When I taught eighth-grade English, I sometimes came across a reluctant reader. One of the things I prided myself on was finding a book even the most resistant reader would enjoy. One year, I had a student who told me—quite happily—that he hated to read and that he didn’t do it. He was also what test scores would call a “weak” reader (quotes intentional). In that moment, it was like someone had shone the Bat Teacher light in the sky, prompting me to pull my reading superhero suit on. That’s when I first started thinking more about the role of reading motivation and engagement.
The story of a reluctant reader
When I met that happily honest student, I was using Kelly Gallagher’s strategy, The Reading Minute, every week to introduce students to new material. I had a wide array of topics, authors, and texts of varying readability in my classroom library, and I read a mix of genres aloud.
One week, I read a short passage from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a 500+ page tome on the history of, well, nearly everything scientific and in the natural world with a Lexile score that places it in grades 9–10. (It’s also an interesting book with a cheeky tone, but it took me a long time to read the entire thing on my own because it tested a lot of my prior knowledge on geology, biology, and chemistry.) That reluctant reader came up to me at the end of class and asked to see the book. I gave it to him. Later that week he told me, quite nonchalantly, that he was going to “see what it was about.”
Daily, for two weeks, my reluctant reader came in, excited to tell me a new science fact or to quiz my knowledge on obscure science. What had taken me, a lover of books and reading, over a month to plod through took this reader with low test scores two weeks to read. And not only that: he could also discuss the long and winding complex text incredibly well. Why? Because he was motivated and engaged. Why? Because the text tapped into his interests.
The role of reading motivation and engagement
The research community has known for a long time that reading requires decoding and much, much more, including motivation and engagement. Reading motivation and engagement go together like warm cookies and cold milk. Motivated readers keep reading, even when it is a challenge, and engaged readers are interested in reading in the first place.
Motivation is the driving force that causes us to keep going, even when the task (like reading a long book) seems difficult or insurmountable. Motivation to read can spring from external forces, like a grade, or internal forces, like a personal desire. We know self-efficacy in particular plays a role in reading development: Research has demonstrated that when students believe they are competent at a given task, they perform better, regardless of their previous performance. Perhaps most importantly, students with high self-efficacy regard reading as a challenge to master, arguably driving themselves toward mastery, even for difficult texts. Conversely, when students believe they are bad at something, including reading, they can become less motivated to engage in and work through it.
Unfortunately, 2016 research conducted by Allan Wigfield, Jessica Gladstone, and Lara Turci indicates that students’ positive attitudes toward reading decrease each year they are in school; by middle school, some “become actively resistant to engaging in reading.” This tracks with my experience as a teacher with students who found reading a chore to avoid rather than an engaging problem to solve or an unexplored place to navigate.
While I was able to find the text that unlocked reading motivation and engagement for that one reluctant reader of mine, that alone was not enough to propel us through the school year. To keep students of all grades engaged in reading requires more than a robust classroom library, though that certainly helps.
How to motivate and engage your students
If any of your students just aren’t feeling it, try these tips to improve their reading motivation and engagement:
- Expose kids to a rich body of texts that are racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse, reflect a range of genres and structures, and have a range of readability. Students can’t read what they don’t know exists. By exposing them to a wide range of texts, including fiction, nonfiction, prose, poetry, plays, essays, graphic novels, and even epistolary novels, like The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Dear Martinby Nic Stone, or Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, you can help them see just how much is out there—and they’ll be more likely to find something that speaks to them.
- Scaffold challenging grade-level texts appropriately. Scaffolding challenging texts can build students’ confidence and self-efficacy. Small-group conversations, structured debates, and pairing complex texts with easier reads on the same topic to build vocabulary and prior knowledge can provide students with small wins on the way to the complex text—and encourage its completion. (For more on this, see “Let’s talk equity: Reading levels, scaffolds, and grade-level text.”)
- Discuss with students the value of reading in their own lives, now and in the future. Sometimes students don’t know why they’re reading a text. In addition to setting a purpose for reading that is meaningful for them, consider engaging students in discussions about the value reading has for them. Or, alongside the text-dependent questions, encourage students to make personal connections to a text and to also discuss how reading about a topic that is meaningful to them matters.
- Provide some autonomy. Your students aren’t going to have the exact same taste in books as you (or each other), and that’s okay. Autonomy helps foster reading motivation and engagement. Consider giving students the chance to choose between a few pieces to read for in-class assignments (I recommend two to four). Try expanding beyond traditional books and offering optional pieces, like comic books, artwork, music, or podcasts that are good pairings for your core text. Work with the school librarian to curate a book list for your students and let them choose which books they want to read for pleasure.
- Provide adequate time to read. Rushing through a text during instructional time, or assigning too many pages to read as homework, may discourage students from reading deeply, closely, or at all. When you can, consider slowing down and allowing students time to read and reflect in ways that foster unique ideas and deeper understanding. Processes like a Socratic Seminar, book clubs, or philosophical chairs can provide time to relax into a text so each reader can consider its ideas with more depth.
- Encourage students to read for pleasure. Reading doesn’t have to be something students do only when it’s required. Encourage them to explore books and reading outside of school. Share stories about how books helped shape you when you were their age to inspire them to consider that they might find comfort in them, too.
If none of these work for you, check out my tweet, where I ask a community of educators how they engage reluctant readers. See if something grabs you there, and add your ideas to the list!
How the story ends
How did my reluctant reader fare? Well, we ended the year with him asking me to tell him more about Bill Bryson’s books and no longer telling me that he didn’t read. I gave him my copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything.