Sally Rippin’s Tips for Encouraging Reluctant Readers

Sally Rippin’s series for primary school age children, Billie B. Brown and Hey Jack!, are bestsellers - and playground favourites. So she’s well equipped to give advice on helping instil a love of reading in reluctant readers. Here are some of her tips - and her story on the genesis of Billie and Jack.

A few years ago, I was approached by a publisher to begin a new series for early readers. For inspiration I began by pulling out all my old Dr Seuss books. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story behind The Cat in the Hat, in 1954, a magazine published an article that suggested children were not learning to read because their books were boring. A publisher compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognise and asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) to write a book using only those words. Nine months later, using only 236 of these words, Geisel handed him the manuscript for The Cat in the Hat.

The next set of books I dusted off were my childhood copies of Richard Scarry. I studied these books to work out what had so appealed to me and decided it was Scarry’s unusual use of second person. Looking at these books as an adult I realised this was an incredibly simple yet effective way of connecting with my young reader.

The last series I pulled out were the Milly Molly Mandy books begun by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1920s. They contained no wizards or dragons, or even family tragedies to contend with, yet I still remember finding them utterly gripping. So, inspired by Seuss, Scarry and Lankester Brisley, I decided my stories would begin in second person, contain the language of a school reader and stick to the simplest day to day occurrences of a six to eight year old. Over the next few weeks I wrote a story using these limitations and tested it out on my son who is a reluctant reader. When he fidgeted or seemed to lose track of the story, I made notes in the columns to trim back or change the wording. Eventually I came up with the first book in the series: Billie B Brown, The Soccer Star.

The series grew from six books, to twelve, to twenty, with a spin-off series for boys called Hey Jack! Three years down the track, my publishers informed me that the Billie B Brown series had sold its millionth copy. Obviously, this is thrilling news, but what means even more to me is that these days I hear almost weekly from parents and teachers who credit them for enabling their child to discover a love of reading. Having a struggling reader myself, I couldn’t feel more honoured and privileged to have been a small part of something that will offer their child a lifetime of joy and respect and ease.

Sometimes I feel sad that my son will never know Charlotte or Mr Tumnus or Mowgli as intimately as I did at his age, but in the last few years he has developed a Manga collection to die for, it being the only thing he will read for pleasure. It’s hard to see your kid struggle, but with a little persistence and patience, like my son, most kids will get there in the end.

Over the years I have devoured everything I can find on helping kids learn to read, and spoken to many people in the same position as I am. Here is a short list of things I have gleaned from my research that have worked for us:

· Read to them every day – kids are never too old to be read to. This also becomes a precious time in the day where your child has your undivided attention for a moment, so that they will learn to associate books with warmth and joy.

· Make reading fun – once it starts feeling like a chore or you begin to resent your child’s slow progress, it’s no fun for anyone. Stop and try something else.

· Let them choose their own reading material – nothing wrong with car magazines or comics!

· Let them self-correct – as painful as it can be to listen to them make the same mistake a hundred times, they do need to work it out for themselves and will gradually learn to do this from the context.

· Talk to them about books – which ones did you read as a child? What are they reading? What are their friends reading? Go to author signings, bookstore events and libraries together. Make books a prominent part of your life.

· Download audio books — so that your reluctant reader can hear the books their friends are reading and join in their conversations. It’s also important they are given the opportunity to learn how stories work. This is difficult for them to understand when their only access to books might be school readers, which can be pedagogically sound, but often lacking in story, description and character development.

· Use reading opportunities; eg. reading recipes, instructions, road signs etc.

· Set a good example – let them see you reading.

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