Get Them Reading: 6 Tips for Engaging Reluctant Readers

6 Tips for Engaging Reluctant Readers In the 1990s Pat Cunningham’s 4 Block Literacy Model was all the rage in South Carolina. It was a step in the “balanced literacy” direction. I was right there in the thick of it- the idea of balancing my literacy instruction between word work, guided reading, silent reading, and writing instruction was new to me at the time. (Since then I have revised my thinking and practice a great deal as new research has become available, especially in regards to writing instruction, workshop models for reading and writing, and the critical addition of shared reading experiences at all grade levels- to name a few! Still, there was some good stuff to glean from that 4 Block model.)

I heard Dr. Cunningham speak at a conference back then and still remember some of the wise things she said. One of her teaching points was the importance of maximizing silent reading time (both for students in terms of minutes read and for the teacher in terms of conferencing and coaching.) A teacher questioned her about how to handle those kids who “fake read” and don’t engage in reading during that time. Dr. Cunningham smiled and said,

Well, they say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, and I guess that’s true. But, you can do a lot of things to entice him to drink! You can show him how to drink day after day. You can lead him to the same watering hole at the same time every day and surround him with other horses who are drinking. You can offer lots of different flavors of water and  tell him how great the water tastes. You can invite other horses to share testimonials about how wonderful their drinking experience has been and give him small samples that might make him thirsty. You can even present him with his very own custom bottle of water- flavored with his favorite things.

We all laughed but we got the point. She was absolutely right. We can’t make a child read (just like one can’t make a child sleep or eat) but we can certainly put all the conditions in place to stack the odds in our favor!

Let’s break down some of Dr. Cunningham’s ideas:

1. Provide Daily, Explicit Instruction (Show him how to drink): This is the heart of our reading instruction. Whole and small group teaching provide opportunities to teach and model reading skills and strategies. Every teacher should have daily reading instruction on the schedule- some of the “structures” for this might be shared reading, guided reading, strategy groups, 1-on-1 coaching sessions, etc. And while “read aloud” isn’t exactly explicit teaching, it is crucial in order to provide modeling for fluent, expressive reading while also developing a sense of story and love of books in children. (And can I please implore teachers of older students not to give up reading aloud to your classes? 7th graders need to hear effective writing and rich language every bit as much as 1st graders!)

2. Be Consistent with Reading Routines (Lead him to the watering hole the same time every day) This speaks to the importance of routine. Children feel secure and perform better when they know what’s coming next. Establishing a daily block of time for silent reading is very important. Be clear in your expectations and provide a quiet classroom so that children can focus on their reading. (Sometimes playing soft, instrumental music can help buffer little distracting sounds like coughing, doors opening and closing, etc.)

3. Provide Lots of Good Books! (Offer lots of different flavors of water): If we are going to entice our reluctant readers, we’d better have some appealing “flavors” of books! Classroom libraries are so critical for success. As I travel and visit schools, I am still shocked by the number of classrooms I find with minimal classroom libraries. (Maybe one shelf of mish-mashed books for an entire class to share.) Sometimes there isn’t one at all!

We have to do better. We simply know too much about the critical importance of providing children with lots of  quality books that are on their reading level. There is so much research out there about the impact of daily reading minutes and giving children access to books that they can read with independence. I won’t rehash it all here. What I will do is revisit this issue one day when I can devote a whole post to the power of a strong classroom library! (And share some ideas for how to fund them.)

4. Give “Book Talks” (Tell him how great the water tastes and provides small samples to make him thirsty): Have you ever noticed that the books you read aloud to the class become very popular choices for silent reading time? I think there are 2 reasons: 1st- The teacher has “blessed” the book and given it her “seal of approval.” 2nd- The story is now familiar and thus, a bit easier to read independently. Think about it- if you are a struggling reader, wouldn’t you rather grapple with words in a story you have already heard? Story familiarity provides an anchor for comprehension and also helps students decode unfamiliar words.

That’s one of the reasons read-aloud is so important at all grade levels. However, we could never read enough books aloud to satisfy this student demand for familiar and “teacher-approved” books. Therefore, it is very powerful to keep a basket of books you want to recommend to the class. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Tell the students that you have some great books in your basket that you want them to know about. (These don’t have to be “new” books- you can pull a few “oldies but goodies” from your shelf or your school library.)
  • Select a book and show students the cover. If the book was written by a familiar author or illustrated by a favorite illustrator, point that out.
  • Spend a few seconds giving them a quick “teaser” into the content without spoiling any surprises or endings. Tell them what you admire about the book that makes it a good read. Do your best “sales” routine- you’re trying to “sell” this book!
  • If the book has illustrations, it often helps to show a few to build interest.
That’s it! You should be able to feature several books in just a few minutes. Then watch what happens- those books will become hot, hot, hot!

5. Leverage Peer Power (Surround him with other drinking horses and invite them to tell him how satisfying their drinking experiences have been): We all know the negative associations of peer pressure. However, sometimes we can leverage the power of “peer pressure” for good! I’m a big believer in “spreading out” my reluctant readers to ensure that they don’t congregate and distract each other. I like to let students find a comfy spot in the room for their reading, but I am not afraid to assign one to a child who doesn’t demonstrate an ability to read in a concentrated manner. Then I surround him/her with some of my most avid readers who will be reading no matter what.

I also love to let my students give “book talks!” Talk about powerful endorsements! After I have modeled book talks for a while, I will explicitly teach the elements of a good book talk and have each of my students select a favorite book to present to the class. After they’ve all tried it, they are allowed to sign up at will to “share” a book with the class in a book talk format. It really helps create a good “buzz” about books in the room and establishes a culture of positive “book talk” that often carries over to the lunch table or playground.

6. Match Kids to Books (Present him with a custom-flavored bottle of water): This is one of the most powerful (and underutilized) tools in our teaching toolbox for enticing reluctant readers: we must match them with books that 1)They can read and 2)They want to read.

When I was teaching 3rd grade, one of my little boys (we’ll call him “Ted”) was the poster child for “fake reading” during my silent reading block. No matter how I taught, cajoled, required, monitored, etc.- that kid just wouldn’t read. He might look like he was reading (book open- eyes pointed in that direction) but I knew he wasn’t. One day I read aloud Stone Fox by John Gardiner. (If you have never read that book, do so immediately. And have a box of Kleenex handy.) My children were absolutely captivated by the story of young Willie’s struggle to save his sick grandfather’s farm by winning the purse in a dog-sled race. I don’t want to give it away, but I’ll tell you it’s one of those mixed, happy/sad endings that you often find in masterfully written books.

After I finished reading it (and dried my eyes) I led the children into our daily silent reading block. Ted approached me and said, “Ms. A., do you have any more books like that?” I was taken off-guard to have him show interest in reading and quickly scrambled to pull books off my shelf. “Here- do you like dog books? I have more dog books.”

“No,” he replied.

“Maybe you liked the part about racing? I have another book about a dog sled race in Alaska- it’s very exciting.”

“No,” he said again.

“Ted, what kind of book are you looking for?” I finally asked.

He squinted his eyes and thought for a minute and then said, “A book with a real ending.”

Ah- ha! I thought for a minute too, and then pulled Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say off my shelf. “This is the story of two boys who lived back during the Civil War. They are best friends and go through some tough times together. The ending is a little sad but it’s very real. I think this is the kind of book you are looking for.”

And lo and behold, he took it, skipped over to his reading spot, and got busy. And then I had him. Gritty stories with real endings- that was Ted’s favorite book flavor.

Sometimes we won’t have the perfect book on our shelf. Sometimes it will take a trip to the library, or asking our principal to purchase a series of graphic novels, or borrowing something off a fellow teacher’s shelf. No matter how we get there, putting a “just right” book into the hands of a reluctant reader is one of the most powerful things we can do to draw them in.

Do you have any other tips for engaging reluctant readers during silent reading time? I’d love to hear them!

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  1. Rachael Schuck says:

    Susan, I love your ideas! I have to agree about the importance of large and engaging classroom libraries. I do Read Aloud for 20-30 minutes before “rest” and often let the children choose a book to take to their mat. It usually only lasts 15-20 minutes so relaxing quietly with a book works well. They ALL want the books I have just finished reading! Next stop…other books off the shelf that they are FAMILIAR with! During Independent Reading, I let the children rotate during the week between “familiar reading book baskets”, “just right books”, and thematic books introduced during Read Aloud. They read them, retell the stories, read the pictures…it is a beautiful thing to see them engaged! I’m with you…WHATEVER IT TAKES!! :)

    • Thanks Rachael! I actually was thinking of you today when I wrote part of that post. (Seriously!) You do such a great job of making reading so fun and appealing through your read alouds. I am not at all surprised to hear that your kindergarteners return to those familiar books. :-)

  2. Love this post…I am SUCH a believer in teaching students how to engage in texts…especially reluctant readers! Thanks for the well-written post!

  3. You are so right! My own thoughts on the subject: The Reluctant Reader Wed, 24th October, 2012 on

  4. Wow Susan do I love this post. I love all the tips and strategies but most of all I love the story of Ted and how he found his “book thing” Like him, I love the real ending and this post ended on a wonderful note!
    But I must also comment on the rest of the post – thank you for promoting how important a well stocked classroom library is! I spend a lot of time and a LOT of money on my classroom library and it is the heart of my room (well it is really all over my room!) I would only elaborate in point number 6 that in order to match the right book to the right child, teachers need to know their books. So we must read, read and read some more so that we can always be promoting the best books for each child! Which you obviously do :-) Thank you for this wonderful post.
    (I also like to introduce books in book sharing circles. I posted about it here:
    Carrie Gelson recently posted..My must read novels of 2013My Profile

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