Engaging Reluctant Readers at Every Age

By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning

Engaging Reluctant Readers at Every AgeParents, educators, librarians, and others who care about kids agree that helping them grow into readers is key to their success in education and beyond. Learning to read is a complex process. Learning to love reading is a critical element that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. In this post, I share some strategies for connecting with reluctant readers and pre-readers, with a focus on how social and emotional learning (SEL) concepts can help. Many of these approaches are geared toward leisure reading at home, but they can be adapted for classroom or library use.

As adults who love to read, we can forget all too easily that reading may not seem especially fun or interesting for kids. The reasons for this vary by age and circumstances, but there are effective ways to promote the joy of reading every step of the way.

So, what works?

Start Here: Strategies for Pre-Readers

For pre-readers, the standard advice is to read to them, early and often. It is good advice: reading to young children is a key predictor of future academic success. Along with offering clear cognitive benefits, reading together helps children bond with the adults in their lives and builds social and emotional skills and vocabulary that will serve them well at every developmental stage.

Having said all that, not every young child is immediately excited about books. Reluctant pre-readers often grow into reluctant readers, so this is a great time to start implementing simple strategies to make reading together fun and engaging.

If reading time feels like a chore for you or your child, think about different approaches.

Choose high-interest materials.

If your child is excited about dinosaurs, or outer space, or worms, that’s what you should read about! Magazines are a fun way to add variety, and you will even find magazines written especially for babies and toddlers. (Look for them at your local library.) Interactive and movable books can also be a treat.

Let your child take the lead.

Young children love to feel in charge, and reading time is a great time to allow them some independence. Give children choices about what to read, and encourage them to take an active role when you read together. Have them help turn the pages and invite questions and conversation about what you are reading. Along with promoting engagement with books, having conversations with your child builds key social and emotional skills: listening, taking turns, and seeing things from a variety of perspectives.

Look for books with big feelings.

Reading time is a great time to explore strong feelings. Stories that include strong feelings tend to be very engaging, and reading and talking about emotions builds a specialized vocabulary that helps children handle their own strong emotions.

Don’t be afraid to move on.

If a book is not holding your child’s attention, it is fine to set it aside. No one is keeping score, and nothing sucks the fun out of reading more than slogging through a book neither of you is enjoying. Changing course is easy if you have lots of choices on hand.

Take a picture walk.

A “picture walk” is a great way to help children actively engage with a book, even before you read it. Start by looking at the cover, and share the names of the author and illustrator. Ask your child, “What do you think this book is about?” Next, look at the pages and talk about what your child thinks is happening and why. When you read the story, you may be surprised by the new insights your child will bring to it.

Look for mirrors and windows.

Seek out books that feature kids and families that look like yours—these books are often called mirrors. Seeing oneself represented in books creates a sense of confidence and belonging, and it adds fun and familiarity. Then, look for books about kids and families that are very different from your own (windows). This helps children connect with the wider world, building curiosity and connections that go beyond their everyday experiences. (Not sure how to find these books? Librarians love to help!)

Engaging Reluctant Readers at Every AgeReady, Set, Go! Strategies for Early Readers

Learning to read can be daunting, even for children who love being read to. Becoming an independent reader takes a long time and requires synthesizing multiple new skills. In many cases, progress comes in fits and starts rather than a linear progression. While the lifelong benefits of becoming a fluent reader are clear to us adults, they are too abstract to offer much motivation for kids who are just learning to read on their own.

Many of the approaches that are helpful for pre-readers are good for new readers as well, but there are additional methods that can make a difference during this critical period from kindergarten through second or third grade.

Show (don’t tell) that reading matters.

Make sure your children see you reading for pleasure. Kids pay far more attention to what we do than to what we say, so demonstrate that reading is fun and important. The good news is that this strategy requires reading whatever you like most. Mysteries? True crime? Romances? Celebrity gossip magazines? All reading is good reading in this context.

Create a print-rich environment.

Having a wide variety of reading material on hand is good for children at any age, but it is especially important as they begin reading on their own. Your local library is a great place to stock up on books and magazines, and giving kids a say in selecting books builds a sense of autonomy. Include a mix of fiction and nonfiction and look for a range of formats for kids to explore.

Make some labels!

Labeling household items (furniture, tools, appliances, even parts of the house) is a great way to build vocabulary and confidence around reading. This doesn’t require anything fancy; index cards or small pieces of paper will do the trick.

Let go of levels (at least some of the time).

Leveled reading plays an important role in learning to read and in building reading comprehension. However, requiring that leisure reading, or all reading, match specific reading levels can create terrible barriers for struggling or reluctant readers. Look for ways to let kids read what they like, including confidence-building “easy” material and more complex texts that may be a stretch.

Don’t ditch the pictures.

There are hundreds of wonderful picture books geared toward elementary school kids, along with engaging graphic novels of all kinds. Visual content can be especially helpful for children who are not confident readers, or who have trouble following a block of text. Aim for a mix of reading material even when your young readers begin exploring chapter books.

Keep reading together.

Kids who can read on their own will still enjoy reading with you! This is an opportunity to share special books, whether they are old favorites or exciting new titles that may be too tough for your young reader to tackle independently.

Aim High: Upper Elementary and Beyond

As students move into upper elementary school, they are generally expected to be fluent readers who are ready to learn new subject matter through reading, rather than learning to read. Of course, many children are not confident readers by fourth grade, and even kids with strong reading skills may struggle to find their reading interests.

The same principles that help younger kids connect with books still apply as they grow up. Aim to make reading high interest and low pressure, and let kids’ interests guide their leisure reading. When selecting fiction, seek out books with diverse characters and experiences. In nonfiction, look for high-interest topics and interesting design. Even kids who don’t think they like to read may get drawn into a coffee table book about sneaker culture or a true story about rescuing wild horses.

Every little bit helps.

Between the appeal of digital media and the time demands that come with school and related activities, many older kids and teens feel pressed for time. Having magazines and other brief, accessible reading materials handy increases the odds that kids will read for pleasure, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time.

Hop on the bandwagon.

Is there a new movie based on a popular children’s or teen book? Is there a controversy about a book? These things may spark an interest in kids or teens who don’t generally read for fun. Even if the book of the moment wouldn’t usually top your list, it is worth the effort to put these books in young readers’ hands.

Get hands-on.

How-to books can be a great bridge for young people who don’t have much interest in reading for its own sake. From Minecraft strategies to pet care or starting a small business, consider skill-based books that match up with your child’s interests.

Some of the resources listed below include recommended reading for a variety of ages and stages. You will also find thoughtful book lists specifically selected for reluctant readers from Common Sense Media, the Young Adult Library Services Association, and Scholastic. For more personalized suggestions, visit your local library and talk with a librarian.

Happy reading to you and the young people you care about!

Amadee RickettsAmadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.


Gentle HandsAmadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.

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Suggested Resources
Burnett, Christie. “Why Your Fourth Grader’s Love of Reading Needs Extra Nurturing,” Scholastic for Parents. September 19, 2019.

Gurdon, Meghan Cox. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. New York: Harper, 2019.

Kris, Deborah Farmer. “Why Reading Aloud to Kids Helps Them Thrive,” PBS Kids for Parents.

McMahon, Regan. “How to Motivate a Middle School Reader,” Common Sense Media, September 11, 2017.

Paul, Pamela, and Maria Russo. How to Raise a Reader. New York: Workman Publishing, 2019.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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