Trying to force a reluctant reader to read a book is a torturous experience for everyone involved. Whether the child has a learning difficulty, is a beginner reader who needs more practice or someone who just hasn’t really clicked with the act of reading books yet, the key to getting the momentum going is finding books with the magic combination of being relatively easy to read and compelling.
It’s no accident that books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Tom Gates, Weir Do and the Treehouse books are hugely popular even with the most reluctant readers. The combination of illustrations and graphics, clear layout, simple language (often dialogue), humour (farts and bums) and relatable stories is ambrosia. But what happens when it’s time for children to expand their oeuvre? Well, my dear reader, we have some suggestions.
- If you want to get into the technicalities of children’s reading habits—continue on to the next paragraph.
- If you just want to get to the books—scroll down to the pictures (after all, that’s probably what the kids would do).
All children like stories but not all children like reading. Safe to say, your ‘Reluctant Reader’ probably loves movies, television, games, Youtubers or audiobooks. If they aren’t getting their stories from books, they are getting them from somewhere else. Great. But books give children access to stories, knowledge and language in a way that these other sources can’t. Written language is different to spoken language and reading books is the main way children access it. Children need plenty of exposure to written language to internalise it and therefore be able to comprehend it and, hopefully, produce it themselves. Then there’s the ‘Matthew Effect’ where if children don’t read (for whatever reason), they don’t get the practice they need to strengthen their reading, and they fall into a vicious cycle.
The Reluctant Early Reader
The beginner reader may still be learning the alphabetic code or be at the stage where they still have to sound out many words they read. If they are young, their oral language skills will still be emerging, therefore they may require more simple vocabulary and concepts in order to comprehend what they are reading. Reading can be hard work at this stage, so shorter, illustrated books are popular. Humour helps, as do relatable characters in familiar situations. Kids also like the idea of ‘chapter books’ because reading them feels like an achievement even if they have to skip over some of the words they can’t decode or read fluently. Reading longer books like this is also excellent for building their reading stamina. If the book is in a series, more the better. Children like the comfort of reading within familiar worlds and this also makes comprehension easier.
These Australian Junior Fiction titles are perennial favourites.
Series. Clear font and layout. Illustrations. Relatable characters. Adventure. Simple text. Australian.
Themes: independence, bravery, dinosaurs
Series. Clear font and layout. Simple sentences. Relatable characters and situations. Australian.
Themes: friendship, getting along with people
Series. Short stories. Highly illustrated. Funny and a bit silly. Simple sentences. Australian.
Series. Graphic novel. Mystery to solve. Funny. Australian.
Themes: mystery, teamwork, museums
Series. Diverse characters. Clear text and layout. Some illustrations. Whole pages of text. Relatable characters and situations. Australian.
Themes: family, teamwork, bravery
For kids who are only interested in Wimpy Kid, Treehouse and Dog Man
While we love the Wimpy Kid, Treehouse and Dog Man series’, eventually the time comes to coax children into reading something else in order to expose them to different types of written language. (I present Exhibit A: the avalanche of Dog Man fan-fic written by Year 3 students during creative writing sessions at school. Hilarious. But all dialogue).
Luckily, there are other books out there with the combination of humour, illustrations and hijinks that appeal to these kids, but have increasingly larger blocks of text.
Australian. Series. Illustrated. Humour.
Themes: Imagination, running a business, friendship, mysteries
Australian. Series. Short stories. Humour. Illustrated.
Themes: Imagination, school, home
Themes: worries, bravery
Australian. Series. Lightly illustrated. Adventure.
Themes: family, survival, friendship
Australian. Series. Funny. Relatable.
Themes: friendship, teamwork, entrepreneurship, school
For Older Kids and Teenagers
Graphic Novels and Epistolary Texts
The boom in graphic novels is amazing for reluctant readers. If you want to go down the graphic novel rabbit hole in detail, click here. Meanwhile, it can be useful to consider hybrid graphic novels or epistolary texts as a way of presenting compelling storytelling in book form. They are also a great way of encouraging children to read different text types, not just dialogue.
Graphic novel. Poetry. Prose. Diverse. Compelling story.
Themes: growing up, family, inheritance, loss, basketball
Mainly prose with graphic novel element. Diverse. Compelling story.
Themes: family, loss, friendship, digital identities
Australian. Series. Epistolary. Uses a very wide range of text types to tell the story. Exciting and compelling. Adventure and romance in dystopian space.
Themes: space, survival, courage
Novels with ‘High Literary Merit’
Choosing literary texts to teach reluctant readers in class without compromising content can sometimes be a challenge for teachers. If you are teaching reluctant readers or children with learning difficulties from Year 5 upwards, look for books with relatively simple language yet big topics. Novellas can be great for this and so can verse novels. Verse novels are often quick and easy to read but are rich with language choice, inference and themes.
Australian. Novella. Year 5 upwards. Indigenous.
Themes: respect, freedom, Aboriginal social life and customs
Novella. Year 8 upwards. Edited for an average 9 year old reading ability. Neurodiverse character.
Themes: Family, brothers, nature
Australian. Novella. Year 4 upwards.
Themes: Courage, identity, Indigenous Australians, family, racism, horses
Australian. Novel. Part prose, part verse. Year 9 upwards.
Themes: grief, colonial history, violence against women, love, family
Australian. Verse novel. Year 3 upwards. Relatable characters.
Themes: country/city, friendships, identity
Australian. Verse novella. Year 3 – 6.
Themes: climate, bushfire, healing
Australian. Verse novel. Year 7 upwards.
Themes: masculinities, grief, coming of age, Australian landscape, country towns
Highly Compelling. Extra points for the first in a series.
Sometimes all you need in order to get a reluctant reader going is a book so compelling that they can’t put it down. For many people this is Harry Potter. But let me tell you a secret about Harry Potter … kids will find it themselves. They don’t need you to hand it to them. It will just apparate in their hands. If they love it and you want to guide them to the next thing, we’ve got a list for that, just click here. Or you can hand them:
Novel. Diverse characters. Hits all the plot points of the genre.
Themes: Magic, fighting evil, prejudice, fitting in, mystery,
For teenagers, compelling often includes some romance and/or a lot of action. Something like The Hunger Games has both and it’s no coincidence that it’s often a ‘gateway book’ for reluctant readers. If you can hook children into a series, this can also help them gain some reading momentum.
Middle Grade/Upper Middle Grade
Themes: family, right and wrong, survival, self-esteem
Australian. Series of stand-alone collections of short stories. Heaps of action. Each story is written to be read in approximately 20 minutes at average reading pace.
Themes: survival, good vs evil, bravery
There are few genres in YA that do action and romance better than Fantasy and these four are tried and tested.
Australian. Series. Heaps of action and a little bit of romance.
Themes: survival, war, racial tension, dysfunctional teams
Australian. Fantasy, action and a bit of romance.
Themes: power, wealth, ethics of scientific experimentation, loyalty
Australian. Fantasy, action and a bit of romance.
Themes: imagination, identity, power, trust
Diverse. Fantasy, science fiction, action and romance
Themes: technology, power
Familiar and High Interest Topics, Including Non-Fiction
Reading comprehension is easier when the reader has some knowledge of the content and the vocabulary in the text. Reluctant readers are more likely to want to read something where comprehension is not a battle. This makes books with movie adaptations appealing. Novelisations (eg Star Wars books, Pokemon) or non-fiction of favourite topics are also great choices. It may seem counterintuitive, but the trick is to watch the movie first. This will make reading the book easier because the child is already familiar with the content and vocabulary.
Three Australian book-to-movie favourites are:
Themes: bravery, family, ocean conservation
Themes: family, disability, grief, animal friends
Themes: Family, survival, poverty, destiny
High Interest Non-Fiction
Highly illustrated books of special interest that children can dip in and out of are irresistible to some kids (note the clusters of children poring over the Guinness Book of World Records in the school library). Fat hard covers are particularly satisfying. The choice of book depends heavily on a child’s particular interests, but three great general ones are:
Australian. The ocean and specifically seaweed and all it’s wonderful uses.
Australian. Animals. Teeth, poison, carnivores.
History timelines. Did that happen before or after everything else?
Listening to audiobooks is not cheating. They give children access to stories at their cognitive, developmental and interest level that may be well above their reading ability. They expose readers to written language in a way that movies and conversation cannot, and the addition of a performer makes them an artform in their own right. Of course, it is still important for children to read text, so you can use audiobooks as read along or first-read tools to help give reluctant readers extra support.
A narrator’s performance can make or break an audiobook (especially if you are all listening together in the car), so here are three that I’m highlighting specifically for the quality of the performance and production values.
Narrator: Imogen Sage
Narrator: Stig Wymess
Narrartor: Kate Winslet
~ Gisela Ervin-Ward teaches children with learning difficulties how to read and provides literacy consulting to schools @podliteracy. She is obsessed with children’s books and writing and muses about them at @giselaervinward. www.giselaervinward.com