Reaching The Reluctant Reader – One Dad’s Journey by Jeff Gunhus
My twelve-year-old son Jack just finished the third book of Rick Riordian’s Kane Chronicles series. He started the first one after New Year’s and has read the series even though he gets up for school at 6 AM, has sports after school and then homework until 9 PM each night. He’s read them without being asked, without being encouraged, and, sometimes, without be allowed. (The Kindle Fire works great under the covers after lights out for bedtime!)
Now, all this might not sound that amazing except for the fact that my son was squarely in the “reluctant reader” group as recently as April of last year.
He was smart, had great grades, was outgoing, was liked by his friends and teachers, but reading to him was a chore that was right up there walking behind our two yellow labs on clean-up duty. He was way more interested in movies, TV, video games…basically anything that had a power cord or a battery. At first, I wasn’t too worried. But over time I noticed that his vocabulary and his writing skills began to slip.
I decided to do something about it as opposed to just worry, so I created the Early Morning Book Club. That was my name anyway. To my son, I’m sure it was the Early Morning Torture Club. We got up an hour earlier and he read out loud to me for an hour. Luckily for him, his younger brother (William, 10) wanted in on the action, so we settled on alternating days.
The first week was rough. Thankfully, we had agreed on a no-complaining rule so the bleary-eyed boys (and coffee-craving Dad) trudged quietly downstairs to the sunroom, turned on the gas fire, and got down to reading. We had already read a few of the Harry Potter books out loud at bedtime, so we continued with that series. I taught the boys two lessons my fourth grade teacher (the very British Mrs. Harvey) had instilled in me…sit up straight and read with a pencil. Both boys had more than their fair share of slouching going on, but they did underline the heck out of words they didn’t know and created a running vocabulary list.
By the end of the week, the results were in and I wasn’t sure how it was working. The boys were a little more tired for school. They seemed only marginally excited about the whole thing. I worried that I was going to turn them off to reading instead of getting them excited. (Another mainstay of parenting is second-guessing whether you’re doing the right thing or not.) We had agreed this was a Monday through Friday activity, so I had the weekend to think it through and to decide whether or not to continue.
Then, on Sunday night, I heard the boys fighting about whose turn it was to read on Monday morning. It reminded me of the arguments about whose turn it was to take out the trash. There it was. Proof my little experiment was failing. I sucked it up and prepared to change course.
But before I turned the corner from my eavesdropping hideout, I realized an amazing thing. The argument was about who got to wake up and read in the morning, not who had to. Each of them actually wanted it to be his turn. Ahhh…the sweet smell of temporary success.
I say temporary because I only had a good three weeks of this honeymoon before I felt the initial enthusiasm start to slip. The newness was wearing off and I wondered if I was just making reading a chore, like taking out the trash. I needed to do something to make it more exciting.
That’s when Jack Templar Monster Hunter was born.
I decided that I’d just write something that they couldn’t help but get sucked into. A story about two boys, Jack and his best friend Will (see how that works), who become monster hunters. There would be fighting. Massive battles and cliffhangers. Maybe even a little romance. Best of all, it would be about them. How could I go wrong?
I wrote up the first chapter, introduced the main characters, ended with a fight scene and a whopper of a cliffhanger. It was Jack’s turn when Chapter One made its debut. He was hooked and the buzz was back in our early morning book club.
I had a lot of writing to do. With the help of the boys, we got it done.
Now that the book is done and out in the world, all three of us have been amazed at the positive reaction to it. We read all the reviews together and respond to emails from readers together. It’s been a great bonding experience.
The other bit of magic is that Jack (my Jack) is no longer a reluctant reader. He’s just a reader. Actually, I’d maybe give him “avid reader”. After Jack Templar, he chewed his way through all the Rick Riordan books, clocking in at a book a week. In middle school, the literature became more demanding and he loved it. Now, he’s on Goodreads looking for suggestions and scouting up-and-coming authors.
And amid all this flurry of reading, there’s one constant question he keeps asking me…
“Dad, when are you going to finish Book Two?”
I’m working away on The Monster Hunter Academy because I don’t want to disappoint him…and because I owe Jack Templar a debt of gratitude. He made my son want to read a book. And I can’t think of any better gift to give him than that.
Tips For Reaching A Reluctant Reader
- Set up time to read with them. There’s always time…sometimes you just have to carve it out of something else.
- Have them read out loud. You’ll know better where they are getting hung up. Articles I’ve read show that reluctant readers are often avoiding reading because their perception is they are not good at it. Find out.
- Read with a pencil. Underline words your reader has a tough time pronouncing or can’t define. Transfer to a separate page later.
- Make them feel safe. Set the ground rules. Let them know that you didn’t know a lot of words when you were young. Confide that there are still words that you don’t know. There’s no judgment in the reading club.
- Use books that are fun, easy reads at first. An author who ends each chapter with a white-knuckled cliffhanger helps.
- Only let them read that book in your sessions. Make it special and use the cliffhanger to get them excited for the next session. Encourage a separate book to read outside the reading sessions if they are getting the bug.
- Relate to the book. Figure out how your reader’s life relates to the characters. This helps critical thinking and makes it fun.
- Write your own stories. They don’t have to be novels. But put your reader into the story, even if it’s just their name. Have fun with it.
- Be consistent. Once you set this appointment, nothing can touch it. Nothing.
- Have fun! This isn’t school, it’s supposed to be fun. You might be surprised. I didn’t expect to like the Harry Potter books but I loved them. Outside of writing Jack Templar, I had my own burst of reading. It was great fun and the more the boys saw me with a book in my hand, the more likely they were to do the same. The quiet mornings with my boys became some of my favorite times with them. I hope you can experience the same.
Jeff Gunhus lives in Maryland with his five kids, two dogs, horse, cat and very understanding wife. He’s the author of career books for college students and of the MG/YA fantasy novel, Jack Templar Monster Hunter. His 10 Steps To Reach Your Reluctant Reader have helped hundreds of parents get their kids excited about books.