Students who avoid reading or seem disinterested can often be reached when different strategies are used to connect with them. First we have to find out why they are reluctant to read. Then we need to tap into their interests and strengths to motivate them.
Here are a few common problems reluctant readers face and the strategies you can try to encourage your students. Keep in mind that different tactics will prove more or less effective depending on each individual.
1. Look to the past
Problem: Sometimes a student will approach reading with a negative attitude because he or she has a history of struggling and failing. Students like this often develop ways to cope so that they can avoid reading rather than ask for help. They try to hide their struggles and/or have given up, deciding there’s no way they can improve.
What we can do: Ask students about their reading experiences to show interest and to discover what types of materials they enjoyed or disliked reading and why. They might reveal insecurities around reading comprehension exams, reading aloud, or reading longer texts. Others might share particular struggles with retaining information or they might have cumulative files detailing their educational background and particular struggles such as dyslexia or ADHD. Some might not have had any personal connections to any reading they’ve been required to read in school.
Problem: A student might have a learning difference that hasn’t been identified. Another might not know how to choose books that suit his or her interests and/or abilities. Some might lack the skills to navigate their way through challenging passages.
What we can do: Making time to observe reluctant readers can be extremely informative. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when observing a student:
- How does the text relate to this student’s life experience and background?
- Which types of texts interest this reader, and which types does he or she try to avoid?
- When the student comes across a word he or she doesn’t know, does he or she try to sound it out, guess, or skip over it?
- Does he or she look for context clues to figure out an unfamiliar word’s meaning, or does he or she consult a dictionary or thesaurus?
- If a student is unable to answer a comprehension question about a portion of the text, does he or she re-read the text or continue on?
- Which areas does the student have the most trouble with: pronunciation, vocabulary, comprehension, articulating his/her thoughts about a text, and/or understanding abstract concepts such as themes and characterization?
- Which areas cause the student to react emotionally by getting visibly upset or frustrated based on his or her tone and body language?
3. Point out strengths
Problem: Reluctant readers primarily focus on their weaknesses and shortcomings.
What we can do: Many readers don’t realize that they have already acquired some important skills in spite of the obstacles they face. Being able to point out what a reluctant reader does right while reading can go a long way. Let’s say you have a student who struggles to read aloud but comprehends the material. Point out when that student accurately makes a prediction, or when he or she re-reads a section that was difficult instead of skipping over it. That one comment will highlight success and serve as a step forward, motivating him or her to read or discuss the text a bit more.
When a student improves, celebrate that progress so that growth is focused on more than test scores or reading levels. Determination, perseverance, and patience are all strengths that need to be commended just as much as pronunciation, productivity, and comprehension.
4. Provide high interest/low readability books
Problem: Students may struggle when topics are unrelatable to his or her personal interests or circumstances. The situation is further heightened when reading materials are complex or advanced.
What we can do: Many reluctant readers can connect with books that are high interest, low readability, or low vocabulary. These books contain relatable topics that appeal to readers of different ages, yet they aren’t too advanced for them to be able to read and understand. Even older students who have difficulty reading can find “hi-lo books” enjoyable. They aren’t considered childish and these types of books can help them feel successful, boosting their confidence and encouraging them to read more at an appropriate level.
Authors Jerry Spinelli, Sandra Cisneros, and S.E. Hinton have many books at various reading levels that appeal to many tweens and teens. For younger readers, the Judy Moody or Hank Zipzer series can give students that feeling of accomplishment as they complete engaging chapter books that increase reading proficiency.
Every reader needs the opportunity to connect with a book that fits his or her interests and reading level, helping him or her build confidence and improve. Effective “hi-lo” materials often provide:
- relatable topics
- intriguing stories with simple sentences
- carefully chosen vocabulary words
- few polysyllabic words
- tension to keep the reader turning the page
- visuals to support the reader
5. Be open to different types of reading
Problem: Some students might not like reading novels, but they’ll easily crack open a comic book, an anthology of romantic poetry, or a book that debunks myths.
What we can do: It’s important that we value the many possible types of reading. Students do need to learn the value of reading and analyzing novels; however, we have to meet reluctant readers where they are, appreciate the skills they have developed, and use that as a starting point.
Here are some ways different types of reading can encourage reluctant readers:
- Comic books can increase vocabulary and stimulate a reader’s imagination since readers must interpret the images and fill in the gaps when certain scenes are not depicted.
- Poetry can encourage self-reflection, increase emotional intelligence, and advance students’ knowledge of literary devices.
- Myth debunking books are one of many types of nonfiction texts that can expand a student’s worldview, challenge assumptions, encourage real world connections, and teach students about reliable sources.
6. Model for them
Problem: Students may feel reluctant and even embarrassed to speak up about their struggles.
What we can do: Show your students that even you make mistakes and can be challenged as a reader, too. This normalizes reading struggles, and you can model different ways to work through those obstacles.
Try discussing and demonstrating different reading strategies and then have your students apply those strategies. To take the modeling strategy one step further, encourage your students’ parents to model their reading process with their child so that they can have meaningful conversations about this at home. If reading is a family activity, and if reading struggles are openly discussed, students are more likely to see their challenges as something to work through rather than avoid.
Interested in this topic? Explore Concordia University-Portland’s online MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Reading Interventionist to learn more.
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization.