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Literacy expert David Ward: What is a reluctant reader?

Interviewed by Pam Withers

David Ward is a children’s author and assistant professor in literacy at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, B.C., he taught in public and private schools for 11 years. He is the author of Between Two Ends (Amulet Books, 2011), One Hockey Night (North Winds Press, 2010), Archipelago (Red Deer Press, 2009), The Grassland Trilogy (Scholastic/Amulet Books, 2006-2008) and The Hockey Tree (North Winds Press, 2006).

Q: The term “reluctant reader” is pretty vague, right? As in, some kids given this label have actual reading disabilities, some are capable but unmotivated, and some are “closet readers” who read at home but prefer not to be seen as a reader in school?

A: Yes, and there are kids who slide into and out of all three of those categories. Plus, there are children who get behind; they’re reading one to two grade levels below their current grade level, and they experience such fear and embarrassment about that, that they turn off reading publicly although they may be interested in reading. There are also kids whose community or culture say it’s not cool to read, so they intentionally won’t. There can be pressure for boys not to read “girl” books (and neither parents nor teachers can always know what they’ve decided are “girl” books). They push literacy and books to the side.

Q: So what percentage of so-called reluctant readers falls into each of these categories?

A: These categories shift and change and vary with socioeconomics and English as a second language (ESL) factors. Studies done in the 1980s were conducted in the Midwestern United States, so basically they focused on white kids. More recent studies take into account the web and digital literacies, so research is getting more current, but basically right now there’s a bit of a disconnect between what we know and what we need to know. I just finished reading a study talking about the incredible increase in dyslexia. And now that dyslexia is becoming an unfavorable term, it’s being diagnosed less. Some say it has always been there and we’re just diagnostic-heavy these days, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

We are seeing a rapid change in the United States and Canada demographically. We’ve seen a terrible crash in wages to middle class and below, and loss of jobs. That impacts the children, home literacy, how many books a family can buy, even affordability for getting to the library. Some families are unable to afford a computer anymore.

In my travels and studies and in talking with parents, the word I hear most is “unmotivated.” But when I delve deeper, I find that half the parents using that term have a child with a challenge, diagnosed or not. The rest say, “I’ve tried everything, but all he wants to do is play, especially video and digital games.”

Q: So, once parents rule out a diagnosis of a reading disability, what can they do about an “unmotivated” reader?

A: I’ve seen research showing that kids are spending three to eight hours a day on electronic games, compared with six hours of school instruction. I suggest reducing screen time with the exception of reading narrative or literature on, say, a Kindle or iPad. Technology and business have something to sell, but parents don’t have to be controlled by the industry. It’s a choice. Turn off the TV and electronic games and sit down and spend time reading aloud to your kid, even if he’s a 7th or 8th grader. Parents need to decide who is directing their child’s literacy: they or the technology industry. I dare parents to read with their child and/or have their child read to them aloud or silently for as many hours per week as their child is on games. If a child has three hours of game time a week, match it with three hours of reading. Maybe limit screen time to the weekend, and let your child’s reading time accumulate through the week, which then determines how much game time they can do on a weekend.

Q: What percentage of reluctant readers are boys?

A: The majority of reluctant readers are boys – recognizing that there are different reasons for boys not to read or not to see themselves as readers.

Q: What would educators most like to see parents do to support reluctant readers?

A: Read to them. Read with them. Read enthusiastically with intonation and character voices. Demonstrate and model that you like reading. Men need to read with their sons to model that reading is a male activity. A male role model jumpstarts boys and encourages boys both to read and to perceive themselves as readers.

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