Help for Struggling Readers

6 minutes

End of July, I went to Shakespeare by the Sea with some friends to watch an open-air, live performance of Hamlet. It was impressive that they could shorten such a long play and still make it work. Even most movies cut plenty out of the bard’s masterpieces. The site Top 10 of Anything and Everything presents Shakespeare’s 10 longest plays, determined by line count. Here they are in order of increase: The Winter’s Tale (3,345 lines), Henry V (3,368), Henry VIII (3,450), Troilus and Cressida (3,576), Antony and Cleopatra (3,640), Othello (3,672), Cymbeline (3,813), Coriolanus (3,820), Richard III (3,886), and finally Hamlet with a whopping 3,901 lines. I thought this might be of interest to fellow Shakespeare fans. I also dread that students might shy away from these incredible plays partially based upon length but, alas, that is at times the strategy of unengaged readers.

Prior to the play, while munching on cherries, pastries, pretzels and sipping a lovely red wine, one of my friends brought up the subject of kids who do not retain what they read. She asked if I ever taught elementary level. Actually, no, just high school and college. But reluctant, or perhaps just uninitiated, readers are the same at any age. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the horror of reading an entire page just to realize we didn’t “hear” a word of it. Loss of attention makes reading such a slog. Are you or your kids distracted readers? I can help. 

Since I taught English, let’s focus on literature. First of all, if you are heading to college and finally get a wide array of classes to choose from, take a poetry interpretation course immediately. I learned more about literary analysis in that class than I had ever thought possible. And guess what! The skills required to understand poetry are the same for anything else, even nonfiction. So jump in and build your critical thinking foundation. Understanding what you read improves retention.

When high school freshman and sophomore students’ parents called me about their reluctant or poor reader, my advice was always the same. Education, by its very nature, has made reading a chore. And it only gets worse as the amount and complexity of reading increases. So first, let’s dispel the notion that reading is horrible. 

All people love stories. English teachers love to tell them. I can be untangling a tale with a small group anywhere and those passing by might meander a little closer to catch a bit of it. At mixers, this is a sure way to gather a group. Start telling one person a great story and soon there will be several people clustered around. A friend used to tell me about her favorite Little House on the Prairie episodes so well that I would cry. 

Before writing came into existence, bards moved from one community to the next, telling stories, like Epic of GilgameshBeowulf, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, to name just a few. The bard was so loved that the community would clothe, feed, and house him while he revealed next chapters of a great story a little at a time, all from memory. When the bard finally finished, he moved on to another very appreciative community. There is something to be said for sharing a story.

Quite a few years ago, my husband brought home a video tape (remember those?) of a group of comedians. He couldn’t wait to show me so I, too, could laugh my head off as did all of his friends the night before. The comedians were hilarious, indeed, but I barely uttered a chortle. It seemed odd that I felt so little levity when the guys were all double over, struggling for breath. But they were together, feeding off each other’s reactions and the sound of their own and each other’s laughter. They were a community. For me, this was a lonely maiden voyage. Think about how much funnier a show seems with a laugh track. 

So if you want to help your child or teen develop greater interest in reading, try this. Set up a community of two (or even more if you’d like to include your spouse or another child). Tackle a book together. If possible, buy a copy for yourself and one for your child. Take turns reading out loud with little ones. But do give oral reading a try even with older kids. High schoolers sometimes enjoy this, too—despite balking at first. Create a special time to meet. Get into your jammies, find a cozy place for reading or for chatting about what you’ve already read.   

Avoid asking plot questions. That’s just recall, which is important but not the goal right now. This is supposed to be fun. Plus, that’s not how real people talk about literature. I only ask my friends plot questions if I need clarification myself. Book clubbers gain a greater understand of the literature through natural conversation. They enjoy sharing thoughts about a triumphant, sentimental, frightening, or heartbreaking moment. And kids do, too. 

If your child feels lost at first, do most of the work yourself for a little while and shorten the amount of reading before discussion. Occasionally, read ahead and provide a little teaser, like, “Oh, be sure to pay close attention to what Jack does when he punches Piggy” (Lord of the Flies). I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on that!” This gives your child something to look forward to, like previews at a movie theater.  

During your conversations, imagine together how the characters are positioned. Ask your young reading partner to set the scene as if directing a play. Who is close to whom? What are they doing, seeing, feeling, and why? Offer your thoughts and ask for input. Pause, once in a while, to discuss a sentence or some word choices. Underline meaningful lines and share them. Don’t criticize your child’s choice. Quote selection improves with maturity. And, truly, books that are mostly plot, plot, plot, plot, plot might not have much to choose from. That’s OK, too. 

While reading, be sure to discuss your feelings about characters, what disappointed you or made you sad, proud, impressed or hopeful. Talk about alternate endings or ideas for a sequel. In order to create another story, your child will need to understand the characters and what has transpired. Sometimes, that’s a BIG accomplishment. 

Discussion helps turn on engagement feelers. Try various strategies at different times, but always, always relax and let this be social and fun. When kids develop the means for relating to literature, they will be able to transfer these skills to their private and academic reading. Greater engagement leads to better retention. We remember that which touches us in some way. When you add ways to think about literature, you also help your child develop critical thinking. 

Although it is imperative to read with little ones, it doesn’t have to end there. No one is ever too old to enjoy sharing a story. Having read Hamlet with AP Lit high school seniors for many years, it was a joy to fill in some blanks for my friends as we watched this play. Without understanding the importance of royal succession during Shakespeare’s era, for example, one cannot imagine the grave intensity of Hamlet’s woe in this heartbreaking tragedy. Oh, how I do miss teaching.
Help for Struggling Readers