Teaching reluctant readersI need some good advice and lots of suggestions on how to get a reluctant reader to read.Last semester, the mother of one of my students asked me how she could get her son...

Teaching reluctant readers

I need some good advice and lots of suggestions on how to get a reluctant reader to read.

Last semester, the mother of one of my students asked me how she could get her son tested for special ed. We consulted the guidance counselor, and she got the testing process going. Mom was embarrassed when we got the results. He had her completely snowed. She believed he couldn't read at all, when he actually aced all of the tests.

In a different situation, I'm teaching a special remedial reading class for 9th graders. They still take regular 9th grade English, but they come to me for extra help and tutoring. Today they all complained about a story they had to read in English: "The Cask of Amontillado." So I got out a copy of the story and asked them what I could help them with, what it was they didn't understand. Their answer: Everything! The first time they came across a "hard" word, they gave up because the whole story was "too hard."

Anybody have any ideas about how to change these attitudes?

Expert Answers
timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have had this problem over the years.  About 15 years ago two of us were teaching remedial English 9 in a large, all boys HS.  We made an interesting decision:  Instead of relying on what everyone SAID was great/important literature, we established this rubric:  we would teach no book that students would not enjoy.  Needless to say, the 19th Century fell by the wayside :)  The interesting thing is that we found it impossible to select a book that more than half the class would like at any one time.  It was very frustrating.  I always like sports books when I was their age ... what I learned is that about 50% of them still do; the other 50 could have cared less.  We tried a science fiction/fantasy book ("A Window in Time"), and that had about the same success rate.  We had great luck with a book entitled "The Lottery Rose" (Irene Hunt) probably because they thought the main character was them.  Another book they liked sounds like a sports book, but it wasn't:  "My Brother Stealing Second" (Jim Naughton).  We also did some mythology using a book that was written on a lower reading level ... they loved that.

It was frustrating for us, but it was worth it for them.  The interesting part is that we managed to read 11 books that year ... the honors kids only read 4 (admittedly a little more difficult ).   This was not lost on our students who had too often heard that they "couldn't do it."  The best compliment we got was when one of the students came up to us at the end of the year and asked if this was really a remedial class.

I'd suggest you try our rubric ... just give them books to read that you think they'll enjoy and forget what anyone else says is important!  And, needless to say, go light on the testing and some of the other things we do to make reading less than fun.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, I've expressed this before, but must we insist on 19th century reading? 

How was your student's comprehension grades?  Being able to read and retain are two very different things.  And a student with Aspbergers or ADHD may be able to ace both reading/comprehension yet experience signficant inhibitors in other ways and settings. 

In your larger class that is remedial, I cannot stress enough how different learning styles affect abilities.  Do you have a tactile learner?  A visual learner?  An auditory learner?  Unfortunately, for people with learning differences, there is no easy answer.  I understand how stressful it can be for teachers and administrators, but we have to try. 

I hate to get on my autism soapbox again, but did anyone see "Amanda's Story" on Anderson Cooper last night? If not, please, please, see this link. 


People with learnig differences get frustrated with being pounded into a particular hole.  Your students may well have been told that they were not able to figure out hard stuff, or were offered no assistance when encountering stumbling points. 

It's our job as teachers to find out how to make them "fit" without trauma.  Thank god your students are still willing to ask for help.  In my experience, they are not looking for a free ride, just a rope to keep them from drowning. 

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It may be easy to assume that AP Lit students are in the class because they like to read.  That is NOT the case. I too have my AP Literature students select a book from a list of literary merit.  I limit my list to about 8 very current titles that the students may have heard of or seen at the local bookstores.  A few have been made into recent movies, such as The Kite Runner and Atonement.   I think that kind of assessibility is the one of the first reasons I have success.  The second reason for my success in getting the students to really read is that the assessment is a one-on-one conference with me about the book.  I let our conversation go where it will based on their responses to the book, but the fear of the unknown is a motivator.  One of the most satisifying reasons for doing this assignment though has been the overwhelming number of students who say they love the book they chose.  One student this year who was a self-admidted "non-reader" unless it was assigned said that reading The Kite Runner made him want to read again.  The comment made my year!

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My AP students read 6 novels or plays of their choosing outside of class in the course of a year.  I supply them with lists of books having the dreaded "literary merit" criteria.  We cross off anything we'll be reading in class and I give just a little info on the others.  They need to read works from several different time periods or authors, but other than that they may select what they wish. 

Someone invariably asks me just to choose one for him/her; I, of course, refuse.  They traditionally grab one the first time without much thought (except perhaps length), and after they've chosen I can almost always tell who will have the positive and negative experiences with the texts they've chosen.  After that first one, they're generally a little more motivated to "choose better" next time. 

Letting them choose works, though they may have to fail at it once to make a more apt choice for them the next time. 

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Have you tried teaching kids root words, prefixes and suffixes first?  Using The Illustrated Word Smart vocab programs and others like it, kids visualize the words, learn word parts, and are able to face "hard" words easier...this is also helpful for ACT and SAT verbal portions.  I'm not saying this is the best solution, but when kids are able to break words up into smaller bits, they are more able to conquer the vocab of earlier writings.  Kids need more of the tools to succeed--study habits, captions, italicized and boldface words, word parts, footnotes, etc. makes it all easier to understand. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Take advantage of scaffolding, especially in the beginning of the year.  Read the story to them, or have them listen to it.  Build up to more and more complicated language.

Recently, my class was reading the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.  There were a few pages of dialogue without tags, and the students kept getting confused as to who was talking.  So I assigned parts and had three kids read the three parts.  It worked very well, because everyone was able to follow it then.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This may be slightly odd but I am just thinking out loud here. Why could we not let our students select their own books for study? This could actually be incorporated into the curriculum, with a selection of books given to students and they have to research into them, pick one and then argue or defend their choice against other students. Would this work? What do you think?

morrol eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I find that some of my reluctant readers just don't want to read "school books." I give them alternate books instead.

I've never had a student not like "1984." It's always a hit.

I also give students beat poetry to read. I present it as something obscure and trendy and full of dissent. They feel special and actually get a lot out of it.

mrsjoyce | Student

I like what accessteacher said about letting the students choose their own books.  I have done that with my literature circles and it has generally worked pretty well.  I will do that again this year after having the students read two books of my choosing.  The problem I have is with the overall lack of interest in reading.   Has anyone had success with incentives at the 11th or 12th grade level?  I assume that ice cream coupons don't really work with 17 year olds....

mrsjoyce | Student

I have a class of boys and girls who are very reluctant readers. They are 11th grade and everything I have given them (from Poe to Kite Runner to My Father Sits in the Dark) is "boring."  Has anyone had any success is letting students, maybe in groups of 3, choose a short story to teach to the class?  It's just an idea I have and as a fairly inexperienced teacher, I would like some advice as to its feasibility.  Thanks!