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Embracing change: how my reluctant reader became a book lover

What to do when your kid doesn't love reading (even if you do!), and strategies for helping them develop their reading skills.

Reading was one of my favorite hobbies as a young child. When I started homeschooling my own kids in 2018, I couldn't wait to develop their love of reading. We did tons of pre-reading and phonics exercises to prepare.

Fellow Outschoolers, I was shocked when I realized that my then-kindergartner didn't love reading. In fact, he dreaded reading assignments. I tried a variety of tactics, including negotiation, reward systems, and even a little bribery. Nothing worked. 

My son's lack of cooperation during reading exercises confused me. We were using a phonics-based curriculum that I knew was effective. And he loved listening to stories. I was sure he'd want to learn to read by himself.

So, what was the problem? I started by asking my son why he didn't like the reading exercises in class. He told me that they were just too hard. I realized that I needed to focus on building his foundational reading skills so that his confidence would increase. 

I started by working on phonics skills with him. I provided extra support during reading exercises. We bickered less over schoolwork, but I could still tell that he wasn't enjoying reading. I knew I needed to change something. I just didn't know what it was.  

Developing reading skills step by step

During my son's kindergarten year, he begged me to read every other word in his basic readers every day. I'll admit that I was frustrated at first. We were working out of tiny books with basic sentences, and I wanted him to do the work. 

A few months into the school year, I happened to run across my first-grade report card. There was only one teacher comment: "Dottie could use some help sounding out words." As far as I could remember, I'd always tested above grade level in reading. Seeing that comment was humbling.  

I realized that I needed to read every other word with my son to encourage him. As his reading level progressed, I read every other sentence, then every other paragraph. Looking back, I know it would have been helpful to work with an online reading tutor who could encourage my son and reinforce what I was teaching. 

Build foundational skills 

Imagine building a house without a hammer. It would feel impossible, right? Any task is frustrating when you don't have the right tools. That might be how your child feels about reading! 

Research has shown time and again that strong phonics skills are essential to reading mastery. I use a phonics-based curriculum in my homeschool to ensure that my kids are developing good decoding skills. You can also find fun phonics classes where your kids will play games while building skills all year long.

Working on sight words with your kids is a great way to cut down on reading frustration. My kids love playing sight-word bingo and using letter tiles to spell familiar words. These exercises help build confidence and reading fluency.  

What I did when my approach stopped working 

By the time we reached the classic tales of Frog and Toad in first grade, my son was eager to read each page by himself. "Victory," I thought.

When we started second grade, the reading arguments started all over again. It was so disappointing because I thought we'd gotten past those issues. This time, I knew that it wasn't a matter of skill level. It was something else. 

That year, my brother sent Pokémon trading cards to my kids for Christmas. My oldest, who was finishing 1st grade, was thrilled. He loved playing the card game and learning about new Pokémon. 

There was just one problem: My husband and I weren't always free to read the cards to him. Determined to play the game anyway, my son started reading them by himself. I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought reading in school wouldn't be a struggle after Christmas break. 

Once again, I was wrong! My son still didn't want to read in school. When I asked him why he dreaded reading, he repeated his much earlier answer that it was "too hard." I just knew that wasn't true. 

"Hmm," I replied. "Is reading your Pokémon cards hard?"

He said, "Sometimes the names are hard, but the attacks and stuff are easy." 

"Did you know that the books you're reading in school right now are actually easier than the Pokémon cards? Those have some tough words," I told him. 

His response was priceless: "But they're fun. All these books you give me are boring." 

My son was suffering from something experts call academic boredom. He couldn't relate to the material that he was reading and didn't feel engaged. Researchers have shown that boredom has negative impacts on learning. I knew it was time to change up what I was doing.  

Is a different curriculum always the answer? 

Once I realized that my son was bored and that I had the power to change that, I started searching teaching blogs for ideas. I knew that I wanted to adapt my current curriculum, not dump it altogether. 

Making changes was hard. I loved our literature-based curriculum. Looking at the book assigned to my son that first week after Winter Break, I lamented the idea of replacing it. You can laugh along with me as I share that I actually worried that my 7-year-old was missing his only opportunity to learn about life for immigrant children in the early 20th century. 

It didn't take me long to realize that I had absolutely no interest in those stories when I was in second grade, either. As I read homeschool forums and blogs, I ran into countless comments about interest-led learning

It's a kid-centric approach where you let your child's interests inform their learning materials. I realized that it was exactly what we were looking for.  I also realized that I was going to have to make a sacrifice as a parent and engage with material that I wasn't interested in for my son's sake.

We started replacing books that my son deemed too boring with leveled readers he picked himself. Maybe he wasn't reading historical narratives, but he was starting to find a passion for books. That was enough for me. 

I know that trying new teaching methods (and investing in curriculum or resources for them) might sound daunting. What if you spend big bucks on a promising curriculum, but your child only retains interest for a week? 

What if you try a new method, but you aren't confident using it? A fun and affordable way to find an approach that works is to try out online reading classes. If your kids feel shy about reading out loud, think about enrolling them in an English club that focuses on speech and debate. These clubs increase learner confidence and reinforce the message that making mistakes while reading is okay.

Ask your kids what they liked and didn't like about their classes. This can help you narrow down teaching methods that will work in your homeschool. It also helps build your child's support network. It's a relief to know that there are other qualified teachers you can count on to help with your child's reading skills.  

A note about choosing books 

Deciding to let my son read things that interested him was a big step for me. But I was still confused about something: How would I know if a book was challenging enough for his learning level? It ends up that doing so is relatively easy.

Have you ever noticed that some publishing companies list a sequence of letters and numbers like 710L or 1020L on the backs of books? These are Lexile measures. Understanding how Lexile levels work can help you choose appropriate reading material for your kids. You can look up the Lexile level of a text if it isn't listed. Working with a reading comprehension tutor is also a good way to identify suitable books for your child.

Keep in mind that Lexile measures are based on writing style and sentence complexity alone. They don't take factors like a book's theme and content into consideration. For example, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men has a Lexile level of 630L. That's the equivalent of a 2nd-3rd grade reading level, but the themes in the book are not appropriate for young kids.

Some publishers have moved to using "reading levels" instead of Lexile levels. These are generally determined by the publishing company in-house and correspond to a student's grade level. Remember that these are just guidelines. It's okay if your child wants to try out books at a lower (or higher) reading level than they're currently at. 

Embracing a child’s passions 

If you've already discovered your child's reading passions, consider signing them up for an online book club where they get to talk about stories they love with other kids. These clubs help build reading comprehension and make reading exciting. You can also check out this list of Outschool's top books for kids for inspiration.  

My son is about to start third grade, and I'm excited to see where his interests take us this year. I've learned that you can work within a structured curriculum and leave room for your learner's passions. If that means learning about something that utterly bores me, I can handle it. 

Dorothy BondDorothy is a homeschooling mom and educator with over 15 years of instructional experience. She’s passionate about helping kids think creatively and tap into their natural writing skills.

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