It is Sunday evening. The dishes are done, the dog is walked, and the laundry is folded. It’s the ideal time to relax with the New York Times, and my husband and I sink into the couch and each grab for our favorite sections. At the same time, our 15-year-old son, Alex, reaches for the remote control.
It is a nightly struggle between two adults, both avid readers who love a good novel as much as Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and Shape magazines, and our son, who hates to read. For Alex, the idea of relaxing has nothing to do with books. In fact, he considers reading a form of torture, something he is forced to do at school, and avoids at all costs from the moment he arrives home.
Reading is “stupid,” “boring,” and “for nerds,” according to our son, who is severely dyslexic. By the time he stumbles through a page of text, painstakingly sounding out difficult words with the strategies he’s learned after years of tutoring and remediation, it is no surprise that the larger context is lost. And of course any pleasure he might derive from the story is also long gone.
How does a book-loving parent cope? Is it appropriate to give up the campaign to get one’s child to read, and accept the fact that some people will never read for pleasure?
Dealing with “helpful” suggestions
When our friends or other parents hear how much Alex dislikes reading, they can’t seem to help themselves from giving us suggestions. What they probably don’t understand is that the tips that are useful to kids who find reading easy most often don’t resonate for a struggling reader.
Some of the most common suggestions include:
- Have we tried reading aloud to him? (Of course, how do you think he finished Of Mice and Men, and Harry Potter?)
- Have we gotten him books that reflect his greatest interests — motorcycles, cars, animals, sports, music? (Yes, we have a library of books on mammals, motor vehicles, famous musicians, and beloved sports heroes.)
- Have we thought of comic books or magazines that focus on his passions? (Check out the bookshelf in our son’s room — Guinness Book of World Records, subscriptions to Car Action and Drummer magazines, stories of action heroes, and comic book compilations fill the shelves.)
Each of these purchases holds some interest at first, at least while we are at the bookstore. But the persistence required for a struggling reader to get through any one of these publications is more than Alex can muster.
What has worked
While there is no miraculous breakthrough to report when it comes to our son’s willingness to sit down with a book, we have found ways to promote his literacy. Every child is different, but here are some of the strategies that have worked for us:
- Books on tape: Thanks to Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, a nonprofit organization that offers reasonably priced books on tape, we can get any book Alex needs to read for school. Using books on tape is part of his IEP, but any parent can get a book on tape and use it as back up or support. We are also regulars at the bookstores that carry a wide selection of books on tape, as well as the website, www.booksontape.com. Alex will listen to books once he’s in bed, although he’d still rather watch TV if given a choice.
- Reading aloud: Even though some kids are too proud to let their parents read aloud to them once they are out of elementary school, we’ve found a balance that allows us to read books together. For us, the best approach is to say it’s a book we want to read, too, so that his feeling of embarrassment can be put aside.
- Watch the movie first: While there aren’t movie equivalents for many books, when we can find them, we watch and discuss them together. It’s how we plan to get through To Kill a Mockingbird this year.
- Abridged books: It’s not my preference to read the abridged versions of classics, but if it helps Alex stay caught up with his class, it’s better than nothing.
- Books with large print: For some kids with learning difficulties, getting books with larger type can be helpful. Maybe it’s that the pages are less intimidating with less text, or maybe it is the fact that there are fewer words per line, but it seems to make the going a bit easier.
- Read the newspaper: In our case, it’s the sports section that sometimes catches Alex’s attention. He’ll suffer through a sports story if it means he can learn some new stats on his beloved Barry Bonds. Other kids may find the Arts section or the Science section more compelling.
- Think visual: Okay, so a 15-year-old is too sophisticated for picture books, but there are still some publications that have enough images, illustrations, and photos to add context and interest. One favorite is National Geographic.
- Seize the moment: If Alex decides he’s in the mood to read, but it’s 11 p.m. on a school night, or it’s time to make dinner, we try to drop everything to take advantage of the moment. You can’t always do it, but sometimes you can, and usually you’ll be glad you did.
- Stay away from jargon or “in jokes”: Often kids who have learning disabilities don’t get the subtleties of humor or slang because they interpret words literally. If you have to explain every joke in Captain Underpants, it’s no longer funny and it can make your child feel ignorant.
What works for one child or family won’t necessarily work for another, but with experimentation, you and your child will find solutions that help. My husband and I have discovered that, once in a while our perseverance pays off. The other night when I was dozing off and I heard voices from my son’s room, I tiptoed down the hall to find he had fallen asleep with his book, My Losing Season by Pat Conroy, still playing on the tape recorder.
I suppose that’s as close as he’ll get to dozing off with a good book poised on his chest. But maybe it’s just as good.