This is part of a series on empowering readers. If you’re interested, I also have a self-paced course where I walk you through practical ways that you can empower your students in the reading process.
The students filed into class discussing the latest TV shows they had binge-watched and swapping stories of their weekends. A few of them talked about the challenges of a fast-paced MAT program (Masters in the Arts of Teaching) and how they were balancing that with their jobs. As class began, I turned on the projector and displayed the warm-up.
The directions were simple. Explain what it means to be an engaged reader. The disclaimer was more challenging. You can only use visuals and no text.
One student raised her hand and asked, “Can I at least write a small explanation on my picture? Or maybe write a few words as connections between ideas?”
“Nope. It needs to be sketched out. You can use symbols, diagrams, arrows, or doodles. It doesn’t need to be artistic. I simply want you to make your thinking visible.”
Immediately, the environment changed. Students grew anxious. A few of my students began whispering to one another. Reluctantly, they pulled out sheets of paper. However, one student simply stared out aimlessly. Two others got up to get a drink or use the restroom. A few students scribbled their sketches while guarding their papers. Another student raced to finish the assignment as quickly as possible only to turn the paper over and cover it with a pencil as a signal that the dreaded warm-up was over. A few students looked around the room for inspiration. Others raised their hand and asked me if they were “doing it correctly.” In one corner of the room, students ditched the warm-up entirely and began a conversation about Fantasy Football.
At the close of the warm-up, I asked students to do a think-pair-share on how they felt as they engaged in the assignment. A few students loved it. They felt like it was a chance to speak their language and use their creativity. In fact, they were eager to show their classmates what they had sketched out. Most students, however, hated the activity. As I wandered the room, the most common words were: hated, anxious, annoying, and unsure.
Afterward, we deconstructed the activity. I asked students why they felt anxious, angry, and annoyed by this warm-up. Students said things like, “I’m not an artist and this isn’t my thing.”
Others said things like, “I haven’t drawn in years and so I felt rusty.” Still others described the challenge of working out of their weaknesses.
I asked students how this activity would be different if our class had been a kindergarten or first grade class and we discussed the strange phenomenon of “growing out” of something like drawing or doodling.
Next, we talked about the behaviors we observed during the warm-up. Things like wandering the classroom, rushing to finish, quitting early, putting in less effort, feeling afraid to show others, copying from peers, procrastinating, and goofing off. From there, I asked students to relate this to warm-up to the behaviors they see when a student is a reluctant reader.
One student said, “I’ve been an aid for a few years and I never saw this connection. I just thought the students I worked with were being lazy.”
Another student said, “I feel like I get the need for scaffolding now. I always secretly wondered if scaffolds were like a crutch but I would have done so much better if I had seen some exemplars or if I had started with a graphic organizer.”
What I had designed as a short warm-up became a longer, richer discussion about why students were reluctant to read. Students talked about shame, trauma, and self-definition that had led them to say, “I’m not an artist” and then related that experience to students who felt the same way about reading. Others talked about the role of fear and how it prevented them from putting in the necessary effort in the warm-up. Still, others talked about the habit of drawing and the challenges of being slow at it.
If we want to empower students to own the reading process, we will have students who hate reading. Some people call them “reluctant readers,” but I prefer the term “reading reluctantly” because it focuses on the behavior and not the person. The term “reluctant reader” feels permanent, but I’ve never met a truly reluctant reader, only students who are reading reluctantly until they eventually embrace reading and even fall in love with the process.
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Four Reasons Students Might Be Reluctant to Read (And What We Can Do About It)
The following are a few of the reasons students might be reluctant to read. It is by no means an exhaustive list. There are some excellent researchers and teachers who have been exploring this topic in-depth. However, I would like to focus on four different trends that I noticed as a middle school teacher and explore of a few ideas for how to address these issues.
Challenge #1: They Have A Negative Self-Definition as a Reader
One of the most common student responses I got from the warm-up was, “I’m not an artist.” Similarly, when I taught middle school, I had students who had defined themselves as “not being a reader.” Part of this was due to socialization. Students internalized negative cultural stereotypes about readers being nerdy or the awful stereotype that athletes didn’t need to read. In some cases, there were racist stereotypes about how African-Americans and Latinos weren’t supposed to be readers. As a class, we worked toward dismantling these stereotypes. We deconstructed the racism and white supremacy about the arguments that reading was a “white thing.” I partnered with our librarian and with teachers who were experts on anti-racism to find books that had protagonists who were BIPOC and that addressed issues of injustice and racism.
Literacy expert Bonnie Hamer helped dispel some of the myths about “who is a reader” by encouraging coaches, custodians, social workers, and other community members to share their favorite books in her weekly book talks that she did with high school students. These book talks tended to be short and highly personal. The book talk centered on how the reader connected with the text. The goal here was not a book report or even a book review. It was a simple book talk, where readers offered a recommendation based on things like whether they found the plot interesting or whether they liked the characters. She extended this process to her students as well.
In some cases, students have a negative self-definition due to negative past experiences. Many students have defined success as being a fast reader. In early elementary school, we tend to place students in reading groups based on fluency scores. Students might even set reading fluency goals and have celebrations for how fast they read. It might be something like an Accelerated Reading program, where students earn rewards based on how quickly they read. But in the process, students who read slowly internalize the notion that they “aren’t a good reader.”
In these moments, I’ve found that it helps to allow students to vent about why they dislike reading. Teacher and ELA expert Pernille Ripp once wrote the words, “reading is magical” and “reading is trash” on the board and asked students to add reasons they do or do not enjoy the process by using sticky notes.
While this activity might seem like a potentially negative framing of the reading process, it was actually a chance for students to be known and to share their authentic feelings about reading. Sometimes students need to be heard first before they open up to the possibility that reading might be fun.
For this reason, it can help to focus less on the love of reading as a process and more on the topics and the stories they’re reading. As a teacher you might say, “I know reading isn’t your thing and that’s okay. Obviously, I want you to love reading but I can’t make you love it. So, if you have to read, what topics are you into? What stories excite you? What tv shows do you watch? What characters do you find compelling?” Start with tv shows and movies for plot and character. Let them run with their interests. In many cases, a student will fall in love with the reading process while still thinking that they “aren’t a reader.” Instead, they are intrigued by great stories or fantastical worlds or big ideas. Case in point, my brother-in-law struggled with reading. To this day, he’d say, “I’m not much of a reader.” And yet, he always has a book on his Kindle app on his phone. He’s constantly listening to audiobooks on his drive to work as a lineman. Whether he admits it or not, he’s an avid reader.
Ultimately, we, as teachers, can help students get past a negative self-definition by building a relationship with students and giving them more autonomy in their reading journey. This begins with providing a significant amount of time for independent reading. But it also happens when we nerd out on reading in a way that is inclusive and not snobbish. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I initially mocked books with sparkly vampires. I wanted my students to love “good literature” and I viewed myself as a gatekeeper. Now, I just want them to be critical readers — whether it’s Native Son or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. As teachers, we can find ways to celebrate reading in a way that focuses less on reading levels and more on the inherent joy of immersing oneself in a story.
Challenge #2: They Find Reading Inherently Boring
I used to hate soccer. I didn’t understand how people could get excited about a sport that ended in a 2-1 score. For me, it was just a whole lot of kicking a ball back and forth. it didn’t have the explosive plays of football, with the deep drives and multiple scores. It didn’t have the action of a basketball game, with the non-stop pick-and-roll lay-ups, the fast-break dunks, and the incredible three-pointers happening every few seconds. However, I married into a soccer family and quickly fell in love with the sport. The lack of scoring, actually created something better than action — suspense. Over the years, I have changed my mind about other boring things. I now think art museums are awesome. I find fashion interesting . . . even if I don’t have much a sense of fashion myself. I love the opera.
In each case, I needed to discover the joy of something I initially found boring. I needed exposure to something new but also the chance to connect it to things I already found interesting. So, even though I didn’t love fashion, I watched a fashion-based reality show with my daughter and saw the connection between fashion and things like design, storytelling, and culture. In the case of the opera, I needed to watch it live and to connect with the epic stories that each opera told. In the case of soccer, I had to connect first with things I found fascinating, like headers and penalty kicks before I eventually grew to love the subtlety of the craft.
I mention all of this because some students arrive to school viewing reading as inherently boring. They read reluctantly, not because of low skill levels or even self-definition. They simply find the act of reading to be a chore. At times, we can accidentally reinforce this perception by assigning reading as a punishment when students can’t behave during a hands-on activity. Other times, we might provide rewards for reading, like pizza coupons or fake money that students use in a student store, only to watch students assume that reading is a chore that requires a reward. However, even when we promote a positive view of reading, some students still find it inherently boring.
Students might think reading is boring because they didn’t connect with anything they have read in the past. I love the quote from author James Patterson, who wrote, “There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.” As teachers, we can help students find the “right books” by creating an exploratory period where they can discover different books. In my most recent article, I wrote about using book talks, book show and tell activities, library scavenger hunts, and First Chapter Fridays to introduce students to new books. This exploratory phase empowers students by honoring their agency as learners. They get to decide what books they want to read. At the same time, you, as a teacher, get the opportunity to expose students to new authors, stories, and genres that they might never discover on their own.
It can feel counterintuitive but sometimes the answer is to teach students how to quit books that aren’t working for them. A student might just need to read the first chapter of twenty different books and abandon them all before striking gold on the twenty-first book. However, I’d rather have a situation like that than have a student stick with the wrong book and hate the process. For some students, the answer might be to find books that connect with their lives and with their culture. For others, it might be that they want to read books that expose them to new ideas and other cultures. For some students, they might need deep characterization and a strong emotional connection. Others might need a faster-paced novel with a more suspenseful plot.
It helps to take an “everything counts” approach. Graphic novels count. Audiobooks count. Re-reading a book counts. Reading above or below the grade level counts. The goal is to get students to discover the joy of reading. Some nuance here. There is a time and a place for the whole class novel and exposing students to the classics (although the definition of the canon should be flexible, malleable, and far more diverse than it is often presented to students). We’ll explore this idea in an upcoming article in this series. However, if we want students to fall in love with reading, we need to give them a chance to discover what books they want to read. Even so, there are times when students won’t want to read simply because they haven’t developed a reading habit. Which leads to the next challenge . . .
Challenge #3: They Have Low Reading Endurance
When I first transitioned into self-contained (teaching all subjects to one group of students), I took a gamble with reading based on what I had done as a reading intervention teacher. My students would spend forty minutes a day doing independent reading. After reading the book Readicide and then reading The Book Whisperer, I made the decision to devote more time to reading and less time doing reading-related assignments. This schedule left a solid forty-five minutes for book clubs, creative reading responses, whole class read-alouds, and other reading activities. I watched as students grew into independent readers. I observed their gains in reading comprehension and critical analysis. However, I worried that this focus on uninterrupted reading time wouldn’t translate to higher test scores. To my surprise, my students remained at the top of the district on our benchmark tests.
I later analyzed the data and found that my students were in the top one-third for the first ten questions on the test. These were solid scores but nothing impressive. However, they continued to score the same way from the tenth question all the way to the fiftieth question. In other classes, students experienced a sharp drop in their correct answers. My hunch is that my students had developed reading endurance while other students couldn’t read silently for the hour and a half testing time. It’s not that my students were better readers. Other students had mastered the same standards as my students. The key difference is that my students were unfazed by long, extended reading times.
My students didn’t begin with strong reading endurance. We had to build up from five minutes of silent reading in the first week to fifteen in the second week (which was admittedly challenging for many students) to twenty-five minutes in the third week, thirty-five minutes in the fourth week, and forty-five minutes in the fifth week of school. In many respects, this process felt like gaining endurance in running. Students were essentially “out of breath” after five minutes in the first week. They struggled to stay focused on the text and described the challenges of a wandering mind. Certain students would re-read the same paragraph because they kept getting distracted. However, as they practiced reading silently, they developed reading endurance as a habit and a discipline.
Looking back on it, students were developing the critical soft skill of deep work. This can feel boring at first. If students are used to the dopamine rush from social media or the instant action of a video game, a novel can seem slow and even quaint. However, when students learn how to focus on a text for an extended period of time, they are able to think deeply. As Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, writes, “To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.” Here’s where the discipline aspect comes in to play. Silent reading time was one of the few moments in our class when I would ask students to put away their smart phones. As Cal Newport writes, “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
As teachers, we sometimes need to model these skills for students and even talk through the mental process of staying focused. It’s also a chance to be vulnerable with your students and admit that there are times when you struggle to stay focused as a reader. And yet, the more students practice staying focused in reading, the easier it becomes to master. Even so, it’s not always easy for every student. Students with ADHD might need some additional accommodations and scaffolds for this extended silent reading time. I had one student who sketched out parts of the story while listening to the audiobook. For him, the movement and the tactile element helped him stay focused on visualizing the story.
Challenge #4: They Struggle with Key Reading Skills
Sometimes students struggle with reading because they haven’t mastered key skills. They might have some gaps in basic skills like phonics and blending. Other times, students might struggle with grammar and syntax. I’ve seen students who can easily decode text but they struggle with longer, compound sentences that contain multiple phrases. For others, the challenge relates to language acquisition. They might have a hard time with passive voice or with the past progressive verb tense, which we tend to use in writing but not in conversational English. Still, for others, the challenge is with vocabulary and academic language. It might even be an issue of prior knowledge. If you ask me to read about cars, I won’t know the difference between a V-6 and a V-8 (although I think a V8 is also the name of a vegetable drink).
Empowered readers have the ability to enter a state of flow when they reading, where they hyperfocus and tune out all distractions. Here’s a quick video on how flow works:
Note that in Flow Theory, students need to have a match between their perceived skill level and the inherent challenge of the task. This requires a sense of personal control or agency over the task. As teachers, we can empower students to select the reading material and to choose what strategy they use. However, the reading still needs to be accessible for students. While we don’t need to align the reading perfectly to reading levels, students can experience anxiety if the reading process is too challenge. In 1987, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the following 8-channel model of flow in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Student Engagement in Everyday Life.Note that if a task is too easy, you might experience apathy or boredom but if a task seems too hard, you’ll be anxious.
As teachers, we can teach students how to select books that will lead to a sense of control, arousal, and flow. We can also provide scaffolding through tutorials and language supports. We can encourage students to select books where they already have some backgrounds knowledge; thereby making the vocabulary more accessible. We can also encourage students to track their own progress so that they can see how they are improving as readers.
In the end, there is no secret formula. There are so many reasons students will be reluctant to read. It can take months and even years to change one’s self definition or to conquer fear around literacy. But we, as teachers, can design the systems that help students move from reluctance to empowerment in their reading journey.