reluctant reader
What Makes a Reader Reluctant?

You might wonder what chasing the FedEx truck has to do with reluctant readers and how the two events relate (and who wants their kid chasing delivery trucks, anyway?). Let me explain.

I teach at a private school where 95% of the students are ‘reluctant readers’—mostly because about 95% of them have never owned their own book nor do they have access to a public library. Reading happens at school. From textbooks. When I survey my students at the beginning of the school year, 95% of the new students have never read a chapter book in their life. I say new students, because kids who have had me as their teacher have read a lot of books—including chapter books.

Kids read with reluctance when they read material that is above their comfort zone. Rather than admit that they don’t understand a lot of the words, students will often say, “I don’t like to read.” What they really mean is, “This book is too difficult for me and you can’t force me to stumble through it.”

If you have a child (or work with students) who read reluctantly, here’s what we do at our school to change their attitude. You can adapt the principles to meet your situation, whether you home school, teach, or want to help your child love books.

Here’s what we do at our school to turn our reluctant readers into kids who chase the delivery vans (more on that in a moment).

Make it Fair

1. Know their levels. Every student takes a reading test within a few hours of registering at our school. Once we know the student’s reading level, we have the student memorize their ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development—or about 1.2 grades lower than their tested reading level to about 1.5 grades above their reading level). The ZPD represents the success zone for reading. You can use your child’s standardized test scores to get a good idea of his or her reading comprehension level.

I explain that I can’t shoot a free throw and ask students where I should start on the court. “Under the basket!” they suggest. Bingo! For students who don’t like to read (or don’t read on grade level), they need to start ‘under the basket’—or with easy-to-read and picture books.

2. Hold them accountable. Our school uses a program called Accelerated Reader—the company has thousands of reading comprehension tests for everything from Good Night, Moon to Mutiny on the Bounty. Students read a book, take a multiple-choice comprehension test on the computer, and receive immediate reward in the form of an instantly scored test. We celebrate immediately with a high-five and a sticker on the progress chart. Accelerated Reader wins the contest in best-of-product, hands down—but it’s a paid service. works well and doesn’t cost money.

3. Use extrinsic rewards. The high-fives and stickers act as extrinsic rewards. I get to have positive conversations with students about what they read, how they did on the test, and what they want to read next. We have pizza parties for kids who earn different certificate levels, and I use cookies as bribery (everyone in the class keeping up with their goal gets a cookie). Go ahead, bribe your children with healthy rewards.

Encourage Progress Without Nagging

#ReluctantReaders are MADE, not born. 10 tips to reverse reluctance. v4. Make it easy. Our librarian has arranged our library by reading level first, and author second. No kidding. Every book has a sticker on the spine along with important information as to how many points the book is worth in the Accelerated Reader point system. It works like a charm. Kids know their ZPD (or what colored stickers to look for), and they’ve learned to browse on the shelves where they will find books that they’ll understand (because the book is in their ZPD). All of the picture books reside in baskets. Our clever librarian realized that if she added non-fiction books to the picture book baskets, than kids would read them—so fiction and non-fiction get jumbled together.

5. Keep moving further away from the basket (metaphorically speaking). As kids improve, encourage them to increase the difficulty and length of their book choices (just remember to keep it within the child’s ZPD).

6. Use series to entice them to practice reading. Right now, the hot seller at our library is the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis. With a lower reading level, lots of drawings, high-excitement historical fiction and a relatively short book length, kids from 3rd to 12th grade gobble the books up. Once the kids read their way through one series, we suggest similar books that have a slightly higher reading level and a few more pages.

The I Survived fans move easily into the Gordon Korman adventure series (Everest, Dive and Escape). Both boys and girls love these series. Series provide predictability and comfort. By the end of the year, I usually have kids reading the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (especially the boys) and Melanie Dickerson’s retold fairy tales.

Keep the Energy High

7. Reach out to authors. I tweeted to author Melanie Dickerson that a student chased me around the school grounds because I had Melanie’s newest release and the young lady couldn’t wait to read it. Ms. Dickerson replied and became interested in our school and the girls who adore her books. Now we have an unofficial Melanie Dickerson fan club at our school (she even wishes the girls happy birthday on Facebook on their birthdays) and hold release parties for each new book.

8. Take orders. Another cool thing about our school librarian is that she will order books for students. If they like hamsters, she’ll find a book about hamsters in the student’s reading level that has an AR test and order it. This is how students suddenly became interested in the delivery habits of FedEx. If the librarian ordered a book especially for them, they’ll watch front campus for the delivery truck and chase down the driver to see if the package has the librarian’s name on it. If it does, they’ll run to the library to let her know (and she holds the record for getting books into circulation).

9. Read as a community and model reading. Three staff members and all of the students gather for 30 minutes of silent reading every afternoon. The non-readers and emerging readers get iPads and use Epic! (an app that reads picture books out loud to kids). Everyone else either reads to each other or reads on their own. If the adults in a child’s life don’t read, who will set the example?

From Reluctant Reader to Real Reader

10. Be a sleuth. Not all the books in the library come from Amazon—the librarian loves garage sales and second-hand stores. Over the last three years, she’s purchased over 3000 books (yes, that’s three thousand) for about $1500.00. Our library had only a handful of picture books when she first started—now the baskets full of books have taken over the tables in the library.

You don’t have to go bankrupt to buy books. You can use the public library (not that I’ve always had good relationships with public libraries) and visit used book stores as well. We’ve discovered Bookman’s, a bookstore in Flagstaff that gives credit for trade-ins and has inexpensive second-hand books.

You’ll know you’ve turned your reluctant readers into real readers when they no longer need the extrinsic reward. After using this program for two and a half years at our school, students have started asking to order books that don’t have tests—just because they want to read them.

If they don’t have the cash handy to pay the librarian, she still orders the book. They actually ask to come in and hold the books and smell them occasionally while they do odd jobs or ask relatives for gifts to pay off their book debt. One young man even said, “I think I might be addicted to books.”

I’d much rather have teenagers addicted to books than addicted to drugs or online gaming!

How to help your reluctant reader acquire an addiction to books. Ten tips for parents and teachers. Click To Tweet
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  1. Hi Anita, I enjoyed reading this post. It reminded me of my school days and how much I read from the school library. I remember that my mom used to read the books I brought from school after I sleep 🙂 You made me nostalgic and make me want to go back to those days. But, these tips are great and I hope to use them in the future! Your school and library make me smile 🙂 You are doing an honorable job!

  2. Anita, I’m so excited to learn we have so much in common! I also teach remedial reading at a small private school. Your reading tips are terrific; we employ most of them. We are a Fountas & Pinell school, so that changes things up a little. I’m jealous of your professional librarian. They can make all the difference. Blessings on your extremely important work!

  3. Dear Anita, I’m excited to discover we share a ministry focus! I also teach remedial reading in a small private school. In our urban setting, the fields are also white with children needing a little more help before harvesting the riches of reading. Blessings for your extremely important work.

  4. This is so great. I am pinning it and sending to a friend whose son is a struggling reader. My 3rd grader has an awesome language Arts teacher and she encourages reaching out to authors too. They have their own twitter page as a class and it gets kids excited. Also, I read your link to the library grudge. What a story of grace. So sweet. I too had a grudge a few years ago when one of the staff members came and told me patrons were complaining about my children and asked me to leave. My kids were not being unruly whatsoever. I just happened to have a screaming baby that I was trying to tend to as we quickly grabbed out books. It’s supposed to be a family friendly facility that encourages children to come and even to play. I’ve seen and heard much worse at this big library. I was mad and hurt. I swore off the library, until eventually I was able to heal and fall in love again. We are on a first name basis with the librarians and luckily I hardly ever see that guy that kicked us out.
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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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