How to encourage reluctant readers

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A toddler with no interest in learning to read is hard work. It can often feel as if you are banging your head against a brick wall but, in the words of the great Douglas Adams, ‘Don’t Panic!’ Eventually something will spark their interest and it doesn’t have to be a book. Comics and internet pages, even game instructions can all count and be the trigger for the need to read. Keep plugging at it, even when you think it is hopeless. It isn’t, and one day you will recall those traumatic hours of blank expressions over flash cards and smile as your child reads everything in sight.

The tips:

1 – Do not force it

The worst mistake any parent can make is to shove a book into the hands of a toddler and force them to sit with it. Children do not have a cloak over their emotions as we do and they are more perceptive than we give them credit for. They know fakery when they see/hear it and your faked enthusiasm for ‘A is for Apple’ primers and monotonous flash cards will just compound the burgeoning dislike they already have. Choose times that suit you and your child. If it feels like a chore, stop and try later, when you are both more amenable to the idea.

2 – Lead by example.

At this stage a toddler still thinks its primary carer is god and will imitate constantly. When you go to the fridge to make lunch, take out the tubs, bottles and packages and read them. Your child will no doubt be under your feet with cries of “Watcha doing mum?”

(If you take long enough they will come to find out where you are anyway. This is known as the ‘No mother will visit the toilet unaccompanied by at least one child’ principal).

At the prompt of “watcha doing?” you ask them a question in return. For example – Two packs of cheese. Hold them both out and ask the child which you should have for lunch. When they point to one pack you ask “Do you like that one best?” They answer yes because that’s what they do. Decisions at this age are final because no toddler is ever wrong about anything! You return with “Mummy likes this one best. Do you know why?” Shake of the head, at which point you crouch beside your child (always, always, always be at the level of your child when engaging them in conversation.) and point out the wording on the package, spell it out or just say it as you point to the words and say “Because these words tell mummy the name of the cheese and I know that one is the name of my favourite.”

You can use this anywhere and everywhere. You show interest in reading the warning sign at the park and your child will follow your lead. You read the words on the cereal packet and your child will come with you. Reading is with you all the time, use it and your child will never know that they are learning so there is zero resistance.

3 – Bath-time is reading time

Fill the bath and make sure there are masses of bubbles. Once your child is in the bath, idly start tracing letters in the foam. Toddlers are curious and the rest is easy. You write ‘mum’ in the bubbles, they ask what you are doing and you say ‘I’m writing mum’. Instant ‘Can I do it?’ moment. As long as there is foam, there is reading.

Using finger-paints on the tiles is an obvious avenue but you don’t have to buy expensive paints from shops. Just Google the words ‘Homemade Finger-paint’ and there is a wealth of information to be had. Thrift shops are also an excellent resource where you can pick up books specifically designed for use in the bath. To a toddler the mere fact of being in the bath means they can’t possibly be learning, bath = fun, so books may be more readily accepted.

4 – Story time

Keep up the book at bedtime mentality, even if it feels like hard work, and your child drops off before you’ve reached the end of page two. The best tool I ever discovered for keeping a toddler riveted to their bedtime story was voices.

Yes, it makes you feel like a fool, you have no talent for it. We know all the excuses and dismiss them. Why? Because your child doesn’t know that the voice you give the character in the book is rubbish! To your child it simply is the voice, end of discussion. They don’t care if your chickens sound like they have a smoker’s cough or your elephants are apparently being squeezed in a leaky bellows. Your voice is what they accept. Stop being scared of embarrassing yourself and let rip.

Remember, no-one will ever know but you and your child. My children still giggle and replicate the voices I used when we read that eternal favourite “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy” (by Lynley Dodd). Hairy was of course a Scot, Bottomley Potts was an upper-class English twit and Bitzer Maloney was Italian for some reason long since forgotten.

Every book has a multitude of voices you can utilise to make the reading experience fun. Heck, you can even go so far as to act bits of it out. There’s nothing quite as hysterical to a toddler as its carer, this figure of authority, suddenly descending to all fours and pretending to be a cat hissing at a dog! You never know, you might even rediscover a little of your inner child.

5 – Have reading material everywhere

Leave (suitable!) magazines everywhere. Toddler magazines can sit next to the potty. Animal magazines, nature magazines, toy catalogues (if you can withstand the constant pleas of ‘I want’) can live near or in the toy box. Write notes to your child and leave them where they can find them, then come and ask you what they say.

(A tip here is to introduce a special notepad and explain to them that it for ‘special notes’ between mum and toddler. Toddlers love secrets – hence their fascination with every closed cupboard and where the discs go when the cd drawer closes! – and this will grab their attention.)

Have a whiteboard or a chalkboard hung on the playroom/lounge wall at their level and draw together on it, name the things you draw.

The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. (Did you know you can see letters in the clouds?) Instead of switching on the tv in the evening (you can watch it after your child goes to bed remember), sit down with a book whilst your child plays prior to bedtime. Show them that books are a part of your life and they’ll want to make it part of theirs.

There is something almost magical about that still moment at the end of their day. The world recedes and attention becomes centered on the page and the sound of children laughing, taking a shocked breath at an unexpected event or pleading for just one more chapter, one more story.

As Tim Allen once said, ‘Never give up! Never surrender!’ One day your child will surprise you, turn from the stubborn little ball of fury who wants nothing to do with books to the kid who’s looking up how to fix his bike on the internet or reading a recipe so she can cook you a Mother’s Day meal. Don’t laugh, I promise it will happen if you just hang in there and remember to enjoy it. Good luck


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