Why many children don't like reading

October 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Publishing

The children’s book is an interesting beast: part learning tool for schools, part entertainment medium. In the eyes of many children I’m sure it too often struggles to break free of the label of ‘work’, and the more time I spend in the world of children’s books and the more hours I spend in schools, the clearer this becomes. As far as I can see, the main barrier to young children reading books for entertainment is simply because it is so associated with education.

Watching my young niece pick up and love picture books even before she can read (and before she’s at school), it’s easy to see it doesn’t start out that way. A good picture book is a lot of fun, and also provides a great opportunity for parents and children to spend worthwhile time together. A picture book is a visual feast, much better plotted and executed than most cartoons or films.

But then, as soon as you go to school, words become synonymous with work and pictures fade slowly into non-existence. Books eventually become pages and pages of, dare I say it, words. The fun of words surely disappears as you realise they’re a barrier to you going out to play. Reading and writing are key elements of learning and growth, and rightly form the bedrock of schooling, but it’s a shame so many young folk will grow up associating words with pain and boredom.

For pictures, it’s a different matter entirely. They retain their excitement, and are never linked with work. After a certain age, pictures in school books are relegated to less important beings than words, and anything not related to words is seen as a breath of fresh air, a break from work. This loss for schooling is a win win win situation for pictures and visual media. After looking at words all day in school, I used to love coming home to watch cartoons or play on my computer.

This continued enjoyment and excitement of picture-based media rears its head when I visit schools. I regularly talk to children who are wowed by my (slim) drawing abilities. Interestingly, I never meet a child who says ‘wow you can write’. Why is this? Do children think anyone can write but not anyone can draw? My conclusion to this is that children don’t care much for words and the art of language.

So how do you get children to read when they care little for building blocks of books? Rather obviously, I can’t help feeling that it’s the stories that count. When words are so commonplace and so associated with work, the story is the main draw for a child. That’s why no-one comments on the quality of writing, and that’s why quality of writing so often doesn’t matter when it comes to a bestseller. Words are, possibly, unimportant. (Sure, as I writer I know that excitement and fun is linked to the quality of writing, but children don’t see that.)

Books for children should be everything TV and computer games are. They have to compete, and to do that they need to break free of the classroom and the rule of words. Children’s books should focus on sparking a lifelong love of stories, because a love and understanding of words and writing will come later.

So here’s what we should do. Let’s focus on making books for the children, not for adults. They don’t want our boring adult-leaning political polemics, or essays on history or religion, they want fun and enjoyment. Let’s add more illustrations, more excitement, more jokes and silliness. Let’s remember that, ultimately, children’s books are a form of entertainment.

  • What a truly excellent post. As an aspiring children’s author, that was most helpful indeed.

    As you so eloquently said, children don’t want to be taught in their spare time, they want to be entertained.

    • Thanks Wendy, that’s really nice of you. I strongly believe that books are entertainment – I’m certainly trying to remember that every time I write a story. Good luck with your writing

  • I totally agree that books should be fun, especially for younger readers. Anyone who watched Michael Rosen’s series on developing a reading culture in schools will have seen how most children can be persuaded to read given the right encouragement by staff who love stories, and playing with words, especially out loud.
    However, I’ve wrestled with this one for some years with a member of my family who shall remain nameless, and have concluded that it’s okay for some kids not to like reading. In fact, the young person in question reads quite a lot, just not books. He reads magazines, and game instructions (on the computer and on cards). He’s doing okay at school and he’s got a great vocabulary, so I’ve decided not to sweat about it too much. We have loads of books in the house, including piles of unread ones in a certain someone’s bedroom, so they are there if he wants them. Hopefully, one day he will try opening a cover and find something he really relates to…here’s hoping (but no longer sweating over it).

    • Hi Rachel. I’d actually be really interested to do a survey on children to find out how audiobooks are viewed compared to printed books. I guess they’re seen more as entertainment, despite basically being the same core product.

      Of course, having stories read aloud, and linking back to the oral tradition of storytelling, really does alter the perception of books.

  • I agree, kids don’t generally sit there and decide if a book is well crafted or not, they just fall in love with characters, get excited about the adventure, whatever it is that sucks them into the story. But of course, that doesn’t happen if the story isn’t told well. I suppose kids could most easily see it in how a joke’s told; if the joke’s worded badly, it’s SO lame and unfunny, but if the words and timing are right, they’ll be rolling around on the floor. So maybe short spurts of comedy are the most obvious thing to show the importance of craft, but what kid doesn’t want a longer intense drama where the words seem to disappear and you’re just there in the middle of the story. It happens so easily in the cinema and when kids find out it can happen in books, too, that’s when they get sucked in.

  • This is a really interesting train of thought and one which should be persued. When I go into schools and am allowed enough time in assembly to read extracts from books the children love it, join in and come to my library later. When I go in to tell them about what is happening in the library without reading some story to them due to lack of time allowed by the teachers, they do not come in as much. Teachers seem to be bogged down by having to follow set curriculum that they don’t have time for the pleasures in life which are actually very important for children to learn. I think many children learn to read using such boring books at school where they have to follow set books, that they lose interest.

    They are not taught about comic timing, putting on voices or about how to read words in italics or the reason for question marks & exclamation marks. These are put in deliberately by authors so the children can get a sense of what is going on but if the children do not understand that, reading beomes boring.

    My godson age 7 was reading very basic text book for new readers (Red Nose Readers by Allan Ahlberg). He claimed they were his favourite books because they were so funny. He then volunteered to read them to me so I let him. At the end, when he very laboriously and tensely read it, I said to him did he notice the italics? “No.” So I showed him, demonstrated how to use them and then instructed him to re-read it watching out for italics and emphasise those words. He did this and the transformation in his confidence was stunning. His whole voice lifted and got excited and by the end of the book he was laughing and relaxed. His mum told me that the following week he had read the first Harry Potter book and was now enjoying independent reading at last – she had almost given up hope of him reaching this stage.

    Another of my godsons age 10 had lost interest in story books and only read fact books. Although his mum liked him to read them,she also wanted him to read fiction. Knowing I am a librarian she asked for my help. I read the first chapter of Joshua Doder’s A dog called Grk book to him using voices etc. At the end of the chapter I said that was enough for the first night and I’d read him some more the following night if he’d like me to. He asked if he could read some for himself before going to bed and I said he could. He disappeared and not a peep was heard from him until the next day when we met for breakfast. I found him at the breakfast table on p.86 (2 thirds of the way through) and by coffee-time he had read the entire book followed by “Fiona, is there another one in the series?” I am sure it was mainly Joshua’s adventurous style that kept him reading but also I had got him hooked because I had given the characters live voices which he could use in his head whilst reading, rather like listening to it on CD or the TV.

    If you want to do some research Alex, I am sure we could work in collaboration at some stage!

    It was great to see you, your wife and her bump and Rachel (Ward) in our library today. Thanks for coming and giving your support.

  • I do believe this is one of the most vital information for me

  • This is a post with excellent subject that every parent must read and probably the publishers too should read. Making books that children would love to read sounds interesting and is the point to highlight from this blog.