Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Motivating Reluctant Readers

For me, the biggest challenge in teaching my older adopted kid to read hasn't been about instruction; it's been about motivation.

Wenxin is a reluctant reader. Learning to read, for him, has been hard work. Arriving in America at age 7 1/2, not speaking a word of English and not knowing a letter A from a letter Z, he felt behind from the start. It didn't take long for him to realize that kids a lot younger than him could read much better than him.

That's kind of a slap in the face.

Even as his reading skills improved, reading just wasn't fun for him. So around Christmas, I set out to see that change. And along the way, my journey to motivate my reluctant reader took me some unexpected places.

Like. . .

To Barnes and Noble in search of the perfect joke book for kids.  

It all started the Saturday before Christmas. We'd just picked up our new van and were grabbing a bite to eat at a local sports bar. We like to go there because we can put the kids in one booth while Mike and I sit alone in another booth and pretend like we don't have four kids.

Seriously, we really do.

On that day, Wenxin kept leaning over the back of our booth trying to tell the jokes that were printed on his children's menu -- the jokes he was attempting to read on his own.

"Buy him a joke book," Mike said, and from the look on his face I could tell he wasn't joking.

Best money we ever spent.

Telling a joke is fun, and we've always known that fun is high on Wenxin's list. Also, jokes are short. You don't have to read pages and pages to get enjoyment from a joke book. Since Christmas, Wenxin has read that book from cover to cover. More than once.

And he's become quite entertaining.

Wenxin: "What do you call a cheese that is not your own?"
Me: "I don't know."
Wenxin: " Nacho cheese."

Can I just say how much I love that kid? He has great comedic timing, and he's learning the jokes by READING!

However, my journey to help Wenxin learn to love to read didn't end at Barnes and Noble. Learning to motivate my reluctant reader took me places I never planned to go. Learning to motivate my reluctant reader even forced me to. . .

Confront my inner book snob.

I'm a fan of quality children's literature. I'm a sucker for any book with one of those little gold or silver seals on the cover that declare it to be an award winner. I might as well admit it. I'm a book snob.

Before Christmas, I contacted a friend of mine on Facebook. She happens to be a librarian at a private international school in Brazil, so I asked her for book suggestions for Wenxin. Believe it or not, she had the audacity to suggest a graphic novel.

Graphic novel? What??? I think that's code for comic book.

But, remembering that fun is high on my little man's list, off to Amazon I went, and on Christmas morning, Wenxin opened a copy of Big Nate from Santa. A few days later, his Aunt Sherri sent him a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid for his birthday.

We were celebrating Wenxin's birthday at my parents' house in Alabama, and that night, something amazing happened. Wenxin, Nathan and their cousin J. were camping out in the living room. I'm not sure how it happened, but it was decided that J. would read Diary of a Wimpy Kid aloud to Wenxin  -- in the dark -- by flashlight.

Talk about motivating my reluctant reader! An older boy, his cousin whom he adores, modeling a love for reading -- by flashlight. J. put the stamp of coolness on reading in a way I never could.

We were making progress, but I still had one more thing to learn.

Through the process of teaching Wenxin to read -- and love it -- I've discovered that. . .

Sometimes it's OK to push a little. 

For a few months now, I've been requiring Wenxin to set a timer and read silently for 30 minutes a day. Especially in the beginning, this was met with a lot of resistance. The joke book helped. 30 minutes of jokes isn't really so bad.

Finally, last week I decided it was time for Wenxin to read a real chapter book. I pulled out the first book in the Magic Tree House series and announced that he'd be reading it on his own during his silent reading time.

This declaration was met with tears. Big. Drippy. Silent. Tears.

It was too hard. He couldn't do it. He was scared.

But deep down inside I knew he could do it. He had the skills. He just didn't have the confidence.

Wenxin needed me to believe in him and push.

Pushing is not my natural parenting style.

But, ignoring my natural inclination to let him go at his own pace, I set the timer and handed him the book. He was allowed to ask me or one of his siblings if he got stuck on a word, which he did a lot the first day or two. He also periodically cried.

Today, however, he's almost finished with the book, and he's not asking very many words anymore. What he IS doing is telling me what's happening in the story. His story. The chapter book he's reading ALL BY HIMSELF.

Wenxin is learning that reading is fun. And I'm learning a few things as well. I"m learning that reading a joke book counts, and that reading a graphic novel counts, and that pushing a little isn't always a bad thing.

And I keep reminding myself that he's only been here two and a half years. He's learned all this in two and a half years. That's pretty good. That might just make him a genius!

For more about how I approached reading instruction with Wenxin, see Teaching Reading to Newly Adopted Kids.

*If you enjoyed this post, use the buttons below to share it on Facebook or Twitter. Shared at Growing Slower's Tuesday Baby Link-up.


  1. Wonderful! Knowing when to push and when to back off is soo hard. I've also had a few reluctant readers and had to travel surprising paths.

    1. Agreed. I'm still not a big fan of pushing too much, but in this case, it has seemed like the thing to do.

  2. Thanks for this post. We are about a year behind you and just beginning the "pushing" process. It IS hard to learn to read and yet when they are capable, the push is necessary. I have dragged my feet on this with Joshua a little longer than I should have so I appreciate this post a lot. Interestingly, at our developmental eval for Joy, the doctor said that if a child learned a language first, it would be easier to learn a second language. Joshua by age 8 was reading and writing in China and was fluent conversationally in English within 4 months. Joy at age 6 was not exposed to language and will have a much harder time. I find all of this fascinating.

    1. That is fascinating. Wenxin picked up spoken English quickly. It really was amazing to watch the process. But he had no formal schooling in China, and never learned to read Chinese, nor was he exposed to anything about the English language while in China. As far as reading goes, we had to start from scratch.

  3. did you know there is also a graphic novel version of the bible. a bunch of my friends are using it with thier younger children in lieu of the traditional children's bible

    1. I'll check that out. The graphic novel is slowly winning me over. Maybe if they'd put one of those little silver award stickers on a graphic novel, it would help get my inner book snob on board.

    2. My son is a reluctant reader as well and I've had to confront many of the same issues in myself (especially the book snob part) when it comes to helping him with his reading. He ADORES graphic novels, especially the Action Bible (the graphic novel version that anyabar talks about above). There is also a devotional to go along with it that I'm considering putting in his Easter basket. I swear, if I could find 'War and Peace' in graphic novel format, he'd read it. In the meantime, our copies of Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and my old collection of Calvin and Hobbes books get more wear than I ever expected! But he likes reading them so I'm not complaining :)

  4. We are all comic readers at our house. Sam likes green lantern and super dinosaur. There are a lot of good ones out there...

    1. We seriously need to get our kids together.

  5. Dana, I love it that you're having to get over your inner book snob. I had to get over mine too. :) The reason I even dared suggest a graphic novel in the first place is because I have seen it work so many times to reel kids in toward reading. I have become more fond also of books that are just funny for the sake of being funny and not for teaching some great lesson. Again, they reel in those readers who otherwise wouldn't be reading and then after a season, one day you turn around and your little non-reader is suddenly reading WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS or some other classic.

    I have more recommendations for you because the Newbery awards (little gold and little silver stickers!) were just announced this week. The winner of the Newbery is the BEST read aloud. It's called THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I am reading it to Duncan, my 6th grader, who can perfectly well read it for himself (He reads at about a 9th grade level) but who still just loves to listen to story. And I wanted to read it anyway. So it's fun for us to share.

    Another book that Wenxin might really enjoy (you may have read these already?) is WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON and STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY both by Grace Lin and both of which are based on Chinese legends and folklore. Again, it would be a read aloud, I think, unless Wenxin just really loves it and decides to dive in on his own.

    1. I'm not kidding guys - it pays to know a librarian! Thanks, Kristy,for the follow-up.

  6. Thanks for submitting your post to the Homeschool Showcase! I have had a couple of struggling readers (thanks to dyslexia) and one fairly voracious reader whose switch was flipped by Diary of a Wimpy Kid. That wouldn't have been my first choice, but so well worth it!

  7. I'm a college professor of literature, with a 7-year-old who began as a reluctant reader (you can imagine my horror). But my mom did one thing absolutely right: while TV was severely restricted, her rule was that we could read anything in the printed word. Comic books, cereal boxes, joke books, written porn -- whatever. I was a voracious reader of anything and everything, unlike my daughter, and read things like Shogun and Our Bodies, Ourselves at 9. But I've stuck by my mom's rule and my daughter is now reading everything from books about the Venus Flytrap to Harry Potter. She may not ever be the bookworm I was, but she is reading above grade level and happily.

  8. Thank you so much for this post! (I found you via Parent Hacks) My son (just turned 8, slightly dyslexic) has been asking for more books like the Wimpy Kid series since Christmas but I didn't know what to get. He's now read the first Nate book and 5 Captain Underpants, and is begging for more :-)


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