It was an evening in late August last year. I tiptoed into my 2nd grader’s room to put some laundry  in her closet. I was just about to leave when I heard a small voice from under the covers. “Mommy?”

“Hey sweety, what are you still doing awake?”

“Mommy, I have a confession to make.”

I had no idea what was about to come but nodded encouragingly. “What’s on your mind honey?”

It took her a while to get it out, but finally it came: “My teacher said that I read REALLY slowly.”

Talk about a negative message to a 2nd grader only two weeks after the beginning of the school year.

Fast forward a few weeks and we were meeting the teacher in question. “Maybe she reads more fluently in French,” she said, trying to look for positives in the situation, but we had to shake our heads. Despite her extremely fluent spoken French, she was not more drawn to reading in her minority language than in Finnish. And it had all started so well…

Sara learned to read on her own when she was 5 years old. We were at a hotel in Chicago when, all of a sudden, she started reading words in a book that we had brought for her. First in Finnish, and a week or so later also in French. By the time we left the US, she had also deciphered quite a few easy English words like open, cat, or book. We had seen all this before with Emma and expected things to go smoothly from then on. Only here we were, almost 3 years later, and the truth was that she still did not pick up a book on her own. In any language.

The first thing the teacher suggested we do was to look into a free computer program developed by a Finnish University called Graphogame with different levels depending on the fluency. On a strictly mechanical level, the program was very successful and we could see progress in how fast she was reading, but after a week or so we could tell she was bored.  There was something missing and that was the joy in reading a good story. Just for the pleasure of it! I believe that if the why is there the how will follow. It seemed that – lulled into thinking everything was going smoothly by her incredible verbal skills – we had not done enough to help her find her why in reading. In the next 4 months, these are the steps I took to try to change this:

1. Monkey see, monkey do: If I wanted her to read, she had to see me reading, too.

I hadn’t realized this to be a problem before – after all, I read 1-2 books every week. However, I read most of these on my phone with the Kindle app; how was she supposed to know I was reading? This was also a great opportunity for me to make a list of books I wanted to read and head to the library – with Sara of course!

2. I put out regular “commercials” for pleasure reading:

– “I think I’m just going to relax for a little bit with my book”

– “This book is great, it talks about…” or even better, with her books or at the library: “Oh I loved this book, it’s about this girl/boy/animal who…”

– “I’m going to make myself a lovely cup of hot chocolate to drink while I read. Want one, too?”

3. I started reading to her again and doing my best to make it enjoyable for her.

Aren’t you discouraging her to read on her own?” I heard. “She’s 8 already, isn’t she?” Yes, she was an 8-year-old who needed to be reminded of the joy in reading a great story and to hear the vocabulary she wasn’t learning from TV and from everyday conversation. We picked out books together: Momo by Michael Ende, the secret garden by Burnett, others by Astrid Lindgren and Roald Dahl. In the cold winter, we’d make a nest on the couch or the bed with pillows and blankets and read about spring in England or summers in Sweden. The few times I really didn’t have the time, I asked the teenager for help.

4. I found out what kind of books she liked the best. Turns out it’s detective stories! With the help of a great librarian, we discovered the  detective agency of Jerry and Maya by Martin Widmark. She read the first book over a weekend and could not wait for the library to open to get the next book. We watched in awe as she read all 8 books in the series in February. I saw the look in her eyes that I had hoped to see all along; she was reading because she wanted to. Many nights we found her like this:


The thing is, it was all in Finnish.Very little reading in French had happened in the past months (except at the French-Finnish school), but I wasn’t worried. I knew from past experience that skills (in other words the how) transfer from one language to another once the motivation (the why!) is there. I still was not prepared for how true this proved out to be. In a matter of weeks Sara was reading books in French after discovering the series Cabane Magique thanks to her older sister who is very good at doing “book commercials”. To motivate reading in both languages, we made her a bookshelf to keep track of how many she has read in each. Blue-white-red for French, Blue-white for Finnish.


The other day we were walking home from school. “Mommy,” she said. “It seems to me that the others in my class don’t read as quickly as they used to. Or then, maybe I’ve just caught up with them. ”

“I’m sure that’s exactly what’s happened, honey.”

“Mommy? Can we go to the library tonight?”


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