Trying to get kids to focus on one thing for more than two minutes can be a challenge at the best of times, so what happens when something that actually keeps them quiet for a while stops working? Just as you’re feeling the relief of seeing your little angel sitting still and enjoying a book, suddenly there are half-read books littering the house and their enthusiasm for going to the library or the bookshop to pick out a new read has evaporated.
Well, first of all, it’s nothing you did. Your ability to nurture a reader is in no way in question – this happens to almost everyone. Even as adults we can run into reading slumps where nothing is appealing and books you were excited about reading run out of steam after the first few chapters. You need to isolate the reason they’ve stopped reading and address it if it’s something that needs to be worked through.
This topic can be broken down into the different reading stages, as the reasoning can be different depending on age and reading ability. If your child has additional needs or requires reading support, you won’t find your answers here.
Speak to your child’s school or GP to see what changes can be made and what further action can be taken.
If it’s the case that your child was previously enjoying the experience of reading and has now lost enthusiasm, read on.
They’re babies. If they’re reading at this age perhaps you should let someone know? You could have a genius on your hands!
On a more serious note, make sure you’re picking the right book for their stage of development so there is something that will catch their attention. Colour books will be lost on very tiny babies as they can’t see much, and until they’re two you might be better off with a book with interactive elements to help with their motor skills.
Other than that, maybe it’s you who’s losing interest because you’re reading the same book too often and you’re simply getting bored? If you are reading a book with words and a story in it at this stage, the story itself is going to be of more use to you than it is to them! Babies at this age will be more focused on hearing your voice and listening to its rhythm than they will be on trying to understand words they don’t yet have the ability to decipher. The best advice I can give you is to treat yourself to a trip to the library or bookshop and pick a book that appeals to you so you can mix it up a bit!
There are a few things you can do if kids are losing interest in bedtime stories and interacting with books in general.
Think about your browsing habits. Are you picking the books or are they? By allowing them to make the decisions, children will develop a personal connection and the choosing process becomes a fun game you play together rather than one that has a winner or a loser. Of course, in the black-and-white world of a toddler you will still have to convince them against yet another book based on that really annoying TV show you hate, but try to reason it out. If it’s based on an animal, can you play a game where you find another book with that animal on the cover? Or you could try to transfer the affection. Does the child have a stuffed version of the character? If so, then you can ask them to pick a book for teddy. They wouldn’t want to read about themselves, would they? They already know everything! You might find that over time they will see that the characters in new books are funnier and more interesting than the media-endorsed ones.
Small kids are also very good at obsessing about one thing. Do your research before you go shopping or ask a bookseller/ librarian. If it looks like they’re not going to go for the usual topic ask them: What is the best thing they can think of in ten seconds? Get them excited about it and then when a book ‘magically’ appears on that topic it will feed into what is making them happy in the moment, not what made them happy yesterday.
Finding a book you like and trying to persuade them that they want it is usually a losing battle. Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you’re smarter than them, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it!
This is the most sensitive age group to deal with because, in many cases, their enthusiasm for reading is directly linked to their confidence and their frustration if it isn’t going right. Kids are like little pressure cookers; if they feel a slight frustration with something, they multiply it by a million. When I was small, I was literally reduced to tears when I was trying to do my spellings (who says cat doesn’t start with F?), and I still remember the frustration of trying every variation of the spelling I could think of, only to be told I was wrong. When I was tested on it the next day, even though I had put in the work and had tried my hardest, I would still get in trouble for not working hard enough. That anger and confusion has stayed with me, and when I think of children working through the same thing with reading, I want to do everything possible to make it easier for them.
It’s important not to mirror their frustration back at them. They’re producing enough steam for all of you! Listen to them carefully and let them explain in their own words what they’re experiencing when they’re reading. Hopefully from there you can deduce if it’s something practical like finding it hard to focus on the words, in which case you are better off talking to their teachers to see what help is available.
If it’s the case that what they’re trying to read is too old for them, then you could take a different approach to reading for pleasure. Make sure they can always return to a place of comfort with books at a level with which they are happy.
School reading will be done and can be worked through, but if you force the issue in their free time in an attempt to get them through their difficulties quicker, you will make them resent reading even more. Imagine if you were learning a new system at work which was completely new and you were told to keep working on it when you got home instead of relaxing with something you want to do. It would hardly endear you towards it, would it?
If their reading is interest led, could it be that they’re trying to read books which are too advanced for their reading level and that’s what’s causing the frustration? The book might be fine for them content-wise, but if the language is too sophisticated then any pleasure that can be gleaned will quickly be eradicated. Consider getting the book on audio and playing it in the car or before bed. Most new language is encountered in context and through conversation, so by listening to it, they get the part of the book they are interested in, which is the plot, without the thing that is holding them back, which is the language. Again, make sure what they’re reading actually interests them. Do your research and ask around. This is a blossoming area, with publishers working to produce high quality but accessible writing with bright and fun illustrations.
Once we start getting into the really independent reading age, the mystery of why kids stop reading becomes even more complex.
It becomes less likely that the child has difficulty reading (of course this can still be the case and many children are diagnosed with some reading difficulties only at this stage), but because parents are not an active part of the reading experience for the most part, it is very common for them to lose track of their child’s reading progress. Once children start getting that little bit older, they start to really form their own identities and begin to know their own minds.
It becomes even more difficult to focus their minds and other activities start to take priority over something that requires them to sit still.
It is the parents of this age group who most often ask me what to do when their child has gone off reading. Sometimes you just have to come to terms with the fact that the idea of sitting down with a book is just not appealing to them anymore. Their schoolwork involves reading longer books, so they might feel that they’re getting enough reading done in school and don’t want it to be forced on them at home too. This is a good time to sit down and talk to them about how they’re feeling and what really interests them. Then, much like when they were very small, you can start seeing if you can tailor some book choices to their interests, rather than forcing them to pick up something that has absolutely no interest for them.
The most common complaint I get is that kids are too into sport to pick up a book. Some people seem to think that those two activities are completely opposed to each other. I can understand it to a point, since one is quiet and solitary while the other is energetic and full of noise and teamwork. But that doesn’t mean that kids have to choose which version of a ten year- old they want to be. Nor does it mean that books aren’t aimed at kids who are into sport. Children’s publishing has seen a huge upsurge in sports fiction and non-fiction books.
There is a great series of football biographies, shortened and written as novels for children, and so many kids who have turned away from reading flock into bookshops and libraries to get their hands on the stories of their favourite footballers.
So, when will they get the time to read? Trying to suggest to a child that they should take time out from their hobby in order to read a book, is a recipe for disaster. If they have found something that they love to do, either on their own or with their friends, trying to separate them from that for any reason is sure to fail from the start. Instead, you could re-institute bedtime reading for that wind-down time before sleep.
With any luck they will have tired themselves out during the day, so the only thing they might be up to doing if it means the light doesn’t have to go off is a bit of reading.
If you’re finding it too difficult to drag them into a bookshop, having already had the conversation about their interests, find a book for them and bring it home. All going well, they’ll see that you were listening and that you’re supportive of their interests, and they’ll have a book in their hands that allows them to engage with their passion even when they have to be in bed and can’t be kicking a football or dancing around the living room!
The point here, as always, is that reading for pleasure is about absolutely nothing other than reading what you find pleasurable. That’s all there is to it!
At this age we can see many of the same issues. Pre-teens and teens have their passions and are very busy between school, friends and their hobbies. Add in social media, changing schools, exams, puberty and all that fun stuff, and you start to wonder how they find the time to sleep for half the day like little vampires. Fret not – there is still hope!
Most of it can be found either in reading about teenagers like themselves getting into bad situations or reading about fantastical creatures completely unlike themselves.
Seems easy? Like most things at this age, what they read is usually peer led. Of course there are still the devout readers who won’t care about the reading preferences of the masses, but for the rest, not embarrassing themselves in front of their friends is the main priority. That doesn’t really mean that they would be made fun of for reading, but dedicating their time to something that can’t be shared in the moment might give rise to FOMO (fear of missing out), and that can put a lot of pressure on a teenager whose small community at school can feel like the whole world.
Sometimes a book comes along and grabs even the kids who don’t read for pleasure. For my group of friends that was Twilight. I still remember getting the KISS magazine that had the first press photo from the movie – my friends and I were beside ourselves with excitement. It can be an amazing way to bring groups of young people together, but because book tastes are so personal, what you’re reading can sometimes be hard to use as a talking point in a situation where everyone wants to fit in. So reading suddenly becomes something that is absolutely not what teens think is important and it goes by the wayside.
At this age, the worst thing you can do is force reading on them. When it comes to anything to do with teenagers, if they don’t want to do it, you’re going to have to come up with a really good reason why they should.
Look at other forms of media
This one takes a bit of effort and it may cause a great deal of confusion, but stay with me. Have a look at the TV shows and movies your teen is enjoying. If you can find something that was based on a book, fantastic. If this is the case, don’t buy the book. This is a rookie mistake that will result in a book that remains unopened – why would they read something they’ve already seen? Instead, go to Google and speak to a bookseller. What books are people recommending off the back of the success of the show? You’ll probably find a lot of ‘if you like X, you’ll love Y’ books and it makes sense. If you love reading there’s nothing worse than the book hangover, where you feel physically down because a book has affected you to the point of extreme emotion and has left you feeling empty now that it’s over. It’s the same with visual media. If you present your teen with a bookthat will fill that void, you stand some chance of them getting through it and maybe passing it on to their friends and reigniting their joy of reading.
You can use a similar idea with media that is not based on a book. A popular show is bound to have related publishing attached to it. This might be fiction (this goes for a lot of video games too – see Chapter 4) or non-fiction – fact books and the like. You will help them to gain access to some great reading material while showing them that you’re listening and paying attention.
They might act as if it’s super uncool for you to be showing an interest, but they will appreciate the fact that they’re being noticed and also that they’re getting some free stuff that’s related to their interest. Try not to push the issue too much. If they read it, great. If not, it was an experiment that didn’t work.
If you try to force it or make a scene about it, you’re just associating the experience with bad feelings and then no one wins.
You should also make a point of not judging what they’re interested in. Some younger teens find comfort in things that are aimed at younger children but are still fun and can have a community element, like board games and collecting, while others try to seem older and get into darker phases. This is all normal, so just try to see it from their point of view.
At this stage they’re trying to figure out what they might want to do with their lives after school, exams are getting harder and more important.
When your kids pass fourteen, you need to start learning to trust them. If they’re turning away from reading at this stage, you need to factor in everything that was an issue when they entered their teen years, then multiply it by 100.
Relationships are also getting more intense, with many teens starting to explore their sexual feelings. All of this really scary stuff is happening to them. More than ever they need your guidance but also your understanding.
Now is a good time to have those conversations about what’s going on in their lives and try to help them through it.
When it comes to reading for pleasure, make sure that they can see it as a great way to unwind when they’re not studying and if they want to get away from social media for a while. You can also start talking to them about books you’re reading and offering to let them have a go at them. Many older teens skip the YA section altogether and want to dive head first into adult books. Have a look online to make sure there isn’t anything too horrible in a book if you haven’t read it yourself, but give them the opportunity to start reading about some adult topics if you know they are presented and dealt with in a good way. That doesn’t mean that only good things happen in the book, but rather that issues are covered in such a way that you can have a chat afterwards and see what they think. Or not; needless to say, sometimes the last thing they want is to discuss it with a parent, but at least you can rest in the knowledge that they’re learning about some of these things in a controlled environment and not in front of a screen.
Some children, although they enjoyed being read to as very young children, never take to reading themselves because they have a reading-related disability such as dyslexia. People like to claim that difficulties such as dyslexia are more common now, but really it’s just that we have the resources to diagnose and help those who have a condition that is actually fairly common.
In generations past, many children were just assumed to be unfocused or unsuited to school, when in fact they might have had dyslexia. You should never think that bookshops and libraries aren’t places for the dyslexic child. The people working there will be more than happy to help you find the perfect books. One of the best booksellers I’ve ever worked with is dyslexic himself and he can out-read us all any day!
So, what exactly is dyslexia?
How can such a small question hide such multitudes? The Report of the Task Force on Dyslexia (2001) suggests the following definition of dyslexia:
Dyslexia is manifested in a continuum of specific learning difficulties related to the acquisition of basic skills in reading, spelling and/or writing, such difficulties being unexplained in relation to an individual’s other abilities and educational experiences. Dyslexia can be described at the neurological, cognitive and behavioural levels. It is typically characterised by inefficient information processing, including difficulties in phonological processing, working memory, rapid naming and automaticity of basic skills. Difficulties in organization, sequencing and motor skills may also be present. (p.31)
However, if you ask anyone who has been through the diagnostic process and beyond you’ll soon find out that definitions mean very little. They don’t encompass the worry and heartache that can come with finding out that something you might take for granted, like reading, is going to be more difficult for your child.
One of the reasons I find this definition so helpful, however, is for one specific part: “such difficulties being unexplained in relation to an individual’s other abilities and educational experiences”. Dyslexia does not affect, nor is it related to, general intelligence. It does not mean there is anything wrong with your child’s sight or ability to understand the content of what they’re reading, it’s just that their eyes (or ears as the case may be) aren’t doing a great job at working together with their head to make things make sense. When you get into the science of it, there are many sub-sets of dyslexia with notable differences. Each of them can affect your child’s ability to read and process information to varying degrees.
I am not a medical professional but I deal in the ways of practicality, and I know all too well that proactivity can be a great antidote to worry. If you find yourself at the receiving end of an assessment with the D word, here are some steps to help reassure you and your child that they do not have to give up their love of reading!
1. One of the main problems with the fonts used in most books is that they can be extremely confusing for the dyslexic mind. Consider the fact that the lower case ‘d’ is just a backwards ‘b’, and the same applies to ‘p’ and ‘q’. The spacing between letters is very small and some typed letters, such as ‘a’ are not the same shape as you would typically write. These all come together to make the reading experience quite a laborious one.
If you are a Kindle user, there is a dyslexia-friendly font available and you can change the size of the font on the screen to help too. For the physical book user, try to get books in the bigger ‘trade paperback’ size as the font will also be bigger.
2. Try to avoid books with funny fonts or that have words out of sequence or ‘jumping’ out of line. The only exception I will make to this rule, if your child wants to try them, are Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates books, as they have loads of illustrations and large spaces between the lines that help combat the kookiness!
3. Pay attention to the colour and thickness of the paper. Standard book paper is very thin and you will often get ‘show-through’, where you can see the letters printed on the other side of the page. This can make it difficult to focus on the letters you’re trying to read. When it comes to the colour, the glare off the standard bright white page can also make it difficult to focus and can cause eye strain.
4. Pick books with illustrations as they break up the walls of text that can be quite intimidating. They also show kids that there are other ways of processing a story besides reading the words.
5. Finally, remember that all children come to reading at their own pace, whether they have a condition or not. With the right help, plenty of children with dyslexia come to adore books. Making sure they have the right tools to be given the best chance is the important thing here.
Exclusive extract from Once Upon A Reader: Raising Your Children With a Love of Books by Lorraine Levis, published by Currach Books (2020)