Reading is critical to learning and critical to life. Reading enables us to enhance our knowledge, learn new words, and understand concepts. Reading allows us to escape to an unknown world or journey into the heart of an issue or problem. Reading supports us in feeling empathy and brings us to laughter, tears, and illumination. Reading is the heart of our lives in school and the crux of many chosen careers. To quote Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
What then, is a teacher or parent to do with a student that just doesn’t like to read? You may know this child. In the classroom, when you ask students to engage in silent reading, this student has difficulty settling down to read. She may ask to go to the bathroom. She may ask to get a new book, even though she started a new book yesterday. When she finally sits down, you notice her eyes are watching the clock, rather than reading the page. At home, when you ask your child to read before bed, his book is suddenly missing. He wants to get a drink of water, have a snack, and feed his pet fish as soon as you start the reading timer. No matter what books you try to entice him with at the library, nothing seems to catch his interest. Or, he has one favorite book, and he reads it over … and over … and over.
Continuum of Reader Engagement
The children described above might be classified as reluctant readers – they have the skills to read, but they would rather do anything than read a book. Researchers Kelley and Grace-Clausen (2009) developed a continuum of eight types of readers, ranging from “fake readers” to “bookworms.” Happily, however, even the most reluctant reader can become a bookworm with the support a teacher or parent. Understanding your child’s reading profile can help you tailor reading experiences for success at school or home.
Fake readers are those readers who are skillful at flying under the radar. They know what engaged readers look like, and they do their best to emulate those behaviors. This student may sit quietly with a book at home or school, but careful observation demonstrates they are merely turning pages, not actually reading.
What should you do if you think your child is a fake reader? As with many types of reluctant readers, it’s key to tap into your child’s interests when asking him or her to read. Find engaging books that will lure your reader into the words. In the classroom, hold this student accountable for reading by asking him or her to complete a meaningful activity following reading time. This will encourage him to engage with his book in a more significant way.
These students don’t like to read because they aren’t good at reading. They may have trouble breaking down words or difficulty understanding meaning. No matter the cause, reading is not enjoyable because it’s hard to do.
How can we engage challenged readers with independent reading? The key is finding books that are at the child’s appropriate reading level. When reading independently, a child should be able to successfully read 96% or more of the words in the text. Older readers who read significantly below grade level may benefit from “hi-lo” books – high interest, low readability (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/highlow-books-children). Younger readers who are struggling to read may enjoy books with familiar characters and humor, such as the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Williams. When suggesting a book for a challenged reader, it’s essential to choose a title that she or he can be successful in reading. If you recommend a book and the reader struggles with the words on the page, this will reinforce his image that he is a poor reader. Rather, suggest books that enable success and foster positive self-image, giving the reader a much-needed boost in self-esteem, and enhancing motivation.
High interest, low readability books deal with sophisticated topics, but are written in accessible manners. Hi-lo books must have compelling storylines and characters (high interest) matched with sensible vocabulary and straight-forward sentence structure (low readability). As most readers do judge a book by its cover, it’s also important that hi-lo books look age-appropriate and address age-appropriate issues.
Want to learn more about hi-lo books for your challenged reader? The following publishers are reputable sources of hi-lo books:
Unrealistic or “Wanabee” Readers
You may have seen this child – he carries around Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows simply because his friends have read the book. At home, she frequently gives up on books, abandoning them without getting to the end. This reader picks books that are beyond his or her reading level, and because the books are too challenging, he or she does not continue reading.
Children often want to read what their friend are reading, so if your reader is not yet ready for Harry Potter, try a “read alike” title: a book of a similar genre and story written at a lower reading level (https://www.bookbrowse.com/read-alikes/). “Unrealistic” readers often need assistance in learning how to choose “good fit” books – books they can successfully read on their own. You can teach your child specific strategy to assist in choosing books, such as the “five finger rule” for younger readers (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/selecting-books-your-child-finding-just-right-books), and BOOKMATCH for older readers (http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/bookmatch-scaffolding-independent-book-1172.html).
These readers will read when they are told, but they never choose to read for leisure. They pick books somewhat randomly, as their goal is just to read, not to lose themselves in a new world or to engage with ideas. When asked, these students often indicate that they do not like to read.
Compliant readers benefit from enthusiastic reading models, teachers and parents who talk about books they can’t put down. For example, a teacher can enthusiastically introduce a book specifically chosen for a student, a title of high interest and an appropriate reading level, and indicate they just can’t wait to talk to the reader when finished. A little positive one-to-one interaction can go a long way in helping a reader invest in a book. As a parent, enlist the help of a librarian when your child rolls his or her eyes at the book titles you suggest. Be sure to share your child’s interests, so the librarian can choose a book your child may find engaging.
Does Nonfiction Count? Readers
Some readers, quite often boys, are drawn almost exclusively to nonfiction. These readers often struggle to find books to read in their classroom or public library, unless someone specially shows them where and how to find nonfiction books on topics of interest.
If you have a nonfiction reader on your hands, do not despair! Nonfiction readers are readers, and they just need to access to high interest, nonfiction texts. In the classroom, review your classroom library. Do you have a balance of fiction and non-fiction texts? If not, consider ways to flesh out your nonfiction section. Bring shorter texts into the classroom, as well, such as magazines and articles. At home, don’t forget that online reading is still reading – newspaper articles, online magazines, and skillful google searches can yield appropriate, high interest texts. If you want to bridge your non-fiction reader to fiction, start with biographies – their factual approach linked to a narrative style can be an entry point to fiction.
In one course I teach at DePaul University, my students (licensed teachers) are required to complete a project in which they work with a reluctant reader from their classrooms. When I survey the class to ask how many selected reluctant readers who were male, ten of 15 people raised their hands. While some boys and young men may have limited interested in reading, the savvy parent or teacher can help. When researchers Wilhem and Smith (2005) surveyed 49 young men about the types of books they like to read, they found the following themes across participants.
Male readers …
- Enjoyed reading to deepen areas of competence (rather than building new competence
- Were drawn to highly visual books
- Preferred shorter texts, or books written in short sections, as they fostered a sense of accomplishment
- Preferred material that was functional or usable in their own lives
- Enjoyed books with new perspectives or that challenged the status quo
- Liked books and materials with interesting facts, as well as websites that could help them keep track of something they viewed as important >
- Enjoyed sharing what they learned in social ways
- Universally relished funny books
If you are a teacher of a male reluctant reader, review your classroom library with the above themes in mind. Do you have books that will appeal to all readers? Do you provide opportunities for students to share what they learned? If you are a parent of a male reluctant reader, consider the titles you are suggesting to him. Could you help your son find high-interest non-fiction texts or appropriate websites to deepen his knowledge? Could you ask your local librarian to introduce him to the graphic novel section at your library?
I Can, but I Don’t Want to (Even Though I Enjoy it)
When given an opportunity to select books, these readers can choose titles they enjoy; however, they still lack enthusiasm as readers. This reader may only read when told, even though reading may be an engaging experience.
These readers also benefit from enthusiastic reading models, respected adults who demonstrate an enjoyment of reading. They may also profit from an older reading mentor, a student a few years ahead in school who clearly loves reading and talking about books. Positive peer interactions can be a powerful force for good! In addition, helping an “I don’t want to” reader find an author or series he or she enjoys can enable a series of positive reading experiences that can break the reader through this stage.
Stuck in a Genre (or Series)
This reader only reads one author, one series, or one genre of book. He or she feels connected to their author/genre of choice, and everything else pales in comparison. The challenge in supporting these readers is to help them move out of their comfort zone and into the wider world of books.
Like other types of readers, “stuck” readers benefit from positive adult attention centered around books: “I know you love to read graphic novels, and you can read as many at you want at home. At school, however, I am going to help you find new types of books to read.” Consider creating a “reading exchange” with the “stuck” reader in your life – you read the child’s favorite book (in his favorite genre), and ask the child to read one of your favorite books, in a different genre. When done, set aside time to talk about what you enjoyed about each book.
Bookworms are the readers who just can’t put books down … they (try to) read at the breakfast table, in the halls between classes, and inside their desks during lessons. They enjoy a variety of types of genres and authors, and they are passionate about talking to others about what they read.
The challenge with bookworms is often one of supply and demand – it can be difficult to keep them in books! A “bookworm” can read through the entire classroom library before spring; it’s important to keep infusing the library with new books. You may want to consider exchanging titles with another teacher to keep things fresh, or bringing in more challenging texts as the year progresses. If you have a bookworm at home, a public library card is a must. Your local librarian can help you keep your reader in a variety of titles and genres, and suggest activities such as book clubs and other library programming.
Fostering a Joy of Reading
Not all readers are created equal. Some learn to read easily and continually have a book in their hands. Some struggle to learn to read, but eventually find their niche in an author or series, and later branch out in their reading preferences. However, many others do not naturally develop an interest in, or a passion for, reading. These students are not forever lost to the joys of reading. With dedication and persistence, as well as the support of a good librarian, a teacher or parent can help even the most reluctant reader begin to enjoy reading.
Kelley, M. J. & Clausen-Grace, N. (2009). Facilitating engagement by differentiating independent reading. The Reading Teacher, 63(4), 313-318.
Wilhelm, J. D. & Smith, M. (2005). Asking the right questions: Literate lives of boys. The Reading Teacher, 58(8), 788-789.
Amy Feiker Hollenbeck is an Associate Professor at DePaul University, where she teaches in the special education program as well as the reading specialist program. Her research interests include reading comprehension, response to intervention, and teacher preparation.
Are you a licensed teacher who wants to deeper your instructional practices in reading, including how to engage reluctant readers? Consider the Reading Specialist program at DePaul, where you can complete a master’s degree to become a reading specialist, or add the reading teacher endorsement to your current licensure.
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Are you a preservice teacher who wants to work with challenged and reluctant readers? Consider the Special Education program at DePaul, where you will work with faculty with expertise in reading and learning disabilities, complete coursework focused on teaching reading, and apply what you learn while tutoring a struggling reader in our on-campus Education and Counseling Center.
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