Reaching reluctant readers

Thankfully more and more middle school and high school teachers are embracing independent choice reading in the classroom.  Whether you were inspired by Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Kelly Gallagher, or your co-worker down the hall, you are going to have some obstacles to navigate in your quest to get students reading independently.  You may call it Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), or Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), or what I call it “Okay, get out your books! Let’s read!” but the goal is the same: every student reading every day.

If you are implementing this practice across a wide-range of ability levels, you are bound to encounter students who once loved to read, but how we teach reading at the middle and high school level killed the joy for them. They are over-scheduled with advanced classes and after-school activities and reading is just not something that they make a priority. These students will be so grateful to have 12-15 minutes a day to devote to reading and will not want to stop.

And then you will have all the other students who are not so thrilled about your newest endeavor. Let’s meet some of them now.

Forgetful Frankie

Frankie’s binder looks like something exploded in it. He never has a pencil and is often late for class. He forgets his locker combination every Monday morning. You know this kid. Frankie never has his book for independent reading although you give students the option to leave them in the classroom.

What to avoid: You will want to avoid sending Frankie back to his locker or where ever he thinks he left his book.  He will just be even later to class and still likely return with no book in hand.  Also, other not-so-forgetful students will try to use this tactic to have a little hall wandering time.

Tactic #1: Create a classroom procedure for students who have forgotten their books. I have a small shelf of poetry collections that range from classic to contemporary. Beside the shelf, printed on several sheets of card stock is an assignment entitled Forgot Your Book?  The assignment has instructions to pick a poetry collection, quickly pick a poem, and three questions to answer.  Complete this lesson at the beginning of the year as a class with a common poem so all students were familiar with what to do.   If a student does not have his/her book he should grab a poetry collection, grab one of the assignment sheets, and start reading. No time wasted. I had one Forgetful Frankie this year that forgot her book so often that she eventually just stopped bringing it because she loved the poetry collection she started reading so much. I’ll take that as a win.

Tactic #2: Forgetful Frankie will sometimes be a voracious reader. Insist that he leave one book in the classroom, just for classroom reading, and check out a different to take with him. Another option would be to have two copies available of the same book. One to leave in class and one to take with him (and hopefully not lose).

Sassy Suzy

Suzy has been burned by books before. She is behind grade level and despises to read aloud. She may move her lips as she reads silently and use her finger to follow along. She HATES to read.

What to avoid: First piece of advice, do not engage in any type of confrontation in front of the class with Suzy.  This is probably what she wants. You are the person trying to make her do something that she hates. You are the enemy.

Tactic #1: Whatever book Suzy has begrudgingly picked up from your book speed dating, get yourself a copy. Don’t make a big deal about it, just read it during class time when you have a chance to read with the students. Read it at her pace, and maybe stay just a little bit ahead. When you see her in the hall ask her, “Have you gotten to part where…?” Create some anticipation while building a relationship with Suzy.

Tactic #2: Have students complete quick writes (1-3 sentences) each day after independent reading time. Use the notebooks to engage Suzy with questions, comments, and encouragement that will continue to build your relationship with her and her relationship with her book.

Fidgety Fred

While Fred is supposed to be reading he is fidgeting. No, he is actually vibrating in his seat. If he is still, then he is watching the invisible mobile that is twirling around his head.

What to avoid: Avoid having to speak to Fred so many times that it distracts the other students nearby and causes them not to be able to read.

Tactic #1: Get this kid a pipe cleaner. A pipe cleaner can be his bookmark and he can (silently) twirl it as he reads. Worry marbles and other devices also work, but I like that the pipe cleaner and the book can always be together.

Tactic #2: Guide the student in selecting a book that also has an engaging audiobook companion. Set him up to get his book and headphones each day. Lots of fidgety kids would be engaged by spoken word poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s reading of her verse novel The Poet X. And if he doesn’t follow along, he is likely still listening. And guess what? Audio books count.

Sleepy Sally

Sally is sleepy…so, so sleepy. Every single day. You joke with her about needing more rest or an extra cup of coffee in the mornings.

What to avoid: We might assume that Sally is staying up all night binge watching the latest Netflix series or on social media, but we really do not know. She may be up late for much more personal reasons and a parent phone call is likely in order. If she is staying up late for purely entertainment purposes, it is likely that her parents have no idea. Avoid making assumptions or accusations towards this sleepy student.

Tactic #1: Help Sally understand that we all feel sleepy at times when we shouldn’t be (i.e. hour 6 of unsolicited PD). Teach her the tactics that adults use to combat these situations. Slip her a piece of hard candy at the beginning of reading time. Put her desk in a place where she can inconspicuously stand while reading. Use your own proximity to keep her awake.

Tactic #2: Give Sally something physical to do while she reads. Give her a bookmark to follow reading down each line. Does she like to draw? Ask her sketch one figure for every five pages read. Does she love social media? Have her create a #hashtag for each page (i.e. #ohnoshedidnt or #thingsjustgotreal). Just give her a task to keep those eyes open. She just might start liking the book enough that the book alone will keep her awake.

Reluctant Ronald: Ronald isn’t sassy or sleepy. He doesn’t fidget, and he shows up on time with his book every day. He appears to be reading, but you can’t really tell. He is clearly not enjoying this process.

What to avoid: Ronald is going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear. He is going to do the bare minimum to keep you off his case. Avoid making him shut down further.

Tactic #1: Help Ronald evaluate his book choice. He likely chose something just because he had to without much thought about whether or not he would like it. He already knew that he wouldn’t. Allow him to “break-up” with his book. Find out what interests him and make some suggestions. Let him read nonfiction. Let him read a graphic or verse novel. When he sees that when you say choice you really mean it, Ronald might have more buy in to this process.

Tactic #2: There are many online tools for calculating reading speed. A very unscientific, but pretty helpful, way to do it is to have students calculate their own reading pace by counting the approximate number of pages of their book they can read in one 12 minute reading period. Then have them set goals: what page to be on by Friday, a date to finish the book by, etc. Celebrate these small victories with Ronald, and maybe he won’t be so discouraged by Go-Getter Gretchen that he sits beside who just finished her 17th book.

Mix and match these strategies to work for reluctant readers in your classroom. Keep working towards the goal of having every student read every day.

Author’s Note: Many people in the world of ELA are turned off by the word “reluctant” when describing readers. Understand something, I am not labeling these students as “lost-cause readers” they are reluctant to embrace independent reading and often for some pretty good reasons. Our job is to move them from reluctant to less-than-reluctant, then to mildly enthusiastic, and then, hopefully, to fully engaged readers. That is the goal. 


3 thoughts on “Reaching reluctant readers

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  1. Love this post and wish I had had some of these ideas when I was teaching. And I had almost all reluctant readers. It’s not a slam, it’s a fact. I read aloud to them all the time, which they loved, but could have used these ideas to promote independent reading.


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