As a new English teacher, I was ecstatic about the opportunity to share literature with my students. As a lifelong lit nerd, reading, analyzing, and discussing text all day felt like a dream. My expectations were rooted in the AP and college English courses that defined my literacy experience – a world where most students read and discussion was rich.
You can imagine the sad deflation of my new teacher balloon when I learned that many of my students avoided reading at all costs. I was prepared to work with students who could not read well, but the expressed disdain for and outright refusal to read was jarring. I quickly learned that assigning texts that I deemed interesting was not enough to motivate students to read. As literacy educators, we must consistently gain and implement strategies to engage our reluctant readers.
Why Students are Reluctant to Read
Lack of Reading Skills
Assuming that students don’t like to read because they are lazy or overindulged in technology is a grave yet common mistake. Before trying to engage your students in reading, you must have a baseline measure for their reading ability. Students often avoid reading because they simply are not good at it. For a plethora of possible reasons, students may not possess the necessary skills to read and comprehend well.
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Reading is Boring
I bet it pained you to read that subheading. While it is true that reading can be adventurous, emotional, and thought-provoking, many students haven’t had enough exciting experiences with reading to peg the task as pleasurable. Students who demonstrate a reluctance toward reading often express that reading is simply boring.
As spoken by the wise Emilie Buchwald, “children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When children observe and participate in reading at home, they are more likely to become lifelong readers. Sometimes children are reluctant to read because reading is not a significant part of their home lives.
Lack of Cultural Relevancy
Unengaged readers are often assigned texts that are void of cultural relevancy. When students can’t relate to a text, they typically do not place value on it. As agitating as questions such as “why are we reading this?” may be, there’s a hidden, valuable need expressed in these questions. Students often need to understand how text relates to their world before investing in it.
Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers
One way to engage students in reading is to allow them to choose what they read to the greatest extent possible. When student interest and reading meet, this union yields the greatest student participation in reading. You will always have to select some texts, but allowing students to choose their own reading material during independent reading and other appropriate times can go a long way.
At some point in a child’s education, usually around the end of middle school, teachers stop reading aloud or with the class. Even as a high school teacher, I have always implemented oral reading to some degree. In order to hook students’ attention, for example, I often read just the beginning of a text aloud. During this time, I am modeling good fluency for my students and asking a few comprehension questions. This sets a foundation for students to continue reading the text independently.
Teach Compensatory Reading Strategies
When students don’t like to read because they lack foundational skills, they need to learn to compensate for their reading deficit as they grow. Provide resources and strategies that can help students access text at levels that may be difficult for them. This can include implementing audiobooks, metacognitive markers, and more.
Write to Improve Reading Comprehension
Writing and reading are the two pillars of literacy, so quite naturally each influences the strength of the other. When students can write with knowledge of organization, genre, and style, they are more likely to engage in reading. Provide opportunities for both high- and low-stakes writing and allow students to share their work. Good writers make enthusiastic readers.
When students can communicate effectively about what they read, this automatically boosts reading engagement. Fostering discussion through literature circles, book clubs, or other discussion protocols in response to reading provides a purpose for reading. It allows students to learn critical thinking analysis skills from one another through good conversation. Be sure to set discussion norms and model effective discussion.
Graphic novels read like an extended comic book and are understandably popular amongst students who ordinarily dislike reading. These novels are engaging because they possess the length and often the rigor of traditional novels but add a visual element that captures most readers’ attention. Reluctant readers often appreciate graphic novels and are inspired read them.
As entertainment is enhanced through technology, students are becoming less inclined to read for enjoyment. As teachers, we must be intentional about finding effective strategies to engage our reluctant readers. Engagement in reading in our classrooms will set a foundation for lifelong literacy and learning.
Whitney is a Special Education and English teacher. She holds an Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA.