A few years ago I found myself at a screenwriter’s course over two days in Toronto. Okay, I guess it was more of a mini-introduction for hopeful enthusiasts than a full course for the paid movie writing professionally if you insist on being technical. But for two very intense days I listened to Hollywood script doctors describe the elements of a good story—the kind of story that keeps you on the edge of your seat even when you already know that the good guys will win, the unlikely couple will fall in love, and the world will pull through despite imminent threats and cataclysmic countdowns. Good stories are big business—whether in books, on television or in films. Good stories keep us watching. Good stories keep us reading. Good stories keep us listening.
As a child psychologist, I often meet parents whose children are struggling to read. Usually, those children are challenged at the single word level, meaning they find it hard to sound out letters and to blend those letters to sound out words. It’s tough to appreciate any story—and to keep track of even basic ideas—when sounding out letters and words is frustrating and exhausting.
So what is a parent to do? Of course you want your child to read well, and practice sounding out letters and words is absolutely critical for improving reading skills. But this is not what I’m talking about here. I’ll save the topic of decoding—or sounding out skill—for another article. What I’m talking about here is nurturing a love of story. And it’s a topic that is often overlooked when we search for ways to motivate struggling readers.
Here’s the bottom line: you don’t have to sound out words to appreciate a good story. True, cracking the sound-letter code is key to accessing any text, but a love of story can be nurtured long before your child’s reading skills improve. And a love of story can be a great motivator for opening books and working on reading skills!
Here are four ways to create a love of story in struggling readers.
- Feed your child’s intellect: Your child’s curiosity may exceed his or her current reading level. Respect potential discrepancies. A child who loves planets may dislike books that match reading level for the sake of reading practice. See Spot run stories probably won’t ignite a love of story when not much happens to Spot here on earth. Some practice with books that match reading level a few days a week (for maybe 15 minutes per day) is great, but a love of story will more likely come when you read books to your child that feed curiosity and intellect. Audiobooks are also a great way for your child or teen to learn high-level information despite weak reading skill.
- Resist the urge to stop and start, stop and start, stop and start: Okay, did that line annoy you with all of its repetition? Parents concerned about reading often stop mid-story and ask their child to read a word or a paragraph out loud. That’s great if your child loves being part of the reading process, but you may get resistance if you employ this strategy too much during story time. As one parent told me “my child gets mad when I do that.” Despite good intentions, stopping to ask your child to read can be disruptive to a brain enjoying a really good story. Do you feel annoyed when someone pauses a movie and asks you to explain what is going on? Exactly. Keep the story flowing and ignite your child’s imagination. Save reading practice for other times.
- Respect all kinds of stories: If your 10 year-old reaches for a simple story book, or your teen selects a graphic novel on your next shopping trip, rejoice! Maybe your gut says, she should be reading something longer, or he should be reading stories without pictures. Don’t sweat your reaction—you want your child to read, and to read well—but remain positive and encouraging. Your child or teen has likely chosen a book that looks entertaining and readable, and readable is good! Books that appeal because that are short or packed with pictures are more likely to be picked up, opened, and finished. And seeing a story through is critical for loving twists, turns, cliffhangers and resolutions—or unfinished plots that lead to sequels!
- Seek stories all around: Stories come in all forms—in books, movies, documentaries and even songs. Beyond books, watching movies and listening to lyrics can also nurture a love of story, so seek stories all around. Encourage your child to create stories, too, but be careful not to make storytelling tough. If your child struggles to print or writes little detail, ditch the pencil and tell stories verbally or make mini-movies with a cell phone. At dinnertime, try a round of storytelling, where family members take turns telling parts of a story that grows as more and more details are added. Good stories keep us listening—especially the creative, zany and wildly unpredictable stories we make up ourselves!