Ten Tips for Turning Reluctant Readers into Eager Readers

Transform your reluctant readerTen Tips for Turning Reluctant Readers into Eager Readers (Who Will Chase the Fed Ex Truck)

(The first part of this post was published over at Literacy Musing Mondays as part of Mary’s literary link up–wander on over there and check out all of the great posts about books and literacy).

You might wonder what chasing the FedEx truck has to do with reluctant readers and how the two events relate (and who wants their kid chasing delivery trucks, anyway?). Let me explain.

I teach at a private school where 95% of the students would be classified as ‘reluctant readers’—mostly because about 95% of them have never owned their own book nor do they have access to a public library. Reading happens at school. From textbooks. And when I survey my students at the beginning of the school year, 95% of the new students have never read a chapter book in their life (I say new students, because kids who have had me as their teacher have read a lot of books—including chapter books).

I should mention that the average 12th grade student reads at the 4th or 5th grade level—no wonder they read reluctantly! Textbooks authors don’t generally work to make textbooks scintillating, nor do they work to keep the vocabulary easy.

Here’s what we do at our school to turn our reluctant readers into kids who chase the delivery vans (more on that in a moment).

1. Know their levels. Every student takes a reading test within a few hours of registering at our school. Once we know the student’s reading level, we have the student memorize their ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development—or about 1.2 grades lower than their tested reading level to about 1.5 grades above their reading level). The ZPD represents the success zone for reading. I explain that I can’t shoot a free throw and ask students where I should start on the court. “Under the basket!” they suggest. Bingo! For students who don’t like to read (or don’t read on grade level), they need to start ‘under the basket’—or with easy-to-read and understand picture books.
2. Hold them accountable. Our school uses a program called Accelerated Reader—the company has thousands and thousands of reading comprehension tests for everything from Good Night, Moon to Mutiny on the Bounty. Students read a book, take a multiple-choice comprehension test on the computer, and receive immediate reward in the form of an instantly scored test. We celebrate immediately with a high-five and a sticker on the progress chart. Accelerated Reader wins the contest in best-of-product, hands down—but it’s a paid service. BookAdventure.com works well and doesn’t cost money.
3. Use extrinsic rewards. The high-fives and stickers act as extrinsic rewards. I get to have positive conversations with students about what they read, how they did on the test, and what they want to read next. We have pizza parties for kids who earn different certificate levels (by reading a certain number of books at certain levels), and I use cookies as bribery (everyone in the class keeping up with their goal gets a cookie).
4. Make it easy. Our librarian has arranged our library by reading level first, and author second. No kidding. Every book has a sticker on the spine along with important information as to how many points the book is worth in the Accelerated Reader point system. It works like a charm. Kids know their ZPD (or what colored stickers to look for), and they’ve learned to browse on the shelves where they will find books that they’ll understand (because the book is in their ZPD). All of the picture books reside in baskets. Our clever librarian realized that if she added non-fiction books to the picture book baskets, then kids would read them—so fiction and non-fiction get jumbled together.
5. Keep moving further away from the basket (metaphorically speaking). As kids improve, encourage them to increase the difficulty and length of their book choices (just remember to keep it within the child’s ZPD).
6. Use series to entice them to practice reading. Right now, the hot seller at our library is the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis. With a lower reading level, lots of drawings, high excitement historical fiction and a relatively short book length, kids from 3rd to 12th grade gobble the books up. Once the kids read their way through one series, we suggest similar books that have a slightly higher reading level and a few more pages. The I Survived fans move easily into the Gorden Korman adventure series (Everest, Dive and Escape). Both boys and girls love these series. Series provide predictability and comfort. By the end of the year, I usually have kids reading the Series of Unfortunate Events (especially the boys) and Melanie Dickerson’s retold fairty tales.
7. Reach out to authors. I tweeted to author Melanie Dickerson that a student chased me around the school grounds because I had Melanie’s newest release and the young lady couldn’t wait to read it. I jokingly told the student that she could have the book before me if she could catch me. I didn’t think she would chase me. She did. I gave her a run for her money, handed her the book and ordered the Kindle version. Ms. Dickerson replied and became interested in our school and the girls who adore her books. Now we have an unofficial Melanie Dickerson fan club at our school (she even wishes the girls happy birthday on Facebook on their birthdays) and hold release parties for each new book.
8. Take orders. Another cool thing about our school librarian is that she will order books for students. If they like hamsters, she’ll find a book about hamsters in the student’s reading level that has an AR test and order it. This is how students suddenly became interested in the delivery habits of FedEx. If the librarian ordered a book especially for them, they’ll watch front campus for the delivery truck and chase down the driver to see if the package has the librarian’s name on it. If it does, they’ll run to the library to let her know (and she holds the record for getting books into circulation).
9. Read as a community and model reading. Three staff members and all of the students gather for 30 minutes of silent reading every afternoon. The non-readers and emerging readers get iPads and use Epic! (an app that reads picture books out loud to kids). Everyone else either reads to each other or reads on their own. The staff members help the kids take tests and find new books. I read regularly during class (both silently and out loud to the students) and I also take book tests. If the adults in a child’s life don’t read, who will set the example?
10. Be a sleuth. Not all the books in the library come from Amazon—the librarian loves garage sales and second-hand stores. Over the last three years, she’s purchased over 3000 books (yes, that’s three thousand) for about $1500.00. Our library had only a handful of picture books when she first started—now the baskets full of books have taken over the tables in the library.

You’ll know you’ve turned your reluctant readers into real readers when they no longer need the extrinsic reward. After using this program for two and a half years at our school, students have started asking to order books that don’t have tests—just because they want to read them.

If they don’t have the cash handy to pay the librarian, she still orders the book. They actually ask to come in and hold the books and smell them occasionally while they do odd jobs or ask relatives for gifts to pay off their book debt. One young man even said, “I think I might be addicted to books.” I’d much rather have teenagers addicted to books than addicted to drugs or online gaming!

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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