Award-winning children’s author Jeff Norton shares with us his brilliant ideas on how to encourage our children not only to read more, but to enjoy it too.
“I used to loathe reading. For me, it was hard, daunting, and something I felt that I couldn’t “win” at. That’s a pretty rough place to be for a ten-year-old, and I’ve since discovered I was not alone.
Not all kids take to reading in the same way, and academic progress doesn’t always follow an academic calendar. It can be incredibly frustrating if your child isn’t a big reader. And without wanting to gender-stereotype, boys can be particularly slow to come to enjoy reading.
As an author on a book tour, I hear from many teachers and parents who ask – sometimes feeling at the end of their tether – what they can do to encourage the reluctant reader in their life.
Based on a combination of personal experience as a reformed reluctant reader, as an author and as a parent of two boys, here are some tips, tricks, and “life hacks” to help your reluctant reader.
Broaden the definition of reading
When many parents express their frustration about their child’s reluctance to read, what they often mean is their reticent of reading fiction, and especially fiction that’s been prescribed by the school. We need to greatly broaden our definition of reading to include non-fiction, graphic novels, and even the back of the cereal package. I recently met a producer for arts programming on Radio 4 who lamented how her son would only ever read non-fiction, and called fiction books “the boring ones.” He’s now studying Japanese literature at Cambridge. What flipped this boy from reluctant reader to avid academic? Pokemon Cards! Like many kids, he would pour over the intricate details on the backs of the cards. That’s reading.
Focus on stage, not age
This is hard to do, especially for competitive parents who want their child to excel in school, but like physical growth, reading growth comes in fits and starts. It’s not linear. The opportunity is to build confidence through practice and repetition; so don’t dismiss “easy” books. I’ve heard a lot of parents vilify the Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates books, complaining that “all my child does is read books that are too easy.” Any reading is something to celebrate. A child choosing to entertain themselves with the written word is a foundation you can build on. Series fiction is a good way to build this confidence. A series fiction book comes with the reward of ‘more of the same’, which is comforting for an emerging reader. A good series is the path to character-driven fiction, because it establishes good habits. Children are taught that to do better in sport and music they have to practice to get better, and the same is true of reading.
Turn reading time into special time
What most kids want more than anything is undivided attention from their parents. We parents are pulled in so many directions, and there’s never enough hours in the day – and add to that the distractive impact of the smart phone – that it’s no wonder our kids crave focused attention from us. Reading time can be that time. Put away the mobile phone, ensure the siblings are otherwise occupied, and take turns reading a book. It’s okay to read to them; that helps them build their vocabulary and makes reading a habitual activity.
Reign in screen-time (or at least make it your ally)
There’s no question that screen-time is powerfully addictive. When I was young, I was hooked on TV and never felt that I could find storytelling that was as compelling in a book as I could on television. And now, screens are mobile and can fit in a pocket. If you can, try to limit screen-time to set day-parts or even specific times of the week. However, if that ship has sailed, the good thing about screen content today is that, chances are, there’s a book to complement the programming. There are books on Minecraft, Fortnight and just about every television character available. If your child is already deep into something on the screen, push against the open door and offer up the corresponding book.
I was asked recently by a Year 7 student, “if you hated reading so much, how come you’re an author now?” An astute question. It was by no means a smooth transition. I was lucky that I had patient parents, supportive teachers, and a dedicated school librarian. For me, the transition started with “easy” series fiction, then onto funny books, and eventually scary ones. I’m still a slow reader, but my aim with my own writing is to write the types of books that will be as compelling as the very best of films and television, and cause readers to lose themselves in imaginative, immersive story worlds.”
Jeff Norton is an award-winning author, writer-director and producer. Originally from Canada, Jeff now lives in London with his wife and two young sons. Jeff’s new book, Alienated: Grounded At Groom Lake, is out now and is a middle-grade novel about the only two human kids at the school for aliens at Area 51 (Awesome Reads, £6.99).