interests.

Yes, I dropped a research term! The face-value of a book, and what it promises to be about, is important to readers. Here’s what I mean…If a reader is consistently required to read specific books at school, they may get discouraged or frustrated about what they “have to” read. Similarly, if a young reader is continually encouraged to read books that the adults in their life think are good, have a valuable message or are considered “classics,” they may feel pressure to read and enjoy a certain kind of book that really doesn’t speak to them. Allowing your readers to have freedom to choose books to read that match their non-reading hobbies and interests is a great way to encourage their curiosity for reading. Ask your young reader about their interests – soccer, horses, swimming, constellations, history – and steer them towards reading options that align with those interests.

4. Listening to audiobooks IS reading.

Many young readers absolutely crave having stories read to them – why do you think teachers read aloud at school and bookstores and libraries offer story time events? Audiobooks are exactly that. Listening to audiobooks also opens up a world of reading that print books make difficult for some readers. Readers who might have visual impairments or processing challenges can find that audiobooks allow them to consume stories in a way that breaks down the typical barriers they find in print books. Audiobooks can be great ways for reluctant readers to consume stories while they are also doing other tasks, as either a way to make the other task more bearable (think chores!) or as a way to stimulate creativity (think listening to audiobooks while painting or drawing). There are a variety of lengths of audiobooks for young readers, so if your reader is new to audiobooks, you can start with shorter books to help them build stamina for attending to longer stories.

5. Leave labels for clothes and food!

When talking about books or presenting them as options to young, reluctant readers, avoid gendering books or labeling them as “easy” or “too young for you.” The idea here is to cast the net wide when trying to get reluctant readers excited about reading. Just like you introduce a variety of diverse fruits and vegetables to your young people and hope that they find a few healthy and tasty new foods to love, or at least eat regularly, we want to do the same with books. So what, exactly, do I mean by gendering books? It is often common to hear books described as “boy” books or “girl” books based on the content or characters represented in a book, but all books are for all readers if they choose to read them.

Similarly, hearing that a book a hesitant reader finds interesting is “too easy” or “too young” for them not only discourages their interest in that book, but can contribute to their disinterest in all books. Making room for books at various levels of difficulty can increase reading confidence. And when they are challenged all day at school to push their reading skills as far as they can, it can be nice to have comfortable books to build their esteem back up. Using phrases like “let’s find a book that challenges you” and “that book looks like it would be a comfortable read” encourages hesitant readers to think about books in different ways without shaming them for being really excited about a book that feels comfortable and familiar.

6. More than meets the eye.

My last consideration isn’t “expert advice,” but rather a personal experience. If you have tried to get your hesitant reader to branch out and are still having little success helping them ignite a passion for reading, consider a visit to the eye doctor. Our oldest loved reading until the summer before first grade. Suddenly we were faced with months when getting her weekly reading time in for school was a struggle. It just so happened that the pediatrician suggested an eye exam after her annual wellness check showed some issues reading the eye chart. She did, as you probably guessed, need glasses. And as soon as we got her new glasses, she fell back in love with reading because she could see the words again without struggle. Don’t underestimate the power of being able to clearly see the words on the page and the potential that a child’s interest in reading may be something more than meets the eye.

Several well known authors have been quoted on numerous occasions as saying that it isn’t that someone doesn’t like reading, but rather that they just haven’t found the right book.

Hesitant, reluctant and emerging readers have a world of options available that can help them connect with books in new and exciting ways. The adults in their lives can make a significant difference in their journey to finding the joy of reading and support them through nurturing the reader’s natural interests, helping the reader think about books in more open ways and by encouraging their exploration of different ways to read.

And don’t forget to ask your librarians and local booksellers for an assist; it takes a team to help your young readers score big in their reading journeys!

About the expert

Angela Shores (she/her) is the owner of Adventure Bound Books in Morganton, NC, a new and used bookstore offering books and gifts for bibliophiles of all ages. Angela has a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision and is a two-time alumnus of Campbell University, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion (2001) and a Master of Arts in Counseling (2006).

Before opening the bookstore, Angela taught graduate and undergraduate courses at several universities and operated a private mental health counseling practice. She is a proud member of American Mensa and in her spare time she is reading, writing, running and spending time with her high school sweetheart (also a Campbell alumnus), two daughters and pup.

Adventure Bound Books is an independently owned bookstore striving to be an inclusive and safe space and make a positive difference in the community. You can shop in person at Adventure Bound Books, or online (we ship anywhere in the US and to some international locations).

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