Scrapping the Term “Reluctant Readers”

I learned compassion from being discriminated against. Everything bad that’s ever happened to me has taught me compassion.
–Ellen DeGeneres

A hot phrase that’s come into focus in children’s literature over the past few years is “reluctant readers.” When children don’t immediately take to the books they are given, when they take a little longer to sound out words and sentences than their peers, or when they’d rather be watching television or surfing the net than reading a book, society slaps “reluctant” on them. This child needs to be given an easier book with lots of action and not as many syllables, case closed.

Amazingly enough, not true. Yes, there are readers—children and adults alike—who don’t read quickly or regularly. It doesn’t change the fact that they’re reading. Using terms like “reluctant” singles out students for reading at their own pace or about their own interests, and can discourage them. After all, “reluctant” isn’t a positive word, actually quite accusatory, and with reading being associated with intelligence, calling someone a reluctant reader makes it sound like that person rejects education or is unintelligent. Few people are opposed to learning; it all depends on how new information is presented.

Kids might not want to read a book because the topic is boring, the language antiquated, or just maybe because the adults in their lives make them feel guilty for not being avid readers. So what can be done to introduce young readers less likely to pick up a book for fun to material they’ll enjoy, while avoiding putting them down with labels?

One of the benefits of browsing a bookstore or taking a trip to the library is that readers can see what they’re up against. Book thickness and attractive cover designs are some of the first elements that beckon new readers. Praise from other authors or celebrities on the covers, text layout inside (double-spaced? illustrated?), or the luxury to flip through the first chapter for a try-on, help readers feel more confident in their choices. Books are organized by genre, making a follow-up read easier to find. Librarians and booksellers are a new reader’s best friends; with a keyword or two, they can steer kids and adults alike in the direction of their next favorite story.

Some folks prefer digital, and, hey, I’m not going to stop you. A book’s a book, and studies show that adults read more with e-readers. However, for kids who don’t take to books as quickly, taking books off the internet and making new reading material part of an outing changes the book experience. Bookstores and libraries become field trips, places to walk to in good weather, and venues for meeting new people and making new friends. Letting kids walk up and down the aisles and pluck out the titles that appeal to them fosters a lot more love than handing them an assignment. With the power to choose their own entertainment and education, kids have less to shy away from.

For readers who struggle less with getting into books and more with reading itself, remember that stories come in many forms. No, I’m not suggesting that watching the movie is a substitute for reading the book, but acting is certainly part of it. Audio books have been around for quite some time and are unsung heroes in the literary world. Professional actors will read books chapter by chapter, sometimes doing different voices for the characters, and bringing the adventure to life. Much like having a parent read picture books to small children before bed, audio books make storytelling a little more interactive.

Working with your students and their teachers is best for improving reading skills, but audio books can help with both assignments and pleasure reading. This format also makes reading a group activity. If the family is on a long drive, pop in the first CD of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Grammy-winning narrator Jim Dale. While cooking dinner, squeeze in a chapter of the latest read. For kids, cleaning your room is less of a punishment with an adventure on in the background—though it may delay the process a little when the mysteries and action are more interesting than laundry.

Encourage the books your kids choose and be part of those stories. If your indoorsy student is emptying out the team sports shelf in the children’s nonfiction section, fan those flames. If your little prince or princess is grinning at the cover of a Goosebumps book, have a flashlight ready and hide your ventriloquist dummy in the attic.  If your high-schooler is scoping out middle grade fantasy, remember that the twenty-something behind this very blog lives off of it. Whatever captures a reader’s imagination and makes that person, regardless of age, think is a good choice of book.

Happy reading!

xo P


2 thoughts on “Scrapping the Term “Reluctant Readers”

  1. Great post. I have two nieces and I love finding ways to encourage them to read.

    On a side note, I listened to the audio book versions of the Harry Potter series and LOVED it. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether or not you are a Harry Potter fan!

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