Once your kids can read easy books, start reading them hard ones

Next up: Hamlet.
Next up: Hamlet.
Image: Reuters/Andres Stapff
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the annals of great parenting moments, the one where the kids clamber onto the couch by themselves with their very own longish-book is an awesome one. They’ve mastered the de-coding, they’ve got the sounds, and they can follow a simple plot. Time to kick back and watch them lose themselves in literature, right?


Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion and co-author of Reading Reconsidered argues that’s just the moment to read to them more—and to choose challenging texts, far above their reading level. He writes:

Yes, encourage your kids to practise decoding and fluency on accessible texts. But also realise that being read to from books that are more complex than they can read on their own prepares them for the gatekeeper task: understanding difficult ideas and complex texts.

There are multiple benefits to reading kids hard books, he argues. Some are obvious, like exposing them to more complex vocabulary. Some are less so, such as exposing them to more complicated sentences and more elaborate plot lines, which better prepares them for when they encounter those on their own further down the road.

Books use words we don’t. Lemov read his second-grader Island of the Blue Dolphins, a sixth-grade text, and found “befall”, “glisten”, “pelt”, and “decree”. Most of us don’t talk like that, so the only way to learn words like that is to read them or have them read to you.

Hard books also use complex syntax, or complicated sentences. He’s found that when kids don’t understand a passage it’s often because an intricate sentence tripped them up.

He offers this example: “She stepped forward quickly to help, only to find that her muscles, her tendons, would not obey.” The point of the passage is that she did not help. But it is easy to misunderstand it, and take away just the opposite.

“Hearing complex syntax read aloud builds an affinity for a different kind of vocabulary. Call it the vocabulary of syntax,” he writes in Tes, a British forum for educators.

Finally, introducing hard books means grappling with complicated plots with a grown-up there to help you decipher them. As as we know, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or House of Cards, while complicated, can be gloriously rewarding.

Kids should pick books they love, and read what they want on their own. Agency is key. But there is a popular perception that to get kids to love to read, we should make it easy. That way they can make it through, build confidence, and ideally, start to love reading on their own.

Lemov has more faith in kids, as long as they can harness the help of parents or other caregivers to help them along. “Because challenge is far more engaging in the long run than pandering,” he writes.

Considering how much time we spend reading useless banter on Twitter, or scrolling through Instagram to revel in someone else’s perfect holiday, it’s worth thinking if this might be a better use of half an hour.