It is well documented that the benefits of regular reading are profound. Studies have shown that reading improves everything from a person’s language, academic, speech, communication, and writing skills to reducing stress, improving concentration, expanding vocabulary, and allowing us to be lost in another world. Reading is relaxing entertainment that grows brains!
Given the power of this one activity to significantly change a person’s life, it is not surprising that teachers try to encourage their students to read by asking them to complete reading logs. Unfortunately, though, with a teacher’s good intentions notwithstanding, forcing a person to complete a reading log can actually do the opposite of what it is intended to do. Reading logs can make children want to stop reading. Here’s why.
There’s this phenomenon that happens in a person’s mind called counterwill. Austrian psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, first coined this term, but Gordon Neufeld, PhD has normalized this word in parenting education circles to explain what happens when you perceive that someone is trying to coerce you into doing something. Children who are “misbehaving” or “strong-willed” are usually experiencing counterwill.
Counterwill is a resistance force—it makes us do the opposite of what we are being told to do. The interesting thing is that counterwill is actually an instinctual drive that has safety benefits. This instinct’s purpose is to keep children safe and help them develop individuality as they get older.
It is the drive that stops a child from doing what a person with ill intentions wants him or her to do, and is the internal permission to have individual thoughts and feelings. It’s the voice in your head saying, “Don’t believe that man who needs help looking for his puppy. Run away!” It’s also the drive that stirs thoughts like, “I hate this activity. Hey, guess what? I can stop doing it—you’re not the boss of me!”
The bond between a parent and a child (and a teacher and a child) is the most important factor in a child’s development, and significantly influences his or her behaviour. When children feel “attached” to their caregiver, they want to follow that adult’s lead, and are less driven to be resistant.
Counterwill happens when an adult’s requests are too big for the attachment connection to sustain. A child is less likely to take direction from someone whom she doesn’t feel connected with.
The same kind of counterwill resistance happens with activities like reading logs (and many kinds of homework—the “busy work” kind). When sitting down to read, feeling ready and able to do that while thinking, “I can’t wait to find out what happens next,” we stimulate the brain growth and relaxation parts of our mind. When we feel pressure to complete one chapter or thirty minutes as prescribed by someone else who we may or may not feel connected to, the thinking turns to, “I don’t want to do this now, but I have to. I hate this.” The sense of freedom, of feeling in control, gets squashed, which cranks up resistance. A person can force him or herself to complete a task as long as the benefit or connection to the person asking is felt, but once the I hate this and you can’t make me tipping point is reached, counterwill kicks in.
As Alfie Kohn described in this interesting post called, "How to Create Nonreaders," parents report that children who usually love getting lost in a book who are expected to read for a certain amount of time each night then record that on paper, begin looking at reading as a chore rather than something to enjoy. They actually stop reading for fun.
When children are told how much to read, they sometimes zip through the pages, not really absorbing the story or information, just so they can get to the assigned page number to end at so they can stop. Forcing a child to read can stir counterwill, which instinctually will tell them not to do it.
Firstly, don’t force it.
Stop making children read.
*Let your children/students see you reading.
Lead by example. Pick up a book and show your enthusiasm for reading by talking about why you are excited to read a certain book in particular. With older children, you can talk about the elements of storytelling, like plot and character development or the setting, saying something like, “The author has me on pins and needles! How did she do that?”
Let your kids see you taking time to read each day. *This is the most important one.
Create a reading environment that feels comfortable to read in.
If the classroom space allows, teachers can ask parents if they have large cushions, area rugs, comfy sofas, or chairs to donate. Arrange them in a separate space, so it feels more like a living room than a classroom. Students can take turns using this comfortable reading space.
At home, parents can create screen-free zones with furniture that makes it easy to sit for a while without getting a sore bottom. Turn the radios, TVs, and other screens off for good chunks of time.
Go to the library regularly.
Take your children to your school or local library, steer them into their age/interest-appropriate aisles and allow them to pick the books. Do this each week or every second week. I know that life can get very busy—try to put this at the top of the priority list.
Provide choice and freedom.
Parents, ask your child what she would like in the house or in her room to make reading more enjoyable? A special pillow? Funky bookshelf?
Teachers, caringly ask your students what would make their reading time more enjoyable. This is a great counterwill reduction question: “What do you need to in order make reading a good thing?” I know you might have a big class, but do what you can so each child feels heard on their answer to that question. Some do better with music (this might be the only time you allow headphones), some do better with their feet intertwined with others, or perhaps in a pillow fort. Let students pick their book within the parameters you create.
Set a variety of books out where the kids can see them.
Have books as part of your décor. Find an organized way to have books around, making it easy for kids to pick one up.
Learn more about your child or student’s interests, providing books to expand knowledge in those areas.
Host a kid-version book club.
Mimic adult book clubs by having a group of kids pick the book they want to read—let members of the group suggest books to choose from. As adults do, pick a day to have the book read by (although we don’t always finish it, do we?!) and on that day, bring some snacks and drinks in and chat about the book. Book chats can replace book reports, which can also be reading killers.
Invite authors to come speak in your classroom.
We live in a small city, yet there are many authors in our midst. There are poets, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s authors living nearby. As a writer, I love invitations to speak at schools, and do so as much as my schedule allows. It doesn’t hurt to ask an author if he or she has time to visit.
Be creative with reading activities.
As I outlined in a post I wrote called, "Growing Your Child’s Interest In Reading," the love of reading can be fostered in unusual ways—reading recipes, road-signs, writing poetry, memorizing song lyrics. Get creative!
If you liked this, you might also like: "How To Help Your Child Through A Compromised State" and "Your Go-To Great Parenting Facebook Pages."
I continually post parenting and teaching resources on my Facebook page, so I welcome you over there to ask questions, cheer each other on, and learn more.