Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reaching Reluctant and Struggling Readers

An author friend who is scheduled to speak at a school asked for my input on how to connect with both struggling and reluctant teen readers—the student population I worked with for fifteen years.

I realize that different teachers will have different styles and also may be somewhat limited in what their schools will allow them to do. Given that, here are some things that worked for me in my classroom full of 13 to 19 year-old struggling and reluctant readers over a period of 15 years. Most of my students were boys.

1. Read out loud to your students w/out requiring them to follow along. Just require that they listen. Make sure it is a good book or short story with a lot of action. Make sure you know how to read out loud. Nothing kills a story easier than a reader who hasn't taken the time to hone up on their read aloud skills.

2. Have quiet reading time every day at the same time where the students can choose what they want to read. Do not require them to keep a reading journal. No strings attached, just read a book, the newspaper, a magazine, whatever. (My goal is to eventually get them to read books but forcing that up front creates the opposite result. They need to choose it.)

3. Have a wide variety of books available and be an expert on what those books are by having read many of them yourself. You want your students to have confidence in you as someone who knows what they are talking about when it comes to books.

4. Do frequent book talks/teasers where you read a snippet and talk a little about the author or story and then make the book available.

5. Bring your own books in and share them.

6. As the teacher or person in charge, you also need to read during the silent reading time. This shows your students that you value reading. And, if other adults happen to be in your classroom during silent reading time, they need to read too.

7. Let kids stop reading a book if they want to, just like us adults do when we want to.

8.  If you have a book in a series, make sure you have the rest of them. (I once had a student eat up 13 books in a series he started.)

9. If a student is having trouble connecting with a book, hand-pick a few based on what you know about him and set them on his desk. This personal touch goes a long way.

10. If you see a student is really engrossed in a certain book you might mention another book that is related or similar when they are almost finished.

11. If a student actually wants to read a book that he’s already read, let him.

12. Bottom line—you have to meet the kids where they are and not try to impose some program on them and expect them to fit into it.

13. Allow your students the time to develop into readers. Every time you get into a power struggle with a kid about reading you are potentially driving them away from reading because of that negative experience.

Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your thoughts on engaging struggling and reluctant readers. What has worked for you? What hasn't worked? What do you think will work?


  1. Paul. this is an excellent list. I know with high stakes testing, there's so much reading for a goal other than enjoyment. Your strategies lead to reading for reading's sake. And that's actually what will make students to better on tests, but more importantly, in life.

  2. I find the most important thing for inspiring any reluctant reader to read is suggesting the right book for them. For example, in our family, the kids read more than anyone, and mom is our reluctant reader. But when I talked her into giving The Hunger Games a try, she stayed up all night to finish.

  3. Paul, these are fantastic tips! Going to print this list and pass it along to my teacher friends.

  4. Thank you for what you do, Paul.

    In my classroom, I had a book of the day -- a title from my classroom library that I'd showcase. Often these book talks started with some "I love this book!" gushing. When I showed true enthusiasm for books and reading, it was virtually impossible for it not to rub off on my students.

    Like you, I'd also do some book matchmaking based on readers' interests and previous favorites. I know I always felt special when my teachers remembered things about me. I trust it was the same for my students.

  5. Awesome stuff. These methods have been touted for years, and I found them to be the best approach ever in my 30 plus years of teaching reading. Thanks for reminding us. If only the business minded powers that be weren't always piling on nonsense that eats up teachers' time and pressures them into corners which then pushes students into corners. Power struggles don't work for kids or teachers.

  6. This is such a great list! My daughter is dyslexic and so reading is a struggle. We've used all these tactics, including a well-placed bribe here and there.

    #12 is especially important! Don't push and I believe it will come.

  7. Great insights, Paul. Thank you.

  8. These are fantastic tips, and getting reluctant readers to read is a topic close to my heart. One thing my local teen librarian does, which I think is genius, is to do a "book tour" where she gives a presentation on 5-6 books, essentially pitching them to the kids. Sometimes she just has the cover and a tag line, but increasingly she has BOOK TRAILERS too! She says they're a big hit and the books are always wait-listed for months afterwards.

  9. Showing book trailers!! Great idea, Susan!!

  10. Paul, my son is the most reluctant reader EVER! He JUST had a breakthrough though, so your post timing is awesome! He has to do a book report for a fantasy novel and he chose Danny Dragonbreath. He read the book in two days! I was so proud of him! I think something just has to click. I had to push a lot and I'm so glad I did!!! :)

  11. Well, you know I've been teaching for a while now, so I have some experience with this. Like you mention, I see the allowance of 100% free choice in reading material as the key. You have to make sure you aren't forcing books they'll hate on them, even if you love it yourself, because one bad choice can turn a reluctant reader away for good.

  12. Just be warned that after you give that enthusiastic book talk, you will then have ten kids willing to engage in bribery, sneakery, and thievery in order to be the first one to read it.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!