Ten Keys to Getting Reluctant Readers Reading

From the Marshall Memo #429

(Originally titled “Taming the Wild Text”)

In this Educational Leadership article, author and literacy expert Pam Allyn, who has worked for ten years at a New York City residential school for foster children, suggests these ways to create a reading culture:

Don’t judge the reader. “[T]he key to lifelong reading is reading frequently and ingesting a high number of words,” says Allyn. We should ask students to describe times when they felt good reading and what they were reading at those times – and encourage that kind of reading. Award-winning books are great, but there’s nothing wrong with students reading below their age reading level, reading about sports, reading websites, reading manuals – as long as it’s building fluency, skills, and stamina. 

Offer a range of materials. “Students may be reluctant readers not because they lack basic skills, but because they haven’t been exposed to materials suited to their interests, ability, and temperament,” says Allyn. Teachers should search far and wide – websites, catalogues, colleagues, librarians – for books, graphic novels, and other texts that will hook students. 

Let readers read at their comfort level. It’s important to assess children’s independent reading level and guide them toward “just right” texts – as well as those a little lower and a little higher to build fluency and skills. “Students should never be locked into one level,” says Allyn. 

Provide time for dialogue. This includes traditional class discussions, but also opportunities for students to talk about (or Tweet about) what they’re thinking as they read and what they’re hoping will surprise them. Allyn also suggests literature circles and one-on-one chats. 

Dive deep. Struggling readers need to sink their teeth into books that have serious, thoughtful content – for example, Fox by Margaret Wild. Sometimes asking them to describe their favorite passages gets them thinking. So does communicating with other students, either in person or electronically.

Give readers a tool kit. “Our struggling readers often feel defenseless around print,” says Allyn. “Let’s arm them with everything they need.” This includes word walls, alphabet charts, word boxes, clusters of challenging words, and electronic devices with reading apps.

Value browsing and rereading. These are legitimate activities for all readers. Rereading builds comprehension because people read differently every time they come back to a text. It’s also fun to read the same story by different authors.

Build stamina. Students can do this by reading books they’re passionate about – cars, for example. It’s also helpful to use a timer to encourage students to do “quick reads” to build confidence. 

Teach students to curate their own reading. Students should sample widely across genres and keep book lists and other information on what they’re reading. 

Remember, joy matters. “Most reluctant readers have experienced a great deal of anxiety and stress around reading in their lives,” says Allyn. “Let’s create a world for all readers that’s full of the joy of discovery, imagination, and information. The only way to do this is to make the world come alive with stories students will love and texts that connect to their passions.” 

“Taming the Wild Text” by Pam Allyn in Educational Leadership, March 2012 (Vol. 69, #6, p. 16-21), http://www.ascd.org; Allyn can be reached at pam.litlife@gmail.com

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