Can’t Read, Won’t Read: how our reluctant reader became a bookworm.


This wasn’t how I pictured it would be for my daughter to learn to read. I was sweating, she was writhing, looking anywhere but the page and refusing to sound out simple three-letter words. It was a daily battle that left me close to tears- but we should, we were told, be doing it every day.

I should have realised that, in parenting, nothing is ever as you pictured it would be. And that every transition is a challenge, and a story in itself.

Spoiler alert: the ending of this story is a happy one. Now aged seven, our girl is the bookworm I hoped and assumed (never assume, parents… never assume) she would be. In the first week of term she has gobbled up two chapter books. But to say it was easy getting here would be as fictitious as snozzcumbers and frobscottle.

I know we’re not alone in this. So with the new school year upon us, and our youngest now in Reception and about to start his own reading journey, I thought it would be worth sharing what worked for us, and for our reluctant reader.

It shocked me when, in Reception, she struggled- and actually refused- to read. She was was bright and articulate. We surrounded her with books at home, read to her every night, and all the other smug things parents do to encourage a love of books in their child, and to feel good about their parenting. And she did love books. She just hated reading them herself.  My biggest fear was that she would lose this love of books because of the difficulties and tension learning to read caused.

It was during a meeting that her class teacher had called with me that I had my tiny, rebellious (for me) lightbulb moment. ‘We need to get her moving and grooving with her reading’, said the teacher, with a kind, concerned face. And I thought, suddenly: Why? Why do we need to get her to move or to groove? She is FIVE. The only ‘need’ is the need for her to meet certain attainment targets by the end of the academic year. Obviously what I said out loud was: “yes”, because I am a baby.

But at home we just, well, stopped doing the daily reading. This may be a bad idea for some kids- but for our daughter, it was time to draw a line under that daily stress.

The next magic moment happened when a family friend with years of experience in early years education called by, and I told her of our woes. She asked what books our daughter was currently into looking at for fun- rather than the books she had to read for school- and I told her fact books, and the next day, a stack of very basic  fact books about sea creatures and weather and cakes appeared on our doorstep, and were placed strategically and without comment on our daughter’s bed.

‘Just give the books to her,’ said the wise family friend. ‘DON’T make her read them. Don’t read them with her. Just leave the books with her’.

Two days later, L walked into the room and declared ‘did you know a squid has tentacles?’. And my mouth dropped open, and her love of reading has blossomed ever since. The other week she told me that her favourite thing is when she is reading a book and she feels like she is INSIDE the world of the book- and that just about made my year, because it’s a feeling that has sustained and thrilled me all my life.

So for what it’s worth, these are the things that helped us get to where we are:

  1. Trust your gut. Although my instinct is generally DANGER EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE, so I tend to ignore it- in this case I found that listening to my instincts worked. So when I knew in my heart that our girl wasn’t ready for intensive learning to read, I backed off, even though I am a rule-follower, and it wasn’t what we were ‘supposed’ to do.
  2. Don’t believe that one size fits all. Although L can now read fluently, and daily reading would not be a problem, we still don’t do it. We let her read to us if she wants to. We read to her every day. But that formal You Must Read Out Loud To Me ritual? It just doesn’t suit her. So we don’t do it.
  3. Don’t panic. It might be tough now, but the overwhelming chances are that your kid WILL get there. Of course, some children will have more deep-seated issues, and there is help available for that. But just like potty-training, sleeping through the night and breastfeeding without feeling your nipples are going to fall off, getting from A to B is rarely easy, but this too (when ‘this’ is trying not scream as your child rolls around on the sofa instead of looking at a picture of Biff and sodding Chips) shall pass.
  4. Give them books that they love– for them to enjoy as and when they want to. The advice of our family friend was invaluable, and was the key to unlocking our daughter’s love of reading herself (rather than just being read to). I most definitely owe our friend a magnum of the finest prosecco for that.

I would like to end this blog by saying two things. First, that this is not an attack on our children’s school, or the school system itself. I genuinely feel, on the whole, nothing but glee about our kids getting to go to a place where, every day, they have fun and learn and expand their horizons (and get fed/cared for for six hours without me lifting a finger, hurrah). If anything, I’m critical of government targets that say every child must reach x milestone by x age.

Secondly, I am not an expert, in education or indeed in parenting. If you’re worried about your child’s reading, do what works for you, in consultation with teachers/experts who actually know what they are talking about. L’s teachers have been supportive, and have certainly never questioned why the ‘reading’ section in her home-school link book is often empty. They also replaced some of the tedious story books with fact books in her book bag, which made her more keen to read to us at home. So talk to your child’s teacher. It’s very likely that they will welcome you communicating with them.

No, I’m no expert. But I do have a kid who refused to sound out c-a-t when it was written under an enormous picture of what was clearly a cat . So I hope that, if you’re in that boat too, my limited experience might give you a little bit of hope that things can turn out OK.