Teaching reluctant students? Wondering how to motivate struggling readers? Keep reading. In today’s post, I’m sharing some of my favorite ways to connect and encourage students to read when they have zero desire to pick up a book.
Ms. Tinsdale [with a sigh of frustration]: Serenity, it doesn’t take that long to pick out a book. Your time is up, and you’re going to read this one. Now go get in line.
Serenity [head down, confused]: …but I don’t like this book…
Situations like this one (which I actually witnessed this week) are all too common. Part of the reason some teachers have a difficult time motivating struggling readers is because they aren’t one. We allot students ten minutes in the library to check out a book, hand out a reading log, tell them when the book needs to be finished, (perhaps even give them time to read) and our job is done. Right?
Maybe not. I won’t go into all the reasons reading logs aren’t effective in this post, but it should suffice to say that I don’t use them in the classroom. They don’t motivate my students, and they undermine students’ understanding of why we read. Instead, I find different strategies more beneficial to motivate struggling readers. The interventions that follow are intended to be used with choice reading arrangements. (More to come on engaging students with whole-class novels in a future post.)
IMMERSE THEM IN BOOKS.
One of the best ways to get students hooked on books is to let them stand in front of, sit amidst, and touch the covers of well-cared-for, attractive books. There’s just something special about standing in a library or bookstore and thumbing through the pages of a novel…pondering whether or not it’s worth your time to read. If you’re afraid your students might not know how to do this, model what it looks like for them beforehand.
GIVE THEM PLENTY OF TIME.
Reluctant readers need quite a bit of time to find a novel they might actually want to read. With my struggling students, I sometimes set aside a whole class period on the day we check out books from the library. I begin the hour by talking about some high-interest books they might enjoy, and once in the library, I show them where to look for various genres. I point out the sections where they might find new books.
Then, I let them pick up the books, read the back cover, explore the first pages, and I walk around monitoring, helping when necessary. The only time I tell students what to read (during the independent reading portion of our curriculum) is if they ask me to select a book for them.
DON’T MAKE THEM COMMIT.
Encourage students, and be empathetic. Think about their world. Have they seen examples of adults who commit to a task or a novel and finish it completely? Likely not. When we tell a student to finish a book by a certain deadline, many struggling readers panic. They automatically shut down.
Instead, teachers can make a daunting task more approachable by telling them it’s okay if they get into the book and decide they want to choose a different one. What I emphasize with my students is number of pages over number of books. On top of my night stand at home, I have seven books I’m currently reading. Underneath, I have five more that I have started but just wasn’t enjoying enough to finish. Might I finish them later? Perhaps. We need to give students the freedom to understand that they have this right as well.
WORK TOGETHER AS A GROUP.
Rather than focusing on how many pages or minutes a student has read individually, struggling readers are often more motivated by group efforts. Create book walls, book trees, or try using school-wide programs like the million pages of books challenge to encourage your reluctant students.
USE BOOK TALKS.
I’ve never seen anything that motivates my struggling readers like a really good book talk. Our school librarian is amazing, so I invite her in once per month to rave about some of the best new books for teens. This approach never fails. If your school librarian isn’t interested in partnering with you for this type of thing, try doing them yourself – or look for one-minute book reviews online. Consider inviting other students to create short book talk videos as class projects that you can use to build your digital book talk library and entice future students.
USE BOOK COMMERCIALS.
I first read about book commercials in one of my favorite books – The Book Whisperer. At the end of silent reading time each class period, I have started using these as a way to hold students accountable. Each day, I call randomly on a student to give us a quick book commercial. Basically, they sell us their book in a minute’s time. I listen carefully and try to determine if the student is understanding his or her novel (and if he or she is even reading it). When students get stuck and aren’t sure where to start, I use book discussion cards and Grab and Gab sticks to prompt them.
HAVE FREQUENT CONVERSATIONS.
One of the best ways to keep struggling students reading is to talk with them about their books frequently – one on one. I do this in the hallway, before class, after class, during independent work time, and on days we go to the library to check out new books or renew current ones. When students know I’m interested (or even better – when I tell them I’ve read it and can relate), they seem to be more invested.
The necessity of these conversations is imperative during the summer as well. If your school requires students to read at home and come back in the fall ready to write or complete a project about their book(s), you need to set up some way for teachers to discuss the texts with students (especially reluctant ones) over the long break – even if it’s just an informal mingling. These conversations keep them motivated and provide accountability.
Book conversations are important between students as well. If one of my struggling readers finds he’s one of the only people who hasn’t read The Hunger Games, it naturally encourages him to give that book a try. Simply creating space in your curriculum to talk about literature can increase motivation.
Build your students’ confidence with reading by giving them tasks they can handle. If you’re assessing their ability to analyze a text, for instance, use graphic organizers to scaffold the process. Make sure to guide them to novels that will not frustrate them due to their complexity. I’ve seen struggling readers sit with their nose in a book – not making any progress at all – simply because they don’t want to admit a book is too difficult for them.
HELP THEM SEE IMPROVEMENT.
Students need to know their efforts are making a difference. They need to see a correlation between the effort they are putting in and the outcome of the work in order to stay motivated. If students are all reading different books (I do recommend giving them choices), set goals together. Give them a menu of options for how they will demonstrate the mastery of their goals.
For instance, if the goal is to demonstrate the ability to make various types of inferences while reading, you could allow students to complete a presentation, an essay, an inference book, a poster, a mind map, or a one-pager to convey what they have learned. Make sure students succeed and see improvement by guiding them through whichever process they select. With struggling readers, the goal is to take your time. Don’t move so quickly that they have no possible way to finish on time.
INCREASE INTEREST AND VALUE.
Conveying your own passion for reading can be contagious. Whenever possible:
- Let your students see you reading, hear you reading out loud with enthusiasm, and listen to you talking about what books you love.
- Encourage students to see the value in reading by helping them to extract information from the text that increases their intelligence.
- Teach students explicitly why reading matters.
- Use books as a reward. When students successfully complete a goal, reward them with a brand new book.
- Expose students to a variety of genres to help them understand themselves better as readers.
- Get to know what type of literature your students are interested in by having them fill out a reading interest inventory that you can refer back to throughout the year.
As teachers, our job is to help students understand the value of being literate. It’s our job to help them see reading as a safe haven instead of a stressor.
Even though these methods work well for motivating struggling readers, I still have students who refuse to open a book (and you most likely will as well). For these students, I call home. Parents are always receptive to the idea of partnering together in order to improve their child’s future. I simply inform the parent of my observations and ask for their help.
- Example: “Hi Mrs. Thomas, I’m just calling because I’d love to have your help motivating Layla to read. We’ve been doing ten minutes of silent reading at the beginning of each class period this week, and today I noticed Layla is still on page 2. I don’t think the book is above her comprehension level. She’s just not reading it. Since reading actively during silent reading time is a daily participation grade, I fear that Layla is going to dig herself a hole. I’d love to work with you to motivate Layla both at home and at school. Would you mind asking Layla to bring her book home every day and either read a chapter with her, or ask her to read a chapter and tell you about it?”
Sometimes my efforts pay off. Occasionally, a parent will commit to helping but not follow through. At these times, I just do as much as I can in the classroom and try not to shoulder the whole burden myself. If you’ve asked parents for help and aren’t getting any, you’ve done all you can do.
Rather than using reading logs, try some of these methods for motivating struggling readers. What techniques or approaches have you found beneficial? Please share your ideas in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.
Want to read more about how to help struggling readers? This post has ten ideas for how teachers can partner with parents who say their child hates reading.