How I Got My Struggling Readers to Read This Summer…and Love It!

Well it’s that time of year when students grumble and parents giggle that summer break is almost over. Soon the little darlings will be off to school once again! Nothing brings inner joy to this weary mama’s heart quite like the sight of a “Back-To-School” sale sign.  (I mostly jest. I love having my “ducklings” all home in the nest during the summer.)

It can also be a time when parents worry if their kiddos have lost any skills over the summer. Some schools have required summer reading for older students (typically Middle School and up). But if you have kids in elementary school, you may be worried that reading just didn’t get as much attention as you might have hoped.  This concern is magnified if your student struggles academically and is not in step with their “typical” peers.

All three of our children have special needs and their own unique learning challenges. Fortunately, Samantha (14yrs) is an avid reader. She loves everything from science magazines to Harry Potter. One down, two to go…

Izabella for all intents and purposes, FAILED the first grade. Flat. Out. Failed. She will be moving on to second grade only because she already spent two years in kindergarten and is a year older than most of her peers. Izabella finds reading frustrating and fights it at every turn. Can you relate? Have you ever felt completely defeated, only to get a note like this on a final report card?:

Izabella Report Card

Oh, sure! I’m looking forward to 2 1/2 months of fights with an 8 year old who refuses to pick up a book!

But wait, there’s more…

Devin is globally delayed. He is emotionally and cognitively 4 years old. He will turn 7 years old in October. He only knows about half the alphabet and letter sounds. He is going into first grade, spending the bulk of his day in a self-contained special ed classroom. An aide helps him participate in a “typical” classroom a couple hours a day. This kid is nowhere close to actually reading. My big summer goal for him was to learn not to THROW books.

Since I home-school Samantha (due to an extreme anxiety disorder).

[I find it funny that I always feel the need to justify why I home-school just one of my kids. Do you ever feel like you need to explain yourself to complete strangers? Let’s knock off that nonsense! We don’t owe the world an explanation! I digress…]

I always have great summer ideas to keep my kids engaged and learning. I research teaching techniques, imagine fun-filled outings to the library, or nature walks in the park. I buy journals and download worksheets.

Well, about the third week into summer break, the kids were no longer having fun doing anything that resembled schoolwork and I was frustrated. I simply gave up.

I gave up my unrealistic expectations (for myself and the kids).

I gave up feeling bad about myself.

I gave up comparing my kids to others.

Once I took the pressure off them and myself, we started to enjoy our days together. So how did I “get” my kids to read? It kind of happened naturally, with a few subtle strategies I’d like to share with you:

Move books to a prominent place

I moved the kids’ books from their playroom to our living room. Just the act of moving, sorting and rearranging them created some natural curiosity. I just started working and they wanted to help. We sorted the books by author and everyone got a turn putting them on the bookcase.  Books that they had walked by every day for two years without as much as a glance, were now a hot commodity.

Home Library


Create a special time to read to the family

Herb and I reinstated “family reading time” (we started this years ago, but got out of the habit) where I read one book a night from our newly revamped “family library”. Having a special name for our simple, brown bookcase makes it special in everyone’s mind. Everyone gets a turn picking a book. Since Samantha is older, she likes chapter books. We are currently reading through the Narnia series.

My only expectation is that everyone sits quietly while I read. This is most difficult for Devin and Izabella, but as the days and weeks progressed, they were able to focus. Sometimes I stop and ask questions about the story or characters. You should see how all three of them shoot their hands up to be picked!

I think what makes this time really special is that the whole family is involved.

Encourage the kids to just LOOK at books

Another technique was to use “quiet book time” to help settle the kids down if they were getting too rowdy. This is NOT a punishment. I simply say that it is getting too loud, wild, whatever and that it’s time to quietly look at books. “BUT I CAN’T READ!” was Izabella’s typical response. I would gently tell her, “That’s OK, Honey. Just look at the pictures.”

Again, my only expectation was that the kids would hold a book on their lap and turn the pages. That’s it. Nothing more. This was no small feat for Devin since he has poor hand control and has a propensity to tear anything paper. He is making great progress in learning to treat books with respect and care.

Model Reading

I confess that when I need some down time, my best friends are Netflix and Hulu. I knew I needed to make a bigger effort to “lead by example”. I love biographies and historical fiction. I have collected many books over the years that I have never read. I also find it hard to sit still. There is always some household project that feels more urgent than sitting and reading. I scheduled time right after lunch to quietly read. The original goal was to have the kids see me reading. The real benefit was my rekindled love of reading. Now it is a time I look forward to every day. Here’s my current selection…

Shield of Three Lions Book

What books to you enjoy? Do your kids see you reading at least a couple times a week?

Embrace boredom

This is not specifically about reading, but I firmly believe that boredom is great for kids. It is not my responsibility to make sure my kids are constantly entertained. Bored kids become creative kids. As I muddle through some mundane household task, I get to watch my children make their own games, stories, and songs. They draw, build, and make believe. They have simple toys, mostly blocks, small people and animal figurines, play kitchen items, cars, and dress-up clothes. NONE of their toys require batteries.

Do I ever hear, “Mom! I’m bored!”? Of course. I just reply, “Would you like me to find something for you to do?” Translation: chores. (Yes, they have regular chores they do daily. I’m talking about extra jobs here.)

The little sweeties quickly find something to do on their own.

Kids Playing

Then one day as I was doing some computer work, Izabella climbed up on a stool next to me with a book and started reading. Did she magically start reading at grade level? No. But that’s not the point.  We created an environment where books are cherished and reading isn’t scary.

Izabella Reading

These are just a few of the things we’ve done to help our kids enjoy books. I’d love to hear what ideas you have for fostering the love of reading in your kids. Please leave a comment below or share this post with a friend!

Devin Reading










First, I stopped worrying whether my kids read ANYTHING. Instead, I read to them. Several years ago we started “family reading time” after dinner. Due to lots of life distractions, we got out of the habit. I knew it was something we needed to start again.

Each night we take turns picking a book from our home library. The Littles (my pet name for Izabella and Devin) like Dr. Seuss. Samantha, Herb, and I like chapter books (we are currently reading through the Narnia series). All Herb and I require is that the kids give me their attention. This is not easy and I have to stop often to redirect Devin especially when reading a long chapter.

There is a lot that is accomplished in that 15 or so minutes a night. I occasionally will stop to ask questions about the story to check for comprehension, but that is not the main goal.





Samantha, our oldest (14yrs) is home-schooled due to a neurological condition that makes it extremely difficult for her to function in a public school setting. We are very blessed that despite Samantha’s many challenges, she is an avid reader. She

Izabella is our quintessential “middle child”. She will be 8 years old in a couple of weeks.  She has ADHD, PTSD and has signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder from being in foster care from 18mo to 3 years old.  Her extreme behavior challenges makes learning very difficult. She spent two years in kindergarten, just learning how to manage her behavior. She started first grade last school year behind her peers in all subjects, especially reading. Although she made some progress during the school year, she, for all intents and purposes, failed the first grade. She is already a year older than her peers, so keeping her back another year would be counter-productive. When I tearfully read her final report card which stated that she “does not meet the standard” in EVERY subject, EVERY skill, I was disheartened. Herb and I spent a lot of time exploring whether we should home school Izabella too. After several weeks of discussion, we decided that she would do better overall to return to public school where she will get special education services.

Devin is our conundrum child. He is 6 1/2 years old and is globally developmentally delayed.  He is Izabella’s full-biological sibling, and only 15 months younger than her. Developmentally, they seem years apart. All our efforts to get a diagnosis have been fruitless and frustrating. Devin is going into first grade this year with the mind and emotions of a 3 year old. He is in a self-contained special ed class. An aide accompanies him when he visits the “typical” classroom a few hours a day. He recognizes about half the alphabet and the corresponding letter sounds. He has trouble remembering any sight words.

I am giving these short bios just to illustrate that I feel some responsibility for my children to make some academic progress over the summer when they are home with me. After all, I do home school one kid, I should be able to help the younger kids (I call them “the littles”) too.




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