Advice Column, Child, Education, Parenting, Toddler, Tween & Teen

How do I make my child love reading?

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As a grade six English teacher at Maragon Ruimsig, I am frequently asked this question at Parents’ Evenings. The child concerned inevitably struggles with the comprehension section of my assessments and while the diagnosis is simple, the “medication” is very difficult to administer…think squirming cat here and the thankless task of attempting to force a pill down the hapless feline’s throat! An almost impossible task.

After about 28 years of teaching English, I am certainly qualified to state that, without a doubt, my top achievers were bookworms. Their vocabulary was excellent; they were able to master the skills of skimming and scanning for information in no time at all. The non-reader would comparatively read line by line looking for answers in the most laborious fashion, often needlessly re-reading sections in an attempt to find that ever-elusive answer. Naturally, the non-reader would start to panic and run out of time and in many cases skip to the easier Language section, often losing some 15-20% of their marks because of their inability to skim and scan.

Before beginning with the suggestions, I will outline below, there may be a valid reason why your child dislikes reading. He or she may be struggling with a number of optical difficulties best diagnosed by an optometrist. The, as yet undiagnosed, difficulty could cause words to swim in front of your child’s eyes, letters could well be dancing in the most bewildering fashion making reading a fate worse than death itself. If you, as the parent wore glasses at an early age then genetically your child, too, will be more inclined to wear spectacles at an early age as well. In short: a visit to the optometrist is essential before proceeding.

Being an avid reader from an early age, I often find myself returning to my childhood looking for the stimuli that set me on the path towards loving books. My father was always curled up on the couch with a Louis L’amour in hand. The bookshelf was filled with westerns, non-fiction and various other genres. I was always a naturally curious child and absorbed all the “Children of the World” books, which were full of fascinating facts from countries all over the world. Very soon I graduated to Westerns and then onto adult novels at the age of 12. In hindsight, some of these books were not suitable for children of my age but my parents were none the wiser.

From this account, you can draw your own conclusions. If you want, your children to read you should be modelling that behaviour. Provide a healthy cross section of genres to appeal to your child’s unique reading palate. Generally, I find boys prefer non-fiction to fiction; girls on the other hand gravitate to fiction and tend to, as a rule, read more than boys tend to. As an added incentive, and to gauge your child’s interests, take your child to a bookstore and ask them to choose what it is that interests them. 

Another possible way forward, counter-intuitively, is to choose an excellent audio book and listen to it in the car, on the way to your holiday destination, or even to school, every morning. This method will pique your child’s interest as they become involved in the plot and the drama of the reading. The next step may well be your child asking to read the books produced by that particular author.

Use technology to your advantage allow your child to purchase digital readers and order books online. Naturally, you will have to put provisos in place as to how much they may spend.

Which brings me to another matter…my own children…confession time: they do not read! Horror of horrors and here I am dispensing advice to all those parents out there! My children have been surrounded by books and both my wife and I read a great deal. My eldest was never interested in reading except for a very short “Lord of the Rings” spell. Today at 23 years of age, he mostly immerses himself in surfing the net and following up on his investments and shares, all of which require skimming and scanning skills. My middle child, now in Matric, was a bookworm of note and is now a top student, he no longer reads. My youngest has read perhaps two or three books in his entire 14 years and yet manages to achieve top marks for his comprehensions.

My point is that there are no fixed rules, the old adage applies, “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Do not despair if you try out all the tips I have mentioned without success. Our children are reading all the time, be it advertisements or cereal boxes, they read a copious amount of material without picking up a book. More important than the mechanical technique of reading is comprehension or understanding what it is you are reading. The thinking skills behind the reading are vital. You might want to try commenting on a headline that may appear on a street-pole. Try the WWWWHW technique i.e. who, what, where, when, how and why. In other words, “Who do you think the headline is speaking about?” This technique teaches your child to read with comprehension. Scroll through the articles on news 24 and utilize the same technique. 

In conclusion: you may not produce a bookworm, but you are giving your child the skills by which they can dissect a piece of writing and is that not what reading is really all about?

By Ian McCallum, teacher of Maragon Ruimsig Preparatory 

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