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Reluctant readers

Encouraging a Reluctant Reader: What to Do When Your Child Can't Sit Still for a Story

by Susan B. Neuman, Ed.D
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We need to keep in mind that while there are common benchmarks in children's development, such as when they begin to talk or learn to walk, there are also important individual differences among children. Some children, for example, just gravitate to print. They love to be read to, and frequently request the same book again and again. Sometimes I'll see these children in their childcare setting playing in the library center, engrossed in pretending to read along with their imaginary friends.

But there are other children who do not immediately take to print. Story time is seen as a time for slowing down, listening rather than acting, sitting rather than moving. And as a result, they'll squirm and fiddle around, looking uncomfortable, before they either tune out or walk away.

Forcing these young active learners to sit and listen to the story is not the answer, however. And letting them come and go so they never engage with a book is also not the best alternative. Really, the best strategy is to find new ways to motivate your young son or daughter to want to listen to stories.

Find a Subject that Interests Your Child

One of my favorite examples is Edward, a very active 3-year-old child in our local childcare center. Edward was a fidgeter, not at all interested in books. Every day I would bring new shiny-covered books from the library. Still no interest-until that one day that I happened to bring books about trucks. Something clicked. Edward grabbed one of the books, fascinated with what he called the 'trash truck.' And, he spent a good deal of time looking at the pictures, trying to understand how the trash truck worked. But after a while he realized that he couldn't learn enough just by looking at the pictures. He needed someone to read the print. That was the beginning of Edward's emergence to literacy.

I learned several lessons from this experience. First, the single best way to motivate children to listen to books is to find something of interest to them. Children often develop a love of reading, based on their interests and what they are motivated to learn more about. For some children, it may trucks; others trains; still others, dinosaurs. Finding that special, intriguing topic is one way to start building the story-reading habit.

Appeal to Your Child's Preferences in Books

The second, and related lesson I learned is that some children prefer nonfiction more than narrative stories. They enjoy learning about how things work-space ships, machines, scientific phenomena. And you'll find that children ask lots of questions when you read them nonfiction books, developing a rich vocabulary on these topics of interest. Nonfiction books used to be dry and boring, but that is not the case any more. You'll find books with wonderful real-life pictures and clear illustrations that will just fascinate you and your child.

Other Things You Need to Consider

And the third lesson I learned was something I had always taken for granted. You don't have to finish every book you start to read to your child. In fact, sometimes it's best to have a real short story-reading activity that is fun and engaging, and stop before the fidgeting begins. For example, fascinated with what he was learning, sometimes Edward and I would spend 10 fun-filled moments on only one page. After that, he was ready to run off to other activities. But in those few concentrated minutes, he had really paid attention and learned.

Finally, also consider the length of the book, and the time of day that you read to your child. Long books at bedtime may only prolong the inevitable for some children, and make them uncomfortable as they try to put off bedtime. Rather, think about starting with very short books (a few lines on a page), and read at different hours throughout the day. You may find that after lots of outdoor activity, your child may really enjoy a few quiet moments with a book and his snack.

You'll discover that these brief story sessions will lengthen over time. Sometimes you'll have to be especially patient, recognizing that today, storybook reading competes with many other activities. But over time, I think you'll find that your restless 3-year-old is now, like my son, hooked on books.  
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Meet Our Expert
Susan B. Neuman, Ed.D.
Professor, Educational Studies University of Michigan
Susan B. Neuman is a professor in educational studies specializing in early literacy development. She is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, where she established the Early Reading First program, developed the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program, and was responsible for all activities in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act.

She has directed the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) and currently directs the Michigan Research Program on Ready to Learn. Her research and teaching interests include early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction (pre-k through third grade) for children who live in poverty.

Ms. Neuman has written over 100 articles, and authored and edited 11 books, including Changing the Odds for Children at Risk; Educating the Other America; Multimedia and Literacy Development; Preparing Teachers for the Early Childhood Classroom: Proven Models and Key Principles; and The Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Volumes1-3).

You can find out more on Susan Neuman's website.
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