Apologies for the vague title, but I wasn't sure how exactly to put the situation.

My 11-year-old sister refuses to read properly. (I am out of the house, but my parents discuss the problem with me frequently and are not aware of this forum.) She seems to like the idea of reading: she carries books out of the house with her (perhaps because I always did too), holds them open at appropriate times, and has ready answers to questions like "what's your favorite book [character]?" However, she almost certainly doesn't actually read the books. The answers to questions like that always pertain to books she has been "casually reading" for weeks and she cannot answer more in-depth questions about them. If books are assigned for school and there are questions to answer about the reading, she will answer them as directly from the text as possible. Based on the age recommendations on the backs of the books she has around (or online), she isn't being asked to read anything at all above her age level.

For example, this past summer I was asked to help her with an assignment on Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. I was at home and monitored her reading each night until she finished the book. The first part of the assignment asked for a brief summary of the book, but when I asked her to describe "what happens in the book" to me, she gave a list of events: Annemarie and her friend have a race, then they run into soldiers, then they go home, then Annemarie's mother is made nervous by the encounter, etc. I had to use extremely leading questions to get her to arrive at any kind of plot, and she was essentially lost for the rest of the assignment, which concerned theme and character development.

The same problem arises in speech and other written language. She likes computer games and YouTube videos (the kind that star tween girls of mid- to high-production value and look sponsored by some kind of media enterprise), but if a story is involved, she cannot recount that story. She speaks very fast, but repeats herself, uses filler words excessively, and is frequently irrelevant. She will laugh at things other people say (that aren't jokes), but when asked what she thought was funny, she either can't or won't explain. Placing hard limits on TV/computer time haven't improved these areas. (My parents ensure that she finishes her homework no matter what.)

My sister was in a dual-language program where most of the students, like her, do not speak English at home and have overall very slightly worse English scores than the kids in the other classes at the same school. Though I went to entirely-English schools, I find it unlikely that this was a problem, as her friends/classmates seem to be fine readers and even speak more fluently than she does. Now that she is in middle school, her new teachers aren't cutting her any slack for being in the dual-language program (although I didn't think they were supposed to anyway) and she's falling behind even more. She has never been tested for a disability; however, the teachers of her small elementary school class have never recommended that. She seems to be fine at math and socialization.

  • Wait... What is a plot, if not a sequence of events?
    – Malady
    Nov 22, 2015 at 2:27
  • 1
    The plot, as typically understood and taught, is the main sequence of events. In this book, the protagonist helps her Jewish friend escape Nazi-occupied Denmark. A description of the plot should boil down to that main sequence of events with smaller events added if requested, not by default.
    – user19910
    Nov 22, 2015 at 2:41
  • Ah. I see. Well, at least she remembers what happened in the story... Wait... "Number the Stars" actually has a clear plot, right? If it's something like a day-by-day diary, then important plot points might get lost in the bits of other details. And a knowledge of WW2 Nazi history might be needed for a 11-year-old to get the plot?
    – Malady
    Nov 22, 2015 at 2:48
  • See ya tomorrow...
    – Malady
    Nov 22, 2015 at 3:29
  • Many adults, educated or not, have troubles summarizing a story plot... not everybody can be good at everything. Maybe in a few years she still won't be able to do so but will be doing amazing stuff in mathematics, languages, ... who knows ?
    – Laurent S.
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:01

2 Answers 2


Different people read for different reasons, and have different levels of talent at the formal analysis aspects of it. I think your sister enjoys it as an escapist activity, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.

She doesn't necessarily have a disorder either. Kids develop at different rates, and she probably just got a little behind at some point, which in today's standards-driven, test-based curriculum is sometimes very hard to come back from.

Nor do I think it's a matter of refusal to do it. She probably just doesn't know how.

The best thing you can do is avoid holding the questions until the very end. Good readers are constantly, although usually subconsciously, reevaluating questions about plot, theme, and character development. Readers who are struggling with comprehension need to be taught this consciously.

So ask the same kinds of questions you were asking at the end, except ask them after every chapter. Add questions about changes, like, "Do you still think Sarah is mean? Why not? What made her change?" She will soon be able to do this naturally on her own. Good teachers used to do with books they read aloud in class. I don't know if they have time for it anymore. Parents can do this for books they read aloud to their kids in the summer.

  • Important point in this answer: Make sure she knows how before judging her for not being able.
    – Stephie
    Nov 22, 2015 at 10:47
  • Thank you all for your answers and comments. This one seems to represent the view of the majority of comments and provides a more immediately-implementable solution.
    – user19910
    Nov 26, 2015 at 11:53

Maybe she can't process the information. Language Processing Disorders refers to heard information, Reading Disability refers to problems with written language. About 20% of the US population may have some symptoms of a reading disability.

If she's okay with heard information, but struggling with written information, she may have a reading disability. The most common and well known reading disability is dyslexia, but there are a range of different disorders. A lot of information will focus on dyslexia and people often use dyslexia when talking about all reading disabilities. Make sure that the tests you ask for cover more than just dyslexia.

Here's a government source giving some information about different types of reading disability.

The above site gives information about what's involved in diagnosis a reading disability, and some information about further sources of support.

It's important to remember that there are sources of support, and things you can do to help her, and that this is not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. One of the signs of a reading disorder is that the child's reading ability is lower than their general intelligence would suggest.

Language Processing Disorder

Students with this disorder have difficulty reading, spelling, writing, or even speaking; basically anything having to do with language becomes very difficult for them. There are other skills that are needed to deal with auditory information, and are affected by LPD. These skills include: attention, memory, following directions, learning and hearing.

Reading Disability

Symptoms can include:

  • Problems sounding out words
  • Difficulty recognizing known words
  • Poor spelling
  • Slow reading
  • Problems reading out loud with correct expression
  • Problems understanding what was just read
  • I'm only allowed to post 2 links. This is the third link that discusses language processing disorder. lsses.org/resources/teacher-consultant-blog/…
    – user19912
    Nov 21, 2015 at 12:32
  • I upvoted the question. My upvote doesn't show yet because I have less than 15 rep.
    – user19912
    Nov 21, 2015 at 12:33
  • Welcome to Parenting.SE. You've got more reputation now, so you should now be able to edit your question to include more than two links, and upvote this (and anywhere else). Thank you for a thorough answer.
    – Acire
    Nov 21, 2015 at 16:01
  • Is it me, or does Language Processing Disorder and Reading Disability seem to focus on basic recognition function of things like morphemes and letters, instead of comprehension, where the only part I can see that references that subject is "Problems understanding what was just read"
    – Malady
    Nov 22, 2015 at 2:31
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    @Malady when a parent asks for support if they say "my child has problems reading" the doctor or teacher may assume dyslexia, and only test for dyslexia. If the parent says "Perhaps LPD" the tests will be broader, and will pick up the particular problem (if there is a problem, there might not be). LPD is specific enough to ask for help.
    – user19912
    Nov 22, 2015 at 13:42

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