As a member of Americorps I was part of a super-successful in-school literacy program called Leaps in Literacy. We worked with underperforming elementary school readers (grades two through five). These were kids who had fallen behind their peers and were well aware of it. When it came to reading books of any size or shape, the kids’ self-esteem visibly plummeted. So our team of reading coaches would often have to get creative. When my readers were struggling to get through their book-of-the-day, I would sometimes try the following little trick. It’s quite helping in motivating children to read.
Why can’t I get my child enthusiastic about reading?
On the more difficult reads, a child would usually get to just about the midway point before their low reading self-esteem would really start to slow them down. At that point, whatever momentum they’d gained would start to peter out. The session would continue, but at a snail’s pace. I’d have to practically beg the student to keep trying. Don’t give up! You can do it! But efforts like these would only treat the surface of the problem. The real problem was that the children I was reading with were angry at themselves for “going too slow.” It took the wind out of their sails to believe that so many of their peers would have zipped right through the book in question.
In a sense it was true. The kids in our program hadn’t yet reached the same reading skill-set as the majority of their peers. But more goes into reading a book than syntax, vocabulary, and all that fun stuff. There’s a much more important factor in play when it comes to successful reading, and, as it turns out, it’s something that every kid has plenty of: imagination.
Try motivating children to read by leveling the playing field
I found a great trick for how to motivate children to read after they’ve given up was to get each child to abandon the story for a moment, and to strictly use his or her imagination. That was one area where the kids in our program were absolutely equal to their peers. Whenever possible I’d stop the students and engage their imaginations with a couple of pre-planned story-related questions. Freed from the constraints of their still-under-development reading skills, the kids’ eyes would light up. They’d suddenly realize that they could now participate in the story without any struggle at all. Now they could steer the ship with the same confidence their peers enjoyed.
How do I engage my kid’s imagination?
The simplest way to engage a child’s imagination is to ask fun, open-ended questions. But don’t quiz the readers on their comprehension of what they’ve read so far; that’s bringing their still-under-development reading skills back into play again. You want a level playing field where that stuff doesn’t matter anymore.
Instead, ask them questions about story and character details completely outside the framework of the plot. Make sure the child knows that “the answer’s not in the book” and that they have to make it up in their head. Easy questions like these:
- What do you think the dad was like when he was younger?
- What do you think the little boy wants to be when he grows up?
- What would happen if the family moved to the big city?
As best you can, try to get the reader to incorporate known-facts from the story into their answers. But the most important thing is simply to get them to participate in the wonder of the story on an even playing field with their peers. No matter what the child’s actual reading level might be, his or her imagination is surely firing on all cylinders. When you’re done with your questions and answers, it’s time to return to the story. You’ll find that the child now has more than enough enthusiasm to get through the rest of the story. And to enjoy it too!