Reluctant Readers: Nine Ideas to Encourage Them

reluctant readers
“No Substitute” (CC BY 2.0) by Patrick Feller

For the past seven years, I’ve taught reading to sixth-grade boys. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. Over that time, I’ve encountered a few reluctant readers. (Okay, maybe more than a few.) There are many reasons why children may be reluctant readers. Maybe reading is difficult for them. Perhaps, they had a bad reading experience, or they aren’t entirely interested in reading. Not everyone loves reading as much as I do, and that’s okay. But interpreting texts is one of the primary ways we learn, and much of students’ success in school is dependent on their ability to read. There are several things one can do to encourage reluctant readers.

We had a garage sale this weekend. We sold a few books during the day, but at one point on Saturday morning I had a long conversation with a grandmother who was worried about her fourth-grade grandson, a weak and reluctant reader. She feared he’d lose some of his skills over the summer, so I gave her some advice along with several free books for her grandson. Then, I came across Amy Weir’s “Tips for Enjoying Summer Reading” article on GeekMom. According to her GeekMom bio, Mrs. Weir is a librarian in Pennsylvania, and her post has some great suggestions and is worth reading. I’ve been continuing to think about my conversation with the grandmother and the GeekMom article all weekend. Here are nine ideas for encouraging and motivating reluctant readers:

1. Read something together with reluctant readers. 

My students love when I read aloud to them. My children love it, too. You could develop a bedtime ritual, but it doesn’t have to be. You could read together first thing in the morning or whatever time works with your schedule. Make the reading social and talk about the story. In my class when I read aloud,  I try to have my reluctant readers sit beside me so they can see the text as I read it. I also “think aloud” while I’m going to show my connections, my understanding, and my questioning of the story as I read. Struggling readers need to have good reading (and thinking) modeled for them.

2. Get reluctant readers hooked on a book with the audiobook.

Sometimes reading aloud isn’t possible. A similar tool I have used with my students and my children is audiobooks. Many of the voice actors recorded for audiobooks are incredible, and they can pull a child into a story. I used them all the time with my kids during our daily commute to work and school, and on several occasions, they’d read ahead because they couldn’t wait for the next time we were in the car! Again, it’s crucial that developing readers be able to look at the text while they are listening to the story.

3. Forget levels and find books to pique reluctant readers’ interests.

Some people will disagree with me, but I wouldn’t give much thought to making sure a reluctant reader is reading at grade level. Instead, find books that match the child’s interests. Many of my students loved reading adventure stories, war books, or sports novels. As a child, I fell in love with reading when I discovered a shelf of sports biographies in our small school library. But there are many genres of books–both fiction and nonfiction–and there are hundreds of topics and subtopics within each style. Find books that interest the individual child.

4. Take field trips to the neighborhood library or your local bookstore.

Getting to select a book to borrow or to buy can be motivating in itself. When my kids were small, we spent a ton of time in the children’s section at our local bookstore. They loved getting to pick out a book to buy. They’d often have the book read in just a day or two after we bought it, but they loved having a new book that was theirs. They also enjoyed trips to the library, and the librarians were particularly helpful at honing in on titles (that I didn’t know) that matched my kids’ interests. Librarians can also help parents by doing short book talks on titles which may pique reluctant readers’ interests.

5. Introduce reluctant readers to graphic novels and comic books.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” right? While I wouldn’t want kids only to read graphic novels and comic books, they have much to offer especially to kids with learning challenges. They can boost a reader’s confidence, and the pictures provide additional evidence to support inferences. The images often force readers to slow down and look more closely at what’s on the page. These books usually don’t take long to read, so reluctant readers gain a sense of accomplishment as they finish them. You can even find a graphic novel version of many classic stories. I must say I’m a fan, but I will qualify my recommendation by saying it’s important that kids don’t just read comics and graphic stories. They need to read regular texts, too. Make a deal with the reluctant reader so he can alternate between graphic novels and regular books.

6. Reading is reading. Encourage other types of texts.

Reading doesn’t always happen with a book. Real-world reading happens all day, every day, and all around us. Here a just a few things I’ve read in the past 48 hours: newspaper articles, magazine articles, websites, blog posts, emails, product reviews, social media posts, text messages, advertising flyers, junk mail, billboards and street signs, movie reviews, song lyrics, instructions on a pesticide bottle, and the TV-channel guide. I’m sure there are others I can’t recall. Encourage reading wherever you can.

7. Create more time for boredom. 

Yes, I know even our little ones like to look at the screens, and they do hold kids’ attention with shows and games. I know that my teenagers and I are pretty addicted to looking at our smartphones. The fact is we all spend way too much time staring at screens. As parents and teachers, we need to dial our usage back and set some limits on our kids. Sure, they’ll complain they are bored. They’ll whine about having nothing to do. They may pitch fits, fight with siblings, and get into trouble. They might also pick up a book and read.

8. Consider a friendly, family competition.

Personally, I’m not that motivated by competition, but many kids are. Set up a challenge to see who can read the most pages in a book this week. See who can finish a book each week of the summer. Have your reluctant reader come up with a competition that he thinks he can win and then agree to it. For the past few years, I’ve challenged my students to a 40-book challenge (thank you, Donalyn Miller), and many of them have completed way more books that I have.

9. Dangle a reward in front of reluctant readers.

Part of me hates even to suggest this. “Reading is its own reward! It’s intrinsically motivating!” I sincerely believe that. I can think of few things more fun than losing track of time while curled up in my chair with a good book. And yet, not everyone feels this way. Some people have no intrinsic motivation to read. They hate it. It’s difficult for them, or they get no pleasure from it. In that case, what does motivate him? Have a conversation with your reluctant reader and find out. Maybe getting him to read is going to cost you big time, but I’m not sure you can make a better investment.

What suggestions do you have to inspire reluctant readers?  What have you found that’s worked?