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Reluctant readers

From ‘thinking outside the bookbag’ to reading for a purpose, children’s author and mum of three Isabel Thomas shares some great advice on helping reluctant readers get excited about books.

You can spot a reluctant reader by putting a book in their hands. Five minutes later they’ll be gazing out of the window, wriggling on the floor, or building an intricate paperback tower – anything but reading the words on the page.

It’s not that they struggle to read (see our struggling readers page for children who find reading difficult). And it’s not that they can’t sit still – give my sons a screen, and they’ll demonstrate Olympian levels of concentration and stamina. Reluctant readers have the skills needed to devour books, but don’t – or won’t – use them.

Does it matter? There’s more to life than books, and children can also learn by climbing trees, making junk models, or playing sports. But research consistently shows that children who read for pleasure do better at school, and we all want to give our children the best chance of unlocking adventures and opportunities in the future.

With that in mind, here are some great ways to encourage your sons to feel excited about books:

1. Read for pleasure

Levels and book bands are useful tools, but it’s most important to focus on making reading fun and exciting. To avoid making reading feel like a chore or a race, I learned to be interested and impressed by whatever my sons are reading.

For most children, reading for pleasure starts with snuggly bedtime stories. There’s no need to stop this daily ritual once children can read the words themselves. Listening to stories is a great way to nurture a love of books. It also helps a child to access interesting content above their reading level. As they get older, take it in turns to read a sentence, page, or chapter each.

2. Make it funny

My sons love it when we subvert a traditional story – adding jokes and misinterpreting the pictures for comic effect. Hearing the Hungry Caterpillar be rude about his meals, or Cinderella joke about the prince’s fashion sense, helps them associate books with laughing as well as learning.

Luckily you don’t have to improvise – there are LOADS of funny children’s books out there. Some children will enjoy snot jokes and slapstick; others will like tales of naughtiness that turn familiar rules upside down. Experiment, and see what sticks. These books are a good start:

There are lots more ideas for funny books on the Oxford Owl blog: Ben Davis’ top 10 funny books >

3. Think outside the bookbag

My middle son used to run in the opposite direction if he saw me brandishing his school reading book. He hated the pressure of reading aloud. At the time, I was working on eBooks for Oxford’s Project X series, and showed him how to access books on screen. Suddenly he was gobbling up two or three books in one sitting.

I wasn’t surprised when National Literacy Trust research found that eBooks make children keener, more confident readers, with the most potential to engage boys who don’t enjoy reading. Take a look at the library of free eBooks on Oxford Owl for ideas.

If you are reluctant to add more screen time to the day, try graphic novels, poems, joke books, magazines, or comics – bite-sized texts can be more appealing than a traditional book. My four-year-old even enjoys reading letters and words chalked on trees during walks!

Try these book ideas:

Our free eBook library has lots of books perfect for reluctant readers.

4. Read for a purpose

My eldest son is always reluctant to start reading a new story, but happily dips into books that mix reading with hands-on activities. From coding to origami, non-fiction books that give him a clear sense of purpose are always a big hit, and can be enjoyed without the pressure to read them from cover to cover. Take a look at our blog post, Four top tips for getting the most out of non-fiction >

Attention-grabbing content is vital – reluctant readers will abandon a book in seconds if they aren’t hooked. Seek out non-fiction books that link to your child’s existing passions, from fossils and football to snakes and space! Try out these books to start:

5. Copy and collect

If your child loves collecting things, they might get a buzz from working their way through a series. The best recommendations come from other children – ask around on the playground, or find out which books have a waiting list in your local library.

Books linked to films or TV shows can be a good starting point. My son had chosen his Hogwarts house long before he picked up a Harry Potter book. It’s taking him months to work his way through the story, but it’s the joy of sharing details with friends that keeps him coming back to the book. Try these books and useful resources:

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