Reading is always a hot topic during parent-teacher conferences, and for good reason. In elementary school, students learn to read, so that for the rest of their lives, they can read to learn. If a student falls back here, almost every other subject will lag behind as they approach the upper grades. They will struggle with writing, labor over word problems in math, loathe their Science and Social Studies textbooks, and likely experience lower academic self-confidence.
One of my goals as a teacher is to help kids fall in love with reading… or at least not hate it. Every year, I have a couple of parents who insist that their child hates reading. I can see the defeat in their eyes, even as the school year is just beginning. It doesn’t have to be that way! I will share some basic beliefs I have about teaching reading as well as ways to help make reading time more enjoyable and productive time for your child.
Why does my child hate reading?
There are many reasons why your child might dislike reading. Maybe they haven’t found a genre they like. Maybe they need glasses. Maybe they really like playing outside, and time spent reading is time not spent playing. Today, I’m going to cover the one reason I came across the most as a teacher: the books they’re reading are too hard.
At home, this looks like a kid trying to avoid their daily reading assignment, and sounds like, “I don’t want to read…” or “Reading is booooringgg!” Boring? I mean, if we were forcing you to read a specific title, I can see this argument making sense; maybe something I find interesting is boring to you. Fair enough. But these days, a lot of students are allowed to choose their own books—among THOUSANDS—to read. How can this be boring?! There are so many wonderful, engaging, exciting, and fun books! Surely they can’t all be boring to your child.
Most of the time, I don’t think it’s boredom. Many times, I have found that it has more to do with the book’s difficulty level. Whenever I spied a child gazing out the window, zoning out, or distracting others during reading time, it was a hint to me that their book was too hard. If the behavior continued, I’d confer with the student privately and see if the reading level was to blame; it often was.
As their teacher, I already knew their reading levels and could usually take one glance at the book and tell whether or not it was too hard. Breaking that truth to them was a more delicate matter though, so we’d have a conversation about it and then I would help them find a more appropriate book. This conversation was important because I used it to correct misunderstandings they might have had about how to grow as a reader (“reading harder books will make me a better reader” = false). I also used the conversation to grow their metacognition in the hopes that, in the future, they would independently be able to spot books that were too hard.
It’s possible your child isn’t complaining about reading, but hasn’t been improving at it either. If your child is disciplined about reading every day and yet hasn’t been improving or meeting grade level standards, see if the difficulty of their books is the culprit.
Whether your child appears to enjoy reading or not, if reading has been a challenge, this is a very good place to start.
How can I tell if the book is the right level for my child?
Teachers use a variety of tests and tools to determine a child’s reading level. For parents, I offer you my favorite little tool that you can use anywhere and anytime: the Five Finger Test. It is quick and easy. Simply ask your child to read aloud a full page out of their book and use your hand to count the number of mistakes as they read. Common mistakes include mispronouncing words (“thought” instead of “though”), skipping words, or adding in words that aren’t in the text. Note that if the reader makes a mistake but then goes back and fixes it, it is not counted as a mistake.
0 mistakes: Getting all the words correct means the book is on the easy side for your reader (so maybe the book really is just boring to your child).
1-3 mistakes: The book is probably just right.
4 mistakes: This book is on the tougher side… which could be a source of frustration, but it should be okay.
5+ mistakes: This is an indicator that your child is not quite ready for this book. They are missing enough words per page that it’s a challenge to really understand and make meaning of the text. It will probably be as enjoyable to them as a difficult college textbook is to you.
Even if I already have a hunch that their book is too hard, I usually still do the 5-finger test with my students because I want them to see it for themselves. Sometimes they’re so determined to read a book that they don’t believe me when I say it’s too hard until they see my fifth finger go up. That’s always a little sad, but it’s a helpful first step for a child in denial.
Why shouldn’t a child read books that are above their reading level?
Some well-meaning parents and students select books that are above the child’s reading level, hoping this will help the child improve as a reader. Aim high, right? Yes… but not like this. To develop fluency as a reader, young children need to devour books that they can already read pretty fluently. Attempting to independently read books that are too hard will not only not help the child build fluency in reading, but will likely be a source of discouragement, frustration, and boredom. They won’t understand a lot of what’s going on (or make up things to fill in the gaps) and this will result in the dreaded low reading comprehension.
Note that while most of the time this results in a dislike of reading, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it simply results in poor understanding of the story (i.e. poor reading comprehension). One time, I did the 5-finger reading test with a student who missed dozens of words on the page. I guess he didn’t see my fingers, because when I asked him how he thought he did, he thought he did great. I was mystified as to how he was making sense of the text.
When I asked him to recount what happened, his version of the story was fascinating… but completely different from what was in the text. On the surface, he appeared to be an enthusiastic reader, and if I hadn’t been reading along with him, I might not have realized that he was reading incorrectly. But when I scratched a little under the surface, I found that we had some backtracking to do. This was a child who was always reaching for the harder texts, but in the end, it was counterproductive for his reading growth.
A lot of eager children choose books that are above their reading level, thinking that trying to read through it (even if they don’t understand half of it) means that they read it. They proudly show their teacher, friends, and parents their thick chapter book, receive a hearty compliment like, “Wow! You are reading such a hard book!” Which only reinforces the false notion that trying to read harder books is always better.
Kids choose books that are too hard to read for many reasons:
But wait, you say, the teacher assigned that book to the class! It must be at the right level! Ah yes. If it’s the kind of class where the whole class reads the same book at the same pace, then this happens. That doesn’t mean the book is the right level for your child, though.
How Can I Help My Child Improve?
If you want to help your child move to the next level, then here’s what I would suggest:
1) Take your child to the library to find “just right” books—books that your child finds interesting and that are at the right reading level (5-finger test!). This is key.2) Once you have obtained these “just right” books, have them read these books for 30 minutes each day (outside of school time). Edit: If you need, start out at 15-20 minutes a day and work your way up–especially for kids in the lower grades. It’s also important to cultivate an attitude of enjoyment with reading, so if cutting out 10 minutes helps with that, go ahead and start there. Then be prepared for some serious reading growth in the months to follow!
Extra credit: Sit with them for a couple minutes each day and read along as you have your child read out loud. Check that the book is still the right reading level, and talk about the text as you go.
Serious overachiever: Read the same book with them (get two copies from the library, if they have it) and have book talks with your child once or twice a week, as if the two of you were in a book club together. This will not only be sweet family time, but it will be a huge motivator for your child to read their book. In my class, students loved meeting in reading groups with me. Imagine how much more exciting it would be for a child to get one on one reading time with their own parent!
3) As their reading improves in the months that follow, check in to make sure the books they are choosing are still at the right reading level. Once they are reading books that are clearly “too easy,” then congratulate them on their progress, help them find a new author or series that is appropriate for their new reading level, and keep it going!
This works. For real. Even if your child is a grade level or two behind, if you are committed to helping them find text that meets these two requirements (interest + right independent reading level), and you are committed to making sure they read for 30 minutes each day, you will see improvement!
How does this help?
I’ve had reluctant readers not only develop a love for reading, but move several grade levels just by getting parents on board with this plan. And it’s an upward spiral kinda thing. As their reading ability improves, several things happen:
As they like to read more, they will improve in their ability to read, and all of those positive outcomes will keep happening. Upward spiral, I tell you! I love upward spirals!
The first point about having access to more books is pretty key, especially for students in the upper grades. No one likes to be relegated to “baby books,” so getting out of this age group of books makes a big difference! It’s always tough when I have a fourth grader who is reading at a first grade level. Somehow, it’s even harder when it’s a boy. He may be into Minecraft or football, but when all I can offer him are stories about a whiny first grader named Junie B. Jones or picture books with Mr. Toad, even I can feel the enthusiasm slam hard in the negative. Unfortunately, those are a lot of the types of books available for students reading at a first grade level.
It can be really discouraging and sometimes embarrassing for a child to be stuck in this window, which makes starting the upward spiral very difficult. But once they can start getting out of the “little kid” territory and open up their reading world to more age-appropriate texts like Frindle or Marvin Redpost, it’s a whole new ball game. These are also the times when I cave and give into unpreferred series like Captain Underpants or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But here’s what I tell myself: They’re reading. Words. And stringing them together to make meaning. We’ll take it.
I wonder if there’s something else going on…
Sometimes a struggling reader simply needs extra support. If you think that may be your child, then talk to your child’s teacher about it. If you’d like, you can request a Student Study Team for your child, which means the teacher will organize a group to meet and discuss areas of concern and ways to support your child better in the classroom. This group may include (but is not limited to): the parent(s), teachers, reading specialists, occupational therapists, psychologists, special education teachers, and/or the principal. At the end of the study period, the team might conclude that the solution was something as simple as getting a pair of glasses, or it may lead to recommendations for further testing for learning disabilities.
While there is definitely a lot more to this topic– textbooks and textbooks and books and books– this is a place to start. I wish you and your children a great year of diving into books and growing a lifelong love of reading and learning!