We asked two seventh-grade teachers to offer their insights on engaging reluctant readers, and on how they work toward their shared goal of creating lifelong readers. Amy Estersohn teaches English in Westchester County, N.Y. She reads 150–170 books per year and also reviews comics for the website No Flying No Tights. Pernille Ripp teaches English in Wisconsin’s Oregon school district. She is an author, blogger, and public speaker. In 2010, Ripp created the Global Read Aloud project, which connects one million students on six continents. The program was highlighted in the U.S. Department of Education’s Technology Plan for 2016.
Amy Estersohn: Let me start off by saying that I dislike the term reluctant reader. First, it assumes that reluctant readers are always going to be reluctant readers rather than recognizing that reluctance toward any task—including reading—is contextual, not permanent. All of us are reluctant when we’re tired, stressed out, or there are other issues going on. Maybe kids we label reluctant exhibit these qualities more often than we’d like, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m a reluctant reader sometimes, too.
Second, I think there are two major challenges teachers and librarians face in terms of growing enthusiastic, independent, and lifelong readers. Lumping these two separate challenges into the same category of reluctant reader makes both challenges harder to face. To vastly oversimplify for a moment: one major challenge is that some readers don’t have the reading experiences that the author might assume the reader has before encountering the work. The second major challenge is reading enthusiasm. Some kids have enough reading experience to make meaning of a text, but for a variety of reasons do not seek out books and reading for its own sake.
One of the challenges I face in reaching out to these “reluctant” readers is that the tools I’ve had a lot of success with are too few, too disconnected, and too sporadic for me to use to repeatedly connect readers to books I think they’ll find compelling. There’s the annual YALSA Quick Picks list, which is terrific for an overview of high-interest YA from the year, and there are Readers’ Choice state award lists that help me figure out what kids are enjoying. But in the book publishing world, you are constantly being updated with information about critically acclaimed books via starred reviews. You are able to hypothesize about which books will win major literary awards and can update that information many times over the course of the year. You have to spend a lot of time reading reviews, a lot of time on Goodreads, a lot of time reading your friends’ book blogs, and a lot of time reading the books themselves.
Pernille Ripp: I think Donalyn Miller [teacher and author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, influential titles about inspiring and motivating readers] has had a profound impact on many people, myself included, and it is her words that I think of whenever the term reluctant reader is used as a way to label our children. There is no hope in that term, no sense of redemption, and no future. If you are reluctant, then books are not for you probably, and you would rather find yourself doing many other things than peruse shelves of books.
The language we use with our students is so important because no child comes to school with labels already attached. No child comes to kindergarten and tells us that they are a struggling reader or bad at math. Instead, that identity is created within our classrooms, within our groupings, and within our hallway conversations, where students quickly figure out which labels should identify them. Every year, I ask my students to tell me whether they are bad, average, or good readers, and why. I choose those labels on purpose because this is how my students often identify themselves. When they give me their answer, there are always some who will tell me that they are bad readers because a test told them so. That is why I ask. I need to know how students self-identify so that those labels can be changed.
So we spend a great deal of time trying to re-identify who we are as readers. While a child may feel reluctant, we discuss other ways they can describe themselves. Kylene Beers [an educator and author focusing on adolescent literacy and struggling readers] coined the term dormant reader, which we use, but we also create our own terms along the way such as careful reader or developing reader. In the end, though, I would rather all students simply identify themselves as a reader, without any other descriptors attached. That only happens if we have these conversations out loud, if students tell us how they identify and then we actively try to change those labels throughout the year.
Yet there are so many readers who are not confident, or who don’t see reading as something they would ever do for pleasure. Does it matter what label we give them? Or do we simply need to help create a positive experience for them? Can we somehow re-frame the past experiences they have had with books and get them to reinvest, if even for a moment?
And I agree, it is hard to figure out which books will make the biggest difference. All of the things you mentioned are important; in fact, I would go as far as to say that if you do not spend time reading children’s books yourself then you should not be teaching reading to children. But one voracious reader will never be enough in order to get books in the hands of children. Finding allies in your school or community is important, bringing them in to book-talk books or simply having reading discussions with them is huge for reaching more students. Creating a visible reading culture is important as well. Adolescent students, or children of any age, must be in book-flood situations daily, not just once in a while. I always try to seek out my most detached readers and try to find the book that will make the biggest difference for them, because if I can help that child have a positive experience with a book, then we know they will become an advocate for that book. So every day I aim to book-talk books in every class, books I have read or cannot wait to read, and as the year evolves, I hope the students will take over the book talks so that they can see each other as reading role models, and so they can see the reading community they are developing. “Reading must float on a sea of talk,” to quote James Britton [British educator who authored the classic study Language and Learning], and I think with adolescents that is so important; recognizing that for students to create a relationship with reading, there needs to be a social component in their pursuit. We can tell them to sit in silence or we can encourage them to not just read but to speak reading as much as possible.
Estersohn: I love your comments about how it pays for teachers and librarians to watch behavior closely. In a perfect world, students are recommending independent reading books to each other the same way they are already talking to each other about TV shows, movies, and funny YouTube videos.
Along with reading, I teach students about book literacy, with the hope they can continue their search for good books long after they’re my students. We talk about major awards like the Newbery and the Printz, and I make my predictions public and on display so that students can see if I’m right. 2015 was a great year for me—I predicted El Deafo and The Crossover. In 2016 I got Bone Gap and predicted that All-American Boys and Drowned City would win awards, but I didn’t accurately predict the awards, so it was a bit of a wash. Along with the major awards, I like to talk about other lists I find highly useful, including the Teens’ Top 10 from ALA. I recommend that my students vote on books they enjoyed from the nominations list.
The publishing community organizes books chronologically, by release date, and publishers are pushing their recent and upcoming titles at conferences like ALA. I’d find it helpful if publishers organized books thematically as well, making it easier for teachers, librarians, and parents to recognize and appreciate titles that may have flown under the radar since their release date. I know that’s tough for publishers to do, given that there’s so much new, but consider that one of the most frequently read books in my classroom this past year was published in 2007 [Call Me Hope by Gretchen Olson]. Booksellers may care about making sure that their inventory is up to date and reflects what’s new, but I can promise you, most student readers aren’t going to care too much if a book was published in 2003 or 2016 as long as the mood is contemporary.
Another reason to organize books, both current and previously published, thematically: among the 100 or so students I teach every year, I notice microtrends, and I want to be able to recommend books that meet those trends. Common trends among my readers include books about serial killers, spies and FBI agents, abusive parents, and uplifting sports biographies. If I could go to a publisher and get a list of their titles that fit categories like those, my life would be a lot easier and my book purchasing would be a lot more streamlined.
One thing I want to praise publishers for: book trailers and book previews. I agree with you, Pernille, that book talks should first and foremost come from the people inside the classroom, but every once in a while it’s great to spice things up with a brief video. I particularly like video clips of editors or authors talking about their books. These videos are usually pitched toward teachers and librarians, but students can get a lot of value by listening in on the conversations adults are having about children’s lit. I encourage more publishers to put together brief videos that librarians and teachers can use as teaching tools.
Ripp: I agree with the thematic groupings. It is amazing to see how one great book leads to the discovery of another. In fact, this is what led my students and me to restructure our library a bit this spring. They asked if I could please create subgenres for them, like you mentioned, and so we did. We now have subgenres like personal struggle, the ever-popular death and dying, animal fantasy, learn something, and just life stories. I also asked my students whether they ever used the author bins I had so meticulously curated, and they answered with a resounding no—unless the authors were really well known like Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling. Most of our author bins have now been integrated into their subgenres, and the books are being read again. Have you tried that? It definitely explained why some kids had never read a Roald Dahl book, which made me shudder.
Don’t you find, though, that it is not just about the right book when we try to re-energize a student’s reading life? That there seem to be so many moving pieces that they sometimes are hard to juggle, especially when we teach more than 100 children? I have found that conferring with my students really helps as well, because not only does it provide me with a chance to peek into their reading lives, but it also offers me a natural way to connect with them. It seems to me that often our self-identified nonreaders are also the ones that feel school is not a place for them. So we have to find a way of making them feel like they matter, like this place is for them, and that together we can create an experience that they want to be a part of. Do you confer? How do you shape your reading conversations?
Estersohn: There isn’t enough time in the day to do all of the talking to readers about books that I would love to do, so I depend both on formal conversations in which I am reading along with a student and asking pointed questions about what they’re making out of the text on the page in front of them and on informal observations as well. Who is reading before the morning bell? Who took a book with them to the school assembly and read it while we were waiting for the assembly to begin? Who just asked me for a new book or overheard my hand-sell to another student? Who picked up what book and why? A decent memory of what individual students have read before helps me on that, so I can track who is recommending books to whom. A peer recommendation is the strongest endorsement there is.
Speaking of peers, I’m amused when students trend toward simultaneous reading, books that are meant for sharing. The big example this year was the big book that came out about the Hamilton musical—or the “Hamiltome” [Hamilton: The Revolution] Yes, this book is heavy, the text is small, and it’s intended for an sophisticated adult audience, and yet here were my 12-year-olds huddled together silently reading through the book together. Another example is these books called 100 Dresses and 100 Shoes from the [Metropolitan Museum of Art’s] Costume Institute. These books are image-heavy and beg to be read in pairs, because when you see the ceremonial shoes that women in 16th-century China wore or the punk rock Vivienne Westwood shoes, you just have to talk about what you’re seeing in the moment you see it.
If I could wave a magic wand, I’d create more books that invite this conversation right away. Books like The Best American Infographics do that, even though some of the infographics require an amount of background knowledge that makes them less friendly to a teen audience. Books about soccer. Books that are intended to entertain in the most lovely disgusting way possible: writers like Georgia Bragg [How They Croaked] are our equivalent of Mary Roach, and we need more of them. And then there are some books that do invite these awkward “whoa moments.” I’m thinking of Donna Gephart’s Death by Toilet Paper and all the toilet facts in it. Yes, I had a student who collected all the toilet facts and told me them one by one.
Let’s not underestimate the power of puzzles, either. Chris Grabenstein and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, thank you! I have readers who finish the book and then race to do the puzzle; they’re not ready to drop the book quite yet. Grabenstein’s use of puzzle graphic is also welcome. I wish I saw more books that incorporate that kind of goofy and playful thinking, and invite readers to play along or invite a friend to help solve. Kids will sit and solve a puzzle. It’s like their way of showing respect to the author. And the puzzles are usually good.
One more thing: if I could, I would strongly encourage publishers to actively solicit student feedback on titles just the way teachers and librarians and booksellers are sought for their feedback. Honestly, one of the biggest selling points for me would be a blurb from a student. There are already some avenues for direct student feedback—for example, the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee at ALA solicits feedback from students, as do some online publications. I would love nothing more than for a collection of ARCs to arrive at my doorstep with the sole purpose of soliciting feedback from the customers themselves. I think publishers might find that some of the titles that tend to be marketed for “reluctant” readers don’t do well, and some titles that aren’t earmarked for that kind of student can still have the ability to captivate and hook teens so much that they are compulsively reading that book.
I know I’m doing a good job of getting books into students’ hands when I hear from other teachers how students are using their books to fill those little pockets of time to read—for example, if they finish a math quiz or a worksheet early and they are waiting for other students to finish. Or the students beg me for more time to read, because they want just one more chapter or just one more page. It’s important not to make too many assumptions about who likes to read what kinds of stories. What’s most important is that we give all students access to a wide range of books.
Ripp: Agreed. When students are involved in the recommending and discussions of books, we automatically see more buy-in, more eagerness, and more confidence when it comes to selecting great books for themselves. And isn’t that what we want? Children who leave us feeling like they can have successful reading experiences, and that when they walk into a place with books, they know how to select something that may be of interest for them?
That leads me to one of my biggest teaching points every year; wild book abandonment. Students are often under the impression that they may not abandon a book once they have started it, or as teachers we even set rules for when a child may abandon a book and when they have to stick with it. Yet, as adult readers, we revel in our freedom to choose books that we want to read, that fit us at that time, and that will give us a pleasurable reading experience and perhaps even stretch us a bit. When we tell students that they cannot abandon a book, we are robbing them of a chance to know themselves better as a reader. When a child abandons a book, we should ask them why they abandon it and what knowledge they have gained about themselves as they abandon, and help them use the choice to explore their own reading identities better.
As teachers we implement many rules in our reading classroom in a well-meaning way, but we must constantly question those well-meaning intentions. If something we are enforcing is harming a child’s love of reading, then we need to question and examine that decision and not make the child feel like something is wrong with them. In the end, however a reader identifies, it really comes down to us to create an experience that will help them find amazing books, support them as they grow, and create a community of readers.