Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Power of Words: Reaching the Reluctant Reader

Photo Credit Jonathan Van Ark

I am not a reluctant reader. I have never been a reluctant reader. My insatiable desire to be wrapped in the printed word started when I was about four years old, and it has never abated.

For my bibliophilic brethren and sisteren, this sentiment is neither odd nor novel. Of course books are our life's blood! Of course we can think of few things better than curling up with a stack of beloved tomes, or a new series, and shutting out the mundane for a few days as we page our way through entire worlds of knowledge or entertainment.

As a young person, I did not understand anyone who did not share this love. How could anybody not love books? How could anyone not love reading?

Well, many years, and lots of life later, I understand that lots of people do not love reading. There are many reasons why they might not like it...or might think they do not like it, but that is neither here nor there. The question for educators and parents is about improving a student's motivation to read.

The approach that makes the most sense to me is outlined in a book called I Read, But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani.  Simply put, people who read well and effectively read strategically. This process comes naturally to some, but not others. For reluctant or struggling readers, they must learn how to read strategically one step at a time. Unfortunately, we don't teach this process in school. If you don't intuit it, you are out of luck. (Since writing this piece, I have been told that there are places in the country where teachers are tackling the process of reading. I hope this becomes a movement!)

So. What does a 'good' reader do?

- Relate the text back to their own experiences
- Look for clues or subtext in the words and images
- Consider the outcomes of the events as they unfold
- Consider what they think might happen
- Come up with what they might have done if they had written the story.
- Restate ideas and concepts in their own words or thoughts
- Approach text with specific goals in mind
- Consider the way the author uses words and context to develop ideas or evoke images
- Follow characters as they develop
- Connect with the text on multiple levels

Question 1: How on earth do you teach all of that?
Question 2: How do you get someone who doesn't want to read in the first place to do any of that?

A friend of mine, Mark Spring, works with an organization here in Durham, NC called Student U. They just had their culminating reading project in the summer middle school program. This is what they did.

The sixth grade students were assigned the book The Outsiders.
There were four classes of sixth graders.
Each class was only assigned one fourth of the book.

Only having to read 1/4 of the book made many of these kids cheer. They wouldn't have to read the whole 'boring' thing.

Each class got a roll of butcher paper.

Every single page of their quarter of the book was printed and glued down to the top half of their roll. This left lots of blank space.

The students made notes around the pages about vocabulary they didn't know, defining the words in bright markers.

They looked at events on each page, and made comments about how those events related back to things they had heard about or experienced.

They shared ideas and hopes and wishes in that empty space. Ideas about their own lives as well as the story unfolding before them.

They made predictions about what they thought would happen. They recounted times when they had the same kinds of feelings as the characters. They gave advice to the characters.

They drew pictures that represented ideas or feelings.

They made predictions about what would happen if the characters made certain choices.

The space around the pages filled with the work of the readers.

At the end of the summer session, all four classes gathered. They taped their sheets together and each class got to see what the other classes had done.

I was invited to the Scroll Event where the sixth grade unfurled their scroll. I walked the entire book, page by page, and saw how the kids had chosen to tackle their quarters.

Sixth graders are funny. They were complaining about how hot it was, how much their arms hurt from holding up this long sheet of paper, and any other thing kids complain about, but any time I asked about the section they were holding, they would snap right out of complaining mode, and start telling me about what they'd contributed.

These kids were extremely proud of the work they'd done. I heard about their budding political beliefs, their particular thoughts about the Duke Health Systems, the words they'd defined, and how they felt about the characters.

When the scrolls were finally together, what lay before us was a page by page graphic of the amount of work your brain does when you are deeply reading a piece of fiction. It was fascinating.  Then came the kicker.

Mark asked, "How many of you read the whole book?"

Almost all of the kids raised their hands.

Despite only being responsible for 1/4 of the book, and not having time in class to read, most of them read the whole book on their own at some point this last summer.

They couldn't resist the lure. They got seduced into reading by reading. It was a beautiful thing.

There is joy in reading. I am glad these kids got to feel it. Now, if you'll excuse me...Mary Stewart is calling.

Happy Reading.


  1. Right on! One correction, though. WE weren't taught this way, but it is the way reading is being taught now, at least in most of the Northeast. We are very fortunate to be near UNH and Lesley College, where this kind of "strategic reading" is being taught and widely written about. I'm a 6th grade reading teacher and we do this kind of thinking and discussion on a daily basis. I love the idea of assigning only 1/4 of the book though! I think I'll be stealing this one! Thank you for writing about this -- I'll be sharing!

    1. Excellent! I am glad that you have taken the jump into deep reading! I do envy you having a process to teach reading in this manner. I hope other educators will give me a shout out about what they are doing.

      I loved watching this exercise, and I am glad that others are interested in trying it. Mark Spring came up with this idea, and I hope it gets replicated everywhere, because it is a wonderful deep reading exercise!

      Thanks for stopping by the blog!