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Enticing a Restless Reader

Does your child wriggle and fidget while you read? Try changing books and routines.


Does your young child squirm when you cuddle up to read a story, even after only a few minutes? You understand the importance of reading to him regularly, so it’s easy to start worrying that he is missing out on a key opportunity that will help him learn how to read. First, remember that this behavior isn’t uncommon.
While there are common milestones in development, such as when children begin to talk or walk, there are also important individual differences. Some children naturally gravitate to the printed word. They love to be read to and frequently request the same book again and again. Sometimes when I visit a preschool, I’ll see these children playing in the book corner, engrossed in pretending to read along with their imaginary friends.
Other children do not immediately take to print. They see storytime as a time to slow down, listen rather than play, and sit rather than be active. They’ll move around, looking uncomfortable, before they tune out or walk away. Forcing these active learners to sit and listen is not the answer. But neither is letting them come and go without the chance to engage in the story.
Target Your Child’s Passion
The best strategy is to find new ways to motivate your child so he wants to listen. One of my favorite examples is 3-year-old Edward, a very active child in our local preschool. Edward was a fidgeter, not at all interested in books. Every day I would bring new shiny-covered books from the library. Still no interest, until one day I happened to bring in books about trains. Something clicked. Edward grabbed one of the books, fascinated by a “hopper” car. He spent a good deal of time looking at the pictures, trying to understand how it worked. But after a while he realized that he couldn’t learn enough just by looking at the pictures. He needed someone to read the print. That was the beginning of Edward’s emergence into literacy, and I learned several lessons from this experience.

  1. The single best way to motivate children to read books is to find something that interests them. They often develop a love of reading when they want to learn more about something. For some children, it may be trains, for others ballet or dinosaurs. Finding that special, intriguing topic is one way to begin to build the reading habit.

  2. Some children prefer nonfiction to stories. They enjoy learning about how things work — spaceships, machines, scientific phenomena. You’ll find that these children ask lots of questions when you read them nonfiction, and they develop a rich vocabulary on these topics. Nonfiction books are filled with wonderful real-life pictures and clear illustrations that will fascinate your child.

  3. You don’t have to finish every book you start. Sometimes it’s best to have a short reading activity that is fun and engaging, and stop before the fidgeting begins. For example, sometimes Edward and I would spend 10 fun-filled minutes on one page. After that, he was ready to run off to other activities. But in those concentrated minutes, he had really paid attention and learned.

    Also, be sure to consider the length of the book and the time of day. Longer books, including some by Dr. Seuss, can get tiring for some children. They love the rhyme in the beginning, but have difficulty staying with it. When you read is equally important. Bedtime reading can be distracting for a child whose major interest may be putting off bed and not listening to stories. Think about starting with very short books (with a few lines on a page), and read at different hours of the day. You may find that after lots of outdoor activity, your child really enjoys a few quiet moments with a book and a snack.

    Brief story sessions will get longer over time. You just have to be patient and recognize that today, reading competes with many other activities. But I think you’ll find that your restless 3 year old will turn out to be like my son now — absolutely hooked on books.

About the Author

Susan B. Neuman, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan School of Business.

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