When Linda Ljucovic’s first kid, Jake, was born, she did all the usual new mom things—delighted in every smile, took lots of photos, read him bedtime stories. Especially that last one. Ljucovic loves reading and wanted the same for her kids. “It seems so intuitive to me,” she says. “I read and it’s a big part of my life, so it’s just what we did from the minute he was born.”
Her efforts paid off. Jake, now 11, is an avid reader—but until recently, his eight-year-old brother Luke was not.
Ljucovic tried everything with Luke: Bedtime stories were part of their daily routine, they scheduled family reading time on weekends, and books were scattered throughout their Oakville, Ont., home. Still, Luke was reading well below his grade level, and when she could get him to sit down with a book, he didn’t enjoy it at all. “He just did not want to read,” she says. “When he’d come home and I’d try to get him to pick up a book he’d just collapse with exhaustion.”
Ljucovic was getting worried, and rightfully so. According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, enjoying reading plays a bigger role in kids’ educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Other research shows that reading for pleasure is linked to the development of several lifelong literacy-related skills, including comprehension, vocabulary, writing ability and grammar. But getting kids to pick up a book isn’t just tricky for parents of reluctant readers—even keen young bookworms risk losing their reading skills during the summer when they aren’t in school. A 2010 study out of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that kids who don’t read over the summer tend to lose two to three months of reading proficiency—and the effects add up over the years. This is all in addition to the fierce competition from screen-based gaming and YouTube videos for kids’ attention. Luckily, cultivating a love of reading can help stop the summer “brain drain,” so while it may be tough to get kids motivated, it’s important to keep trying.
Start by role modelling the behaviour you want to see, and making reading fun and pressure-free, never a punishment (it helps if it’s a consistent part of your daily schedule). And, of course, how you motivate kids has a lot to do with how old they are. Here’s what the experts say works at each stage of development.
Ages 0 to 2: Exploration Station
“Literacy begins at birth,” says Mack Rogers, executive director of ABC Life Literacy Canada, a charitable organization devoted to improving literacy skills. “Children connect reading and writing with their first words, their first experiences and their first role models. You can’t start too early.”
At this stage, exploration is key, says Ruth Rumack, a literacy expert and the owner of academic support centre Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space in Toronto. “If they want to look at the book upside down, let them look at the book upside down. If they want to chew on it, let them chew on it. If your 15-month-old reaches out to turn the page before you’re finished, that’s OK,” she says. “It can be frustrating for parents who have their minds set on the idea that reading is sitting down and listening, but reading time should be flexible.” To encourage interest, look for high-contrast, black-and-white board books (especially great for younger babies up to six months old) or bright colours and simple illustrations, and tactile elements like fuzzy sections, built-in squeakers or lift-the-flap books for toddlers. “The element of surprise is particularly exciting for this age group,” Rumack says.
What is the right age to read?
Ages 3 to 5: Child’s Play
For preschoolers, it’s all about phonological awareness—the pre-reading skills involving sounds. This is when kids learn about rhyming, blending (joining letter sounds to make a word), alliteration, segmenting (breaking words down into their composite sounds) and manipulating sounds within words—like understanding that swapping m for c turns “mat” into “cat.” These fundamental skills can be hard to grasp, so introducing them through stories and play can keep kids from getting discouraged. Choose books that engage kids with repetition and drama, Rumack says, like Robert Munsch’s Mortimer. Rogers agrees: “We’re naturally musical, so kids really engage with rhythm and song and rhyme. That’s why nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss work so well.” Making play a part of reading time will also help. Have kids act out parts of the story themselves or with a puppet, or let your kid decide what a character should sound like and then have him do that voice when it’s that character’s turn to speak.
Ages 6 to 10: The Power of Choice
This is when a child’s interests really begin to play a role in their developing literacy skills. Some kids are obsessed with princesses, while others respond to comics and graphic novels. Find reading material—books, apps and kid-friendly websites—that reflect your child’s passions. If she loves baseball, get her reading with websites devoted to player stats or books about the history of the game. You can even check out her favourite team’s social posts together—it’s important not to get stuck on the idea of reading only being words on a page. “Reading recipes is reading. Playing board games is reading,” says Rumack. “I’m all for reading in whatever form it comes.”
When to worry
Sometimes, getting kids to read requires some outside help. When Luke entered third grade last September, Ljucovic felt like she had tried everything. Despite reading games, extra tutoring and endless practice, he still wasn’t making progress. But he told her how much he wanted to read and, heartbreakingly, that he felt dumb because he couldn’t. That’s what prompted her to contact an educational therapist, who discovered that a physical problem was getting in his way. Luke’s eyes moved independently, so he couldn’t track words properly.
For some kids, reading reluctance is more than a matter of motivation. If your child is sounding out the same word multiple times on a page without recognizing that it’s the same word, using avoidance techniques (stalling, acting silly, yawning and getting tired quickly, crying or complaining of headaches), can’t retell a story after reading it or relies on memorization, it can indicate a larger problem. Check in with your kid’s teacher, who can give insight into what’s happening in the classroom, and paediatrician, who can schedule hearing and vision tests. “When physical issues have been ruled out and consistent remediation is producing slow results, it’s time to think about testing for a learning disability,” Rumack says. “Testing is also worth considering if your child’s self-esteem is being threatened.”
For Luke, the solution was simple: weekly therapy sessions to retrain his eyes. And they’re helping. “Just in the last four months we’ve caught him reading by himself,” Ljucovic says happily.
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