Encouraging Reluctant Readers

I’m back in the UK at the moment for our summer break before we head over to our new school and home in Malaysia in August.  You might think that means I’d have more time to write, but I’ll be honest here I’m spending it all with my little boy and our families – today for example I’m writing this while he naps after a busy trip to a farm a day at the zoo an evening with his grandma and cousin (okay so it took a while to write this)!

Still, with the 2014-5 school year now finished my thoughts are turning more and more to the year ahead. One of the biggest successes in my classroom for the last couple of years was the incredible experiencing of turning some reluctant readers into real bookworms! This love of reading is something I really want to build into everything I do with my new class.  With that in mind I started to think, and write, about some of the strategies I have been using, or wish to try out, to encourage those reluctant readers:

Reading Corner or Classroom Library

Ask my students what their favourite place is in my classroom and I’m pretty sure almost all would reply ‘the readers’ corner’ and this isn’t by accident.  When I set up my classroom (which I’ll be writing about more later)  I always start out with my reading area first.  This has to be a few things:

  • Easy for students to access and easy for me to see everyone whilst working in other areas of the classroom
  • Inviting – students should want to be there
  • Comfortable (obviously!)
  • Easy to organise/maintain

Having a great reading area makes a huge difference because it makes reading feel special.  This is a vital part of the overall effect I’m going for.  I’m also aware that my more confident readers aren’t quite as reliant on feeling comfortable and relaxed as my emergent or reluctant readers, so if needed I can tailor the space to the latter. Generally my reading corner last year was more about being a comfy space than storing books effectively due to our school set up.  That meant it had some nice rugs on the floor (bath mats make great individual/paired reading spaces), a mixture of cushions (big, small, softer, harder, different colours, etc.), a bright but not too distracting display area and some colourful decoration (last year this was some colourful scarves hung over the window).

What is in your reading area/classroom library will vary hugely based on space and resources but with some creative thinking, like the bath mats as reading rugs, it is easier than you might think to create a warm, inviting space. If you’re struggling for inspiration I’d highly recommend searching ‘classroom library’ on Pinterest.

Visual bookcase

This is a great follow on to the reading corner, because it can be included as part of the design.  I used the back of a book case (it was being used as both a case and a space divider) to make a pretend bookcase.  It was covered in brown paper and had ‘shelves’ drawn on (actually stuck on using long strips of black paper) and I provided strips of coloured paper in different sizes to be the spines of books on the case.  My students would read a book and when finished make their own book spine for it and stick it on to the case.  When the case was filled up we had a class celebration. This worked in a number of ways;

  • It encouraged students to read more without pitting individuals against each other (this can work really well sometimes but would not have been the right fit for my class)
  • It was a way for students to celebrate each and every book they read
  • The students could see what their classmates were reading an draw inspiration from it
  • It was a visual reminder of how much great reading progress we were making!

Positive Modelling

Just as I do with my son, I also model being a good reader with my students. Now, this doesn’t mean I leave them to their own devices during maths to read a novel I’ve picked up… but I do talk to my students about what I’m reading as well as reading aloud in class daily. Once children are able to read it’s easy to fall into the trap of not reading to them as much, but its still absolutely crucial that children hear expert reading daily.  If possible I do also strongly encourage buddy reading systems with students from older classes which has multiple benefits for all those involved!

Further more it is important to model good reading procedures (reading to self, someone, etc.) for your class. As with so many things in class I follow a simple but effective procedure for modelling early in the year when we’re establishing good reading habits:

1. Discuss the behavioural expectations clearly with your students: talk about what ‘good behaviour’ would include, and what it doesn’t include.  If you are vague in your expectations you force your students to try to figure them out, which leads to increased distractions and reduces positive engagement.  For example, when we are doing a ‘Reading to Self’ session expectations might include reading the whole time, staying in one place, reading silently, not distracting others, etc.

2. Have a student model all these great behaviours: let the other students see what it looks like to follow all the rules and give lots of praise.

3. Negative modelling: Choose a student (some teachers choose a child here who is more likely to struggle to follow the rules in class) to get everything wrong.  Clearly tell them to break as many of the rules as they can, your class will find this incredibly funny and that’s great! Then, and this is crucial, have the same student show everyone how to do it correctly once more.

4. Short practice: Get everyone in the class to practice all the correct reading procedures together, but just for a short, easily achievable time.

5. Slowly build up the time spent, reviewing the procedures and rules regularly for a few weeks.

Wide choice

Often with reluctant readers the key lies in getting them ‘hooked’ with that one really special book.  For a young sports-mad student I had recently the ‘Diary of…’ series by Shamini Flint (not the Wimpy Kid series, although that also works well to encourage readers!) was akin to an elixir – once he started reading he simply never stopped!  Something I’m working on at the moment, but that is surprisingly tough, is building a good non-fiction selection.  For so many readers non-fiction appeals more than fiction but is vastly outnumbered when it comes to books to pick from.  I’m perhaps a little more conscious of this as my husband Mark is an avid non-fiction reader and has similar issues finding content to really connect with.  What I’m aiming for to start with is a broad spread of reading options and then I can add depth in specific areas later as needed.

Another important aspect of this is to encourage parents to get their kids reading widely in normally occurring situations such as reading menus, road signs, the news, etc.

Want to try: Book boxes

This is an idea I saw over on The Thinker Builder and I can’t wait to try it! Each child has a book box that they keep at their desk.  They are allowed to swap finished or unwanted books at designated times in the week and keep a supply of reading materials at their desk.  I like the idea of having set times to swap books without restricting kids to just one book.

Book Marks

One simple technique that has worked really well has been to have students create and use their own bookmarks.  You can make really simple ones just using strips of paper, or go for a more durable book mark by using card and laminating them.  This really simple little touch gives students a little more ownership of what they’re reading and also makes the whole reading experience more fun.

On a related note, I always have lots and lots of bookmarks available in class for students to use (maybe this year they can keep them in their book boxes?).  Post-it notes work brilliantly for this.

Reading games

I’ve written before about the importance of games in learning and how to include more games in lessons, and this is also true of reading.  Great games about creating stories, writing and reading secret messages and changing the endings of classic stories are all such wonderful ways to encourage readers.  By making the process more interactive you’re breaking down some of their preconceptions that reading is ‘boring’ (not all kids have this, but it is an important consideration for some).  If you’re in need of some inspiration for games to play have a quick read of my earlier post series Great Games for Literacy and Numeracy.

Want to try: Recommendation tags

This is another one I really can’t wait to try out; periodically have students write a short recommendation for a book on a post it note or a cute little tag and then pop them inside the book.  That way when students are browsing through the library they can see what other thought of the book and it might just inspire them to pick it up and give it a try!

Book talks

I’ve written about Book Talks before and how great they are for inspiring readers and involving parents.  Rather than repeat myself too much, here’s a quick link to my previous article.

In short though, hosting a class Book Talk does wonders for making books exciting! It also then draws on a whole host of other skills such as writing, presentation and speaking which are great to practice.  Bringing the parents in to watch adds to the feeling of creating a reading community which is just lovely for all involved!

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