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A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Reluctant Readers

    Are you looking to turn your reluctant readers into active and engaged participants? Implement these 11 strategies in your classroom, and you just might have those students eager to read. (You read that right.)

    In a perfect world, students would love and appreciate reading as much as us ELA teachers. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the reality we live in. Sure, I have a handful of students each year who share my affinity for a good book, but I also face various degrees of reluctant readers.

    The truth is, when many students reach the secondary grades, their interest in reading is waning. They are less likely to read for pleasure and often view reading more as a chore or something they must do for school. *Sigh*

    So, what’s an English Language Arts teacher to do?

    Well, reading this post is an excellent place to start.

    Reluctant Readers vs. Struggling Readers

    We know to look for the students who face challenges with comprehension, decoding, or fluency. We’re often ready with additional resources, scaffolding, or alternative materials to support those students’ success. However, while teachers often have their struggling readers on their radar, it’s the reluctant readers that often fall through the cracks.

    Yes, struggling readers can become reluctant readers—but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Reluctant readers don’t necessarily have any difficulties with reading. These readers often have the skills needed to read with success but instead choose not to read for various reasons.

    Before you can try to reach these students, it’s essential to understand the root cause of their reluctance in the first place.

    Understanding Reluctant Readers

    For some, it’s as simple as struggling to find a book, author, or genre they enjoy reading. For others, their disinterest stems from mundane or irrelevant reading experiences in the past. In other cases, it’s the dread of the associated assignments. Then there are always the students who would simply rather spend their time doing something else.

    No matter the reason, it doesn’t mean that those reluctant readers can’t find joy and interest in reading. It just means they haven’t—yet.

    By having a better understanding of your reluctant readers, you can choose the most effective strategies to address their disinterest and foster intrinsic motivation. With the right strategies, you can help boost their engagement with classroom texts and perhaps encourage them to find a book or two they want to read for fun. (Imagine that!?)

    11 Strategies for Engaging Reluctant Readers

    Over the years, I’ve tried almost every trick under the sun to engage even my most reluctant readers, and now I’m here to share them with you. Choose one or use them all. Either way, these 11 strategies are sure to help you motivate your students to want to read—and maybe even enjoy it.

    1. Promote Independent reading

    One of the best ways to engage reluctant readers is to promote independent reading. It might sound counterintuitive. However, it’s a great way to get students reading for the sake of reading—and enjoying it.

    Think about it like this: Secondary students are used to being told what, when, and how to read. Ignite a love for reading by carving out time to allow your students to explore their interests in literature, letting them choose books that genuinely intrigue them.

    Learn how to implement independent reading in your classroom.

    2. Stock your classroom library with high-interest texts

    If you’re going to promote independent reading, you’ll want to ensure you have high-interest texts readily available to your students. (Think graphic novels, thrilling mysteries, contemporary fiction, and dystopian tales.)

    Stocking your shelves with stories about relevant topics, relatable characters, and captivating plotlines is key to piquing students’ interest. Consider a mix of books that are windows into their own lives, doors into new perspectives, and gateways into the imagination. 

    Get started with my list of high-interest titles for secondary students.

    3. Give Personalized Book Recommendations

    For non-readers, choosing a book they *may* like can be a big (and often overwhelming) task. Why? Simply put, they have no idea where to start. Enter your role as the literary matchmaker. The better you get to know your students, the more insight you will have into their interests, perspectives, and experiences.

    From there, you can suggest titles they may enjoy reading. If a student can connect a book to their life or interests, you might just hook them. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask your students what books they want to read—and add those titles to your classroom library.

    4. Try Literature Circles

    While independent reading is great, so are collaborative reading experiences. However, that doesn’t mean you always have to take the one-size-(rarely)-fits-all approach of a classroom novel. Instead, try literature circles.

    Divide your class into smaller groups and assign them different books based on various interests or abilities. These groups can be as structured as needed, allowing you to find the perfect blend of student autonomy and teacher guidance. Not only does this foster a sense of community, but it also allows students to engage deeply with their chosen texts.

    5. Give student choice

    Let’s be honest. Rarely does a genuine love for reading stem from being told what to read. Yet, how often do students have their reading material dictated for them? Strive to give students autonomy over what they read—at least sometimes.

    Of course, there will be times when students have to read a particular text. However, by encouraging independent reading or allowing them to choose from a curated list of texts, having a say in what they read may help boost students’ motivation and enthusiasm for reading.

    6. Introduce Students to New Texts

    Whether you’re trying to promote independent reading or preparing students for literature circle choices, find creative and engaging ways to expose students to their options. Consider hosting a book tasting, incorporating First Chapter Fridays, or planning a book speed dating game.

    These activities are fun and effective ways to expose students to numerous texts in a condensed period. After all, sometimes, students just need to discover the right genre, author, or style to ignite their passion for reading. Whatever activity you choose, have students keep track of the titles that appeal to them for future reference.

    Read my complete guide to hosting a book tasting here.

    7. Incorporate Movement

    Some students may be reluctant readers because it’s hard for them to sit still and stay focused for long periods (especially if they aren’t interested in the text). When working through assigned reading in class, incorporate opportunities for students to get up and move around. 

    Encourage students to act out scenes or engage in discussions while on the move by playing a game like Four c\Corners. Trust me, this kind of kinesthetic activity will be a breath of fresh air for reluctant readers.

    8. Switch It Up with Short Stories

    If you struggle to engage your students with full-length narratives, try mixing things up with shorter, yet equally as effective (and chock-full of teachable moments) stories. These concise narratives are far less intimidating and more manageable for those who might be overwhelmed when faced with a full-length novel.

    Despite their brevity, short stories can deliver learning opportunities through engaging narratives, powerful literary devices, and thought-provoking themes that quickly capture the attention of reluctant readers.

    For more about teaching short stories in secondary ELA, read this.

    9. Incorporate Pre-Reading Activities

    Just like a movie trailer gets people excited to watch a full-length film, pre-reading activities can get students eager to read a text. These before-reading tasks can set the stage by introducing its themes, characters, and context before diving into the pages, building some expectation and understanding before diving in.

    Knowing what to expect can help students feel more comfortable, prepared, and eager to read.  Additionally, you can use these activities as a springboard for classroom discussions, allowing students to share their thoughts and build connections to the text and with their peers, creating a more active and engaging learning experience.

    10. Make It Relevant

    This one is so important for reluctant readers—especially for those of us who are used to hearing complaints like “Why do we have to read this anyway?” or “When would I ever need to know this in real life?” Many reluctant readers lack motivation and interest in reading because they struggle to see the point. They can’t quite connect the dots between what they are reading and their world.

    Strive to connect a text’s themes, characters, or lessons to your students’ lives. Show them how the story has real-world applications. You just might be able to break through some of the reluctance if students can see the relevance of what they’re reading beyond being one more typing they have to do “just because.”

    11. Skip the Grading

    Many students have developed a distaste for reading out of mere association. For much of their academic career, they have become accustomed to being assigned a text only to be bombarded with reading quizzes, tests, or essays. So, why not skip the graded reading assignments now and then?

    You might be surprised how, when relieved of the pressure of analysis and assignments, they begin to appreciate stories in an entirely different way. So, don’t feel like you have to turn every reading experience into a grading opportunity.

    When you do need to assign a cumulative project, consider some more creative projects beyond the traditional essay.

    From Reluctant to Reading in No Time

    I’ll be honest–there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to engaging reluctant readers. The strategies that work with one student might not work for another. So don’t be afraid to switch things up and try different approaches until you discover what works best for your reluctant readers. Trust me, it’s worth the effort. There’s nothing quite like watching a reluctant reader transform into someone who reads willingly… and doesn’t hate it.

    Remember, reluctant readers often just need a nudge in the right direction or a little extra support. By implementing these 11 strategies, you can create a classroom environment where reading is more than “just another” monotonous task for school. Instead, these strategies can help you guide students down a path toward a life-long love (or, at the very least, like) for reading.

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