Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Making Our Children Into Readers

April 9, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think; and the business of schools is to see that all their scholars shall belong to the former class …
– Charlotte Mason

That there are two categories of people — those who read and think … and those who don’t — is fairly obvious. That it is the teacher’s business to make sure her pupils end up as readers and thinkers — to ponder how that might be accomplished — is fodder for a million future blog posts.

Today, we’ll just talk about the capable but active boy. The kind who doesn’t sit still much. The kind who’d rather be outside. The kind who wants to finish his school lessons as quickly as possible. The kind who irritates people as a hobby.

The kind who, you suddenly realize, hasn’t been reading much lately.

What’s a conscientious mother to do?

Many many years ago, a woman approached me at a homeschool conference to ask about reading. She had heard I was a reading tutor and wanted to pick my brain. Her son, she said, wanted to read books “below his level” and she didn’t allow that sort of thing. Now she had a problem: he didn’t want to read at all. What did I recommend?

I honestly don’t remember my advice to her, but I do remember my horror at her rule about reading “levels.” I recently saw my 16-year-old reading our tattered copy of Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon picture book, and it thrilled me. He loved that book as a little guy; I was glad to see him still enjoying it. I read that book for the first time when I read it aloud to him as a preschooler. I had learned to love that book as an adult.

The best children’s books, as CS Lewis once told us, are still worth reading when we are grown.

When a little boy stops reading, we are often told to give him low quality books. Twaddle is just the thing, they say. It doesn’t matter what he reads as long as he is reading.

Those of us who know that reading cultivates the soul shudder and die a little on the inside when we hear this sort of thing. But still we struggle. Because we have a problem: he’s not reading on his own time at all.

We could use compulsion, of course. I’ve done that before; in the right spirit it can be effective rather than crushing. You must read for 15 minutes (or even 30 minutes), we say. And they do.

And then eventually you don’t have to require it anymore because the habit is built.

I’ve used a number of different approaches. Most recently I decided to try wooing.* I remembered that the little boy at my house who wasn’t reading very much adored Henry Huggins and A Bear Called Paddington. These were both below his reading level, but still: not twaddle. Not appealing to base desires.

I wondered what would happen if I gave him more from these series.

And so I did. I hunted down all the books with Henry and Paddington, and I added in three Ralph S. Mouse books as well.

At this point, I feel the need to give a disclaimer: it’s not that these specific books will always do the trick. Curating books for children takes time and thought. One of my favorite Mom Jobs is that of family librarian. It’s like matchmaking only instead of bride and groom, it’s child and book.

Sometimes, the result is magic.

In this case, my little guy disappeared into his room on a Saturday. I panicked when I couldn’t find him; it never dawned on me to check his room. But there he was, sitting at his desk, reading.

He read and he read and it took a couple months for him to finish them all (he had a garden to plant, after all).

When he came to the end of his pile, I wondered what would happen. Was this enough to build a habit of reading?

His sister had just finished The BFG. Did he want to read it? No, he said.

I opted for masterly inactivity; I waited and watched. A couple days later I found him reading The BFG after all.

When he finished that book, he was really in a bind. We were about to take a week long trip. He needed something to read on the plane and in the car. What was he to do?

We all made recommendations. Each was rejected. I added “book” in large capital letters to his packing list, just in case.

On the plane (to my surprise) he pulled out a thick copy of The Mysterious Benedict Society, a book he’d received for Christmas, which had been gathering dust for months. He’d initially complained about the size of the book (it’s over 500 pages), and set it aside.

When we returned home from our trip (at 3:00 am Monday morning, but who’s complaining?), I canceled school for the day. Again, he disappeared. This time, I checked his room earlier in the search process. There he was, reading more of The Mysterious Benedict Society. He proudly declared to me at lunch that he’d read it for over 90 minutes.

Today, he’s not reading. He had all sorts of other plans after school lessons were over: gardening, pestering his granddad, karate. But I’m no longer concerned about his lack of reading. A few well-chosen books seem to have re-awakened his affections.

I think he’s been firmly reinstalled in the category of readers.

* Note: This child is and always has been screen-free (except for an occasional family movie night). My guess is that the wooing approach would be less effective if the boy is exposed to a lot of screens.

Get the (almost) weekly digest!

Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

Powered by ConvertKit

21 Comments

  • Reply Barbara Miller May 7, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I’m a grandmother now and I so remember when my son was at that stage and what it took to introduce him to reading and art and even conversation when there was a wild world out there waiting for him. This post is great advice for mothersB of children who need to be wooed into reading.

  • Reply Lucy barr-hamilton April 11, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    More books for the wishlist…thanks! Mysterious Benedict sounds great. My kids are more inclined to the problem you spoke to a while back (gluttony) so I think I will hold back new books until the summer holidays (long car journeys… )

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 11, 2019 at 3:38 pm

      There is nothing like a new pile of books for a long car journey! ♥

  • Reply Jen April 11, 2019 at 10:15 am

    Is there hope for the child who has grown up on screens? ?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 11, 2019 at 3:16 pm

      Oh for sure! The older the child, the more you’ll have to work to get him on board. I’ve talked to a number of moms who decided a full detox was what it was going to take. It was hard, but turned out really well in the end!

      There is ALWAYS hope because our Father cares for us. ♥

      • Reply Jen April 11, 2019 at 8:16 pm

        Oh Brandy, thank you for this. ❤️

  • Reply COMama April 10, 2019 at 8:17 am

    I was always a voracious reader, and when my brain was too tired to read challenging books… I read picture books! It tickles me to see my kiddos do the same thing: we show up at the library and they make a beeline for the picture book bins, collect a stack, and cosy up somewhere to read until it’s time to go.

    Why ever would we deprive our kiddos of these wonderful moments?!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 10, 2019 at 9:05 am

      I agree! That mama was a tiger mama and it was backfiring. 🙁

  • Reply Dawn April 10, 2019 at 7:23 am

    My 3rd child is exactly as you described. I’ve tried many things. He is in middle school now and I’m just beginning to see times where he will choose to pick up books. Still not as active of a reader as the older two, but I’m learning to accept that being a reader doesn’t always look the same.
    Love the article!! Great encouragement for me.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 10, 2019 at 8:36 am

      “Being a reader doesn’t always look the same.” I just love that, Dawn! ♥

  • Reply Lisa April 9, 2019 at 6:07 pm

    How do you get a 15 year old boy to start reading? He’s never really enjoyed reading. It’s alway a struggle.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 10, 2019 at 8:38 am

      At that age, I’d talk to him about *why* — just to make sure there aren’t other underlying issues. If a child enjoys being read *to* at that age, but doesn’t enjoy the act of reading, sometimes they need to brush up on phonics or vision therapy or something.

      But also: reading is a habit, sort of like drawing is a habit. The human tendency is to not enjoy the early stages, but it’s only by building the habit that it becomes enjoyable. So sometimes the compulsion approach – requiring 15 minutes per day, let’s say — can help.

  • Reply Courtney April 9, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    “Today, he’s not reading. He had all sorts of other plans after school lessons were over: gardening, pestering his granddad, karate. But I’m no longer concerned about his lack of learning.” Do you mean you’re not concerned with his lack of reading? Because karate, gardening, and grandparents all sound like golden opportunities for learning! ?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 10, 2019 at 8:40 am

      Exactly. Even though I think a habit of reading is a good thing, I don’t think it has to be absolute — he’s got all this stuff going on, and I don’t think it’s an issue for him to skip a day. My concern was that his habit had become *not* reading, if that makes sense. I need to edit that — I really did mean to put reading there. You’re right!

  • Reply Renee April 9, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    Does this child read all of his Ambleside readings to himself? I’ve heard a couple mom’s say that by the time their children’s school reading (Ambleside) is done, they are done reading. I’ve wondered about this. Does this ever prevent kids from reading for delight?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 10, 2019 at 8:44 am

      He reads all the books except one, yes. I have heard people say that, but I’ve never found it to be true of any of my children or the other AO students I know. Sometimes in high school they have less *time* for outside reading, but what I hear from those high schoolers is a longer for more time to read, not a sense that they feel done.

      I think this can be tricky because there really IS a sense in which Charlotte Mason homeschoolers are usually reading daily on their own just because the nature of how school is done. But that habit of choosing to spend part of your free time on reading is really what defines someone as a reader; not the habit of reading only what they were assigned to read. My concern is always to get that habit built before the teen years! 🙂

  • Reply Mama Rachael April 9, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    I need to work on this. Little Man is one who prefers to run than walk, and move over sitting still. He was devouring Harry Potter, but lost the taste mid-way through book 5. Its a tome and nearly lost me, so I understand. I needed this inspiration, I’m going to get on it!

  • Reply Brittany April 9, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    Aww love it!! Good thing you survived to write this post! 😉 Tirzah loves Mysterious Benedict Society, but she’s done them all on audio, I’m fairly certain if I handed them to her she would have had the same reaction as O!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 9, 2019 at 4:50 pm

      Aw! I love that she loves it. ♥

      He just came to me and recommended it as a future read aloud, so I guess he’s pretty sold on it. 😉

      • Reply Rebecca April 12, 2019 at 5:49 am

        I bought that last summer and it sat on my nightstand for months. I think L finally started it, but the boys seem intimidated by the size.

    Leave a Reply