5 Strategies for Engaging Reluctant Readers
A reluctant reader is, quite simply, any student who does not show an interest in reading. These students may actively resist reading, mask their dislike by clowning around or misbehaving when asked to read, become easily frustrated during reading, or need to be coaxed into picking up a book. Identifying reluctant readers is the first step in better engaging these students as readers. But according to the Lexile® Framework for Reading, it is important to note that reluctant readers are not necessarily the same as struggling readers. Although their reading abilities may vary, these young people have trouble connecting with books independently.
Why are these readers reluctant?
Before educators can try to help a reluctant reader become more engaged in reading, they need to understand why the student is reluctant to read. A student’s reluctance could have many root causes: Are they struggling with particular reading skills? Are they disinterested in what they are reading? Are there tasks associated with reading that the student is resisting? An effective and easy place to start is observation. For example,, an educator might notice that the student begins a reading task but quickly becomes frustrated. This student could be reading above their reading level. Does the student seem uncomfortable when asked to read out loud or participate in a discussion? This student may be self-conscious and reluctant to read because they feel unsuccessful or pressured to read at an uncomfortable pace or level.
If observing the reluctant reader does not help to unravel the why, try asking the student directly. Although students aren’t always able to verbalize why they don’t like reading, they can sometimes be quite straightforward. Even if the student can’t articulate the cause of their reluctance, speaking candidly with them can help to demystify the issue.
Because each student is unique, it may require trial and error to find an appropriate approach to engage a reluctant reader. More likely, though, it will take a combination of strategies.
The importance of intrinsic motivation
Just as knowing why a student is reluctant to read is important, so is knowing how they are motivated to read. Intrinsically motivated readers read because it gives them enjoyment or satisfaction in some way. Extrinsically motivated readers are driven by some outside pressure, such as a promised reward or the fear of a failing grade. Studies show a positive correlation between intrinsically motivated readers and reading achievement across grade levels, and by high school, extrinsic motivations for reading are actually negatively correlated to reading achievement. When creating or selecting strategies for reluctant readers, it is important to keep this in mind. We not only need to motivate reluctant students to read, we need to take the more difficult path of helping them become intrinsically motivated to do so.
Here are five actionable strategies for helping students cultivate their intrinsic motivation.
Read for fun
In the classroom, reading often comes with “work.” For example, students might be asked to annotate the book as they read, keep a daily reading journal, fill out graphic organizers, or take a test on the reading material. While these activities absolutely have their place in literacy education, it isn’t difficult to see how they may contribute to a student’s reluctance to read. Sometimes, students just need to read for fun. Allowing independent reading time with no strings attached can motivate reluctant readers by helping to move reading from “work” to “fun.”
Emphasize the power of choice
One powerful way to engage reluctant readers is to allow them a choice of what to read, thereby giving them ownership of their own learning. Choice also helps to motivate students by allowing them to select reading material on topics that are of interest to them and in formats with which they feel comfortable. Giving students a choice of reading materials can also validate literacy activities in which they participate outside of the classroom. Students may not make the connection between the basketball blog they devour at home each night, the how-to book they are using to fix their bike, and the texts they are learning to read in school. Understanding that each is a valid form of literacy can be a revelation to students.
However, allowing students a choice of reading material does not necessarily mean taking them to the library and letting them loose, as they need scaffolding to help them select appropriate texts. For example, independent reading is perhaps the easiest way to give students free choice, but while allowing reluctant readers to choose their own text can help them to be more engaged, the opposite effect will be achieved if they become frustrated because the text they selected is too difficult. To this end, students need to be given the tools to select a “just right” book. Like any other skill, they can practice strategies for selecting appropriate texts, and should be allowed to make mistakes. If they select a book that turns out to not be “just right” after all, they should be empowered to put that text down and select another, even if they are already halfway through it.
Often—particularly when reading in a subject area or within a theme—students need to be given additional parameters within which they can choose their text. The key is for these parameters to allow for texts that both meet the educator’s instructional goals and allow the student meaningful choice. One way this can be achieved is to allow students to choose from within a set of educator-selected texts. To be effective, this set of texts needs to be comprehensive in type of material, reading level, and topic, which is no small task! For example, suppose students are studying the Holocaust. The educator can provide a number of preselected texts on this topic, ranging from fictional works to informational texts. This is a topic large enough to encompass multiple angles, so the educator could include books focusing on military actions, the rise of Hitler, and even the “degenerative” art forbidden by the Nazi regime. The point is to give students as wide a selection as possible within the topic. The door should always be left open for students to pitch a different text, as well, as long as it is appropriate and relevant.
Play the social game
Socializing and interacting with peers is extremely important to students at any grade level, and we can bring the power of social activities into the literacy classroom. Engage reluctant readers by creating a space where literacy is a communal activity and students feel they belong to that community. One way to do this is through small student-led discussion groups. Allowing students to lead these groups themselves is key, as studies have shown that student-led discussion groups result in deeper, more elaborate discussions than those led by a teacher. Providing the opportunity for students to make meaning of a text with their peers can also help reduce misconceptions about the text and expand their perceptions of what they read. Grouping student at varying reading levels can have an added value, as well: Struggling readers benefit from the insights and perspectives of more advanced readers, while advanced readers benefit from clarifying and explaining their own reading strategies to their peers. As with any new activity, it is important to model these discussion groups with students before leaving them on their own. Literature Circles (Harvey Daniels; Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom, 1994) offer a way to formalize roles and responsibilities within a student-led discussion group.
Use Reader's Theater as an authentic repeated reading strategy
The repeated readings method is a well-known strategy for increasing reading fluency and comprehension. This strategy not only helps the student read a particular text more fluently and comprehend it better, it has also been shown to increase fluency and comprehension in new passages across all grade levels. The problem with rereading the same passage over and over is that this can become boring and may increase students’ reluctance to read. Whileany educators introduce competition (either students against themselves or each other) as an extrinsic motivator, Reader's Theater can offer a more authentic reason for students to reread texts.
Reader's Theater allows students to dramatize a book or story they have read. In Reader's Theater, students read aloud, rather than memorize short scripts based on a book. Reader's Theater is by nature a cooperative, social activity, as students work together to select, rehearse, and perform their piece. Multiple readings of the text are inherent in the activity as students rehearse and perform, and Reader's Theater can also make reading more palatable for reluctant readers, since a script is broken up into smaller chunks. Reader's Theater also offers an easy outlet for differentiation, as students may self-select parts they are comfortable reading, or the teacher may assign parts based on reading ability.
Incorporate movement and hands-on activities
Sometimes, students are reluctant to read simply because it is difficult for them to sit quietly—but reading doesn’t have to be a passive activity. Consider letting students walk around as they read (as long as they don’t disturb other students), provide some pillows, a place to stretch out, and some standing desks for those who don’t want to sit. In addition, allow students to quietly share fun or interesting things from their reading with each other. Reading can and should be a gateway to additional exploration, and this can be fostered by tying hands-on explorations with reading. Once you establish this practice, students will likely take over some of the planning: A student reading Skellig by David Almond might ask to dissect an owl pellet, while a learner reading about Disney World may want to make a model roller coaster.