If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my biggest challenges—and frustrations—has been getting my daughter, now 10, to read more in English, our minority language. Because my aim for my kids is high—I’m hoping to sustain native-level proficiency in all skill areas—this is made difficult due to the fact that they attend our local Japanese elementary school and don’t really have much time each day for reading and writing in English.
I’ve done everything I can think of to turn her into a more eager reader: reading aloud every day, from birth; building a large library of appealing books; reading with her, taking turns; assigning her pages to read on her own; making continual use of “captive reading”; subscribing to children’s magazines; and providing a steady stream of graphic novels (comic books). And yet it’s clear that Lulu just isn’t a natural bookworm like her 7-year-old brother. She would much rather dance about with a book on her head than sit down and quietly read it.
The upshot of all this effort over the past 10 years is that Lulu can read well for her age (though not as carefully as I’d prefer), but she still won’t naturally gravitate toward reading books in English—particularly books of straight text, without illustrations—on her own. And without more independent reading over the next decade, it will be hard for her to maintain progress that’s roughly on par with English-speaking peers. (I’m viewing this practically, not competitively: not only will stronger reading and writing ability be more helpful to her future, if one day she enters an English-medium school, the transition will be much smoother if her literacy level is roughly the same as her classmates.)
The onus is on us
Although it’s true that I’ve felt ongoing frustration over this, I’ve never blamed Lulu for not being as eager to read as her father would like. In fact, first as a teacher and now as a parent, I live by the principle:
If a child I’m working with isn’t eager to read, it’s not the child’s fault, it’s mine.
Of course, some children are natural bookworms, and that’s a very fortunate thing for language development. (It also makes life easier for teachers and parents!) But other children just aren’t readers to the same degree (at least at this stage of their lives), and this makes the process of advancing the target language more challenging. Nevertheless, the onus is on the teacher or parent to find the means and the resources that will motivate the child to read more eagerly. It may not be possible to instantly turn such a child into a bookworm, but it’s always possible to get a child reading more in the minority language with efforts that are well matched to that particular child’s nature and needs.
Let me illustrate these thoughts with a clear example.
A tale of two students
Two years ago I was teaching private lessons to two 15-year-old boys. Both were students at Hiroshima International School and had been in international schools all their lives. In many respects they were very similar, but in one fundamental way they were profoundly different and this difference accounted for the stark contrast in their literacy level: one was a bookworm, the other was not.
And this difference was extreme: the bookworm was a voracious reader, consuming a book a week, while the other boy would only read in connection with assignments for school—and even then, he did the bare minimum to get by. He spent most of his time playing video games. He would never pick up a book on his own.
The truth is, the first boy didn’t really need my support. Because he was such an eager reader, his literacy level, and overall proficiency in English, was quite high for his age. And because he was a reader, he was basically advancing his own language ability.
But the other boy… Well, I’ll admit that this was a large challenge for me as a teacher. If I couldn’t somehow motivate him to read more, his literacy level would remain low and he would continue to do poorly in school.
The power of comic books
As I discuss in detail in How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers, for many children (including me in my youth), comics are an accessible gateway into literacy that can lead to more enthusiasm for reading, stronger reading skills, and a growing interest in other types of reading material. And so, after quizzing this boy on his interests and getting a good feel for the types of comic books that he might enjoy, I started placing orders.
My first few choices missed the mark, but then I handed him Bad Island, a graphic novel by Doug TenNapel. The next week he returned for his lesson and told me it was the best book he had ever read and that, in fact, he had read it six times! So I quickly got him more books by this author—which he read eagerly—and then found the brilliant Bone series by Jeff Smith, books that he also read multiple times. (See Recommended Resources: Captivating Comic Books for English Learners for further information on these titles, and many others.)
Finding the right materials
This experience with an extreme version of a reluctant reader reinforced my belief that every child can be motivated to read more eagerly: it just takes time and effort to find the right reading materials for that particular child. In other words, for most languages, the materials are out there—you just have to keep looking for them.
These were my thoughts as I was shopping for Christmas presents for Lulu. If I found books that were a better match for her, maybe I could motivate her to read more in English?
Up to that point, it had become clear to me that fiction did not hold as much appeal for her as it does with many other children. Although she enjoys hearing stories read aloud, I think there are two reasons she doesn’t naturally pick up works of fiction on her own:
1. She’s more interested in engaging with the world as it is—in other words, nonfiction. (To be fair to Lulu, she does show flashes of being a bookworm at times. In Japanese, she eagerly read a whole series of child-friendly biographies of famous people.)
2. Because she’s not a careful reader—in general, her mind isn’t naturally precise—I think she sometimes struggles to follow the storyline. And when you lose the storyline, you lose interest.
Nonfiction, then, would seem to be the right direction, but I hadn’t had much success here, either. Like any child, Lulu has interests, but with her, they aren’t really passions. She likes dance, for example, but the big book about dance that I got for her just sits on the shelf. Compare this to Roy and his passion for Lego: he has several books about Lego and opens them often.
My challenge, as I saw it, was this: What sort of nonfiction book, consisting of short reading passages, would enable Lulu to engage with the world in some way? In this case, reading would be a means to a larger end, like pursuing a meaningful task. If she was interested in accomplishing the task, she would naturally feel motivated to read the text.
Avocado and honey
My first thought was a cookbook, and I got one for her. However, I also knew that this was something she would need her mother’s help with (I’m a sorry cook) and probably wouldn’t be opened regularly. I needed something that would appeal to her growing “girl side” but contained tasks that she could pursue largely on her own.
That’s when I stumbled upon a series of small hardcover books that include The Girls’ Book: How to Be the Best at Everything.
Despite the competitive ring to the title, the book is simply a collection of fun (sometimes farcical) activities, like “How to Make Your Own Luxury Bubble Bath,” “How to Whistle Really Loudly,” and “How to Cope if Zombies Attack,” all explained in short, reader-friendly passages. On Christmas morning, when Lulu opened the package that held this book (and The Girls’ Book of Friendship: How to Be the Best Friend Ever), she immediately began browsing through it. A good sign!
Not long after, she started to read the book more closely, and even stuck a dozen post-it notes to the pages she found most appealing. Thrilled to see Lulu reading so eagerly, I told her, “Just let me know if you need any help with those activities.”
That afternoon I gave her a few coins and she ran to the local market to buy an avocado: she wanted to make a “beauty mask” for her and her mother with mashed-up avocado and honey! After she returned, she read the directions in English and translated them into Japanese for my wife. Not only was she reading in English, she was translating between the two languages! The book was quickly proving to be doubly effective for her bilingual development!
Lulu and her mother then took turns cheerfully smearing this mixture of avocado and honey on each other’s faces. (I don’t know if it made their skin any softer, but they sure smelled sweet for the rest of the day!)
A huge step forward
It’s too early to say whether Lulu’s initial enthusiasm for this book, and the other books in the series (she asked me to order another one, and I gladly did), will be a lasting breakthrough. But I’ll keep encouraging her to try her favorite activities (even if I have to be a guinea pig, too) and I suspect these little books will continue to fuel a greater degree of independent reading.
And now I know—though it took some stumbling to get here—how to kindle my daughter’s motivation more effectively with well-matched materials. And that, in itself, is a huge step forward when it comes to getting her to read more, and more eagerly, in our minority language.