Motivating Young Readers

Children want to imitate their parents and, so, are eager to read. At least until they discover that one short lesson isn’t enough! If lessons have been too long or too tedious, by their standard, they are likely to look for an excuse to avoid the work. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to encourage the perseverance needed.

First, keep lessons short and varied, but schedule several of these mini-lessons throughout the day. Young children have short attention spans. A rule of thumb is one minute of attention per year of life through age 7. That doesn’t mean you have to switch subjects, only that you need to change the way the child interacts with the materials. For example, if he has been listening for a few minutes, switch to participation. If he has been sitting quietly, give him an opportunity to move as part of the lesson.

Your child might begin by reading a list of words based on an initial phonic sound. He could then touch objects in the room beginning with that sound, or he could stand up straight when you say a word beginning with that sound, but roll up into a ball if the word begins with a different sound. That movement could then be followed with the quiet activity of having him read a few short sentences out loud. By varying the child’s involvement, he will be better able to focus on the lesson as a whole.

Next, remember to maintain motivation by providing activities for review that also ensure a feeling of success. Even if the only word a child recognizes is “a,” he can read that word out loud when you point to it while reading a story to him or to the family. That little bit of participation makes him feel as if he can read, and he associates that effort with an enjoyable experience.

Because phonics is a code that takes some time to learn, children should also be memorizing a few nouns as sight words in order to have a more immediate sense of success. Label objects all over the house. Then, occasionally hand him a duplicate word card and let him run around trying to find its match. You are likely to find him doing this on his own just for fun.

You can make reading personal by encouraging children to dictate short stories of their own. Write their sentences at the bottom of a page, leaving the top portion for their own illustrations. They can draw, cut and paste pictures, color in outlines you draw for them, or even use stickers. Their age or inability to draw should not limit them from the excitement of making their own booklets. A simplified version of this idea that is also fun for beginners is to write a short sentence for them to illustrate, “The cat is on the mat,” or act out, “I can sit.”

If every day reading instruction involves only new material, children quickly feel overwhelmed. Therefore, it is important to include time for children to read stories out loud that use a vocabulary below their level of instruction. Books from earlier lessons or beginning readers from other phonic programs can be used for this. Library books that appear simple often contain words beyond a child’s reading vocabulary. However, children should never be discouraged from choosing library books to read on their own. Often, older children enjoy reading what parents may consider “baby” books. That’s okay. Practice with easy-to-read materials not only reinforces a sense of accomplishment, but also contributes to their ability to read faster, more fluently, and with expression. After all, words that were initially decoded need to become familiar enough to be read as sight words. Hearing themselves read fluently also increases their desire to continue learning.

Games are an enjoyable way to provide review and extra practice for all children. For the unmotivated child, however, it may be necessary to actually take a short break from formal instruction, switching entirely to games. The relaxed atmosphere allows the child to develop reading or reading readiness skills without a sense of pressure or possible failure.

Finally, maintain your children’s desire to read by reading to them daily. Don’t stop reading out loud to children that have learned to read and don’t exclude the nonreaders from listening when the story is too advanced. Even when toddlers don’t understand, they are developing foundational skills with language. Listening also strengthens bonds as a family unit. The pleasant memories associated with reading experiences contribute to a life-long love of reading—and, after all, isn’t that really your goal?