How My Struggles as a Student Led to Success for My Reluctant Readers
One of the most impactful activities from my Master’s coursework in secondary English education was a reader biography. As an introduction to our teaching methodology class, our professor asked us to catalog all the books we could remember reading up to the age of 18. We then reflected on which genres appealed to us when we were younger, whether we were reluctant readers (and if so, what filled our spare time), and how the adults in our lives impacted what and when we read.
In some ways, this was a pleasant stroll down memory lane for me, rekindling a passion for pleasure reading and urging me to revisit some long-forgotten favorites. It also forced me to acknowledge a secret I’d been keeping from my book-loving grad school peers—I was a poor reader as a child. I struggled from an early age with comprehension and performed below the average on national reading exams. And despite eventually growing into a bibliophile, this was a difficult truth to reckon with as I prepared to become a high school English teacher. However, this one-time weakness ultimately became an advantage in the classroom.
I struggled from an early age with comprehension and performed below the average on national reading exams.
My first year of teaching, I was assigned five sections of English 10. Inspired by my aforementioned graduate professor, I thought it would be fun to get to know my students by kicking off my own classes with a reader biography assignment. Equipped with proven strategies for improving reading and writing skills, I was excited to challenge my young flock with a quick assessment of their reading habits to inform our next steps. It seemed simple enough; I could not have anticipated the results.
The vast majority of my students could not name the title of a single book they’d read on their own, other than “The Cat in the Hat” (mentioned several times each class). With a bit of prodding, some recalled having been “forced to read” part or most of a book in previous English classes. However, each confessed that they never read outside of school, and many swore that no one in their families read at home. Most claimed that there weren’t even books in their households. Simply put, they were not readers, and few had any interest in changing that.
Realizing that the students before me had spent the first 15 years of their lives with virtually no encouragement or support for reading, I was forced to quickly abandon my plans. I would not be starting the year with a full study of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” I would, instead, need to somehow convince my students of the value of being able to read well.
Drawing on my own history as a struggling reader and my studies in graduate school, I knew that my students needed a mindset change and more consistent, successful experiences to make reading useful, relevant and enjoyable. So, I put together a plan of attack, targeting key areas to overcome reader reluctance.
A bit of self-reflection goes a long way toward boosting confidence.
A bit of self-reflection goes a long way toward boosting confidence. Pointing out when and where students are already reading or writing in the normal course of a day is an eye-opening experience for most. When the reading biography lesson failed, I asked students to take out their phones and look at all the apps they “read.” We talked about things other than books that they read out in the world: signs on businesses, branding on clothes, text messages, comments on social media, captions on photos and videos...the list really could (and nearly did) go on forever. We discussed the writing styles they liked, or didn’t, and why.
Throughout this process, they began to actually see themselves as readers, and more notably, as reflective readers.
To build trust and create a supportive environment, I began with independent reading assignments. Students could choose ANY book to read, and rather than test them on content, I engaged them in reflective activities to connect with the text. I also made it a point to talk with students about each book, asking if, and why, they liked it.
This activity helped build reading endurance and patience, both of which are hard to come by if you don’t read for pleasure. My students were empowered and encouraged by this freedom of choice.
Storytelling can be an incredibly powerful tool to build empathy and make meaning of the world, but that is only possible when the story is relatable. I was expected to teach from a predetermined list of 10th grade novels, and many of these involved characters and plots that were not reflective of my student body. So, whenever possible, I found complementary texts from recent YA lit or excerpts of culturally relevant books to pair with the mandated content in order to draw thematic connections and discuss contrasting styles.
Storytelling can be an incredibly powerful tool to build empathy and make meaning of the world, but that is only possible when the story is relatable.
Seeing themselves reflected in the people and events they read about helped students relate directly to the writing, which in turn created a mechanism for relating to less familiar texts.
There are times in school (and not only on standardized tests) when a challenging text is unavoidable and reading is just not fun. To prepare my students for such eventualities, I used less complex pieces to complement the main text. This established connections between the reading-level appropriate work and the more challenging work, reducing the likelihood that a reluctant reader would reach the frustration point and completely disengage. As a somewhat outlandish example, I once used an article from The Onion (with minor edits to language) to introduce satire before launching into a study of Harrison Bergeron. This gave students a humorous and much more obvious example of the concept to reference when tackling Vonnegut’s occasionally impenetrable text.
Presenting unfamiliar concepts through multiple lenses builds confidence in reading by scaffolding skills, providing the tools needed to read and analyze complex texts.
The more students read, the more vocabulary they’re exposed to, and the more fluent they become. However, I was aware that the traditional approach to an in-class novel study would likely result in fatigue and frustration, if not outright mutiny. So, I often used a variety of short excerpts of novels and non-fiction books to teach concepts that I needed to cover. Additionally, I created literature circles by forming small groups and assigning each an individual chapter of a full novel to read, analyze and summarize for the class. Through peer collaboration and shared responsibility, my students successfully tackled a previously unthinkable task.
These bite-sized bits created multiple opportunities for small wins, further boosting reader confidence. And the approach exposed students to a broad range of topics, vocabulary and writing styles, further improving their reading comprehension skills.
Teacher resources to help struggling high school readers:
- Book: Less Is More - Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12
- Book: Literature Circles - Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups
- Video: Neil Gaiman Reading Agency lecture 2013
- Conference: YALSA Symposium
- Conference and Workshop: NCTE Annual Convention and the ALAN Workshop
In attempting to win over a group of reluctant adolescents who had reached high school without attaining reading proficiency, I needed to begin with motivation. Reflecting on my own experiences in school, I knew that my students needed permission to be unashamed of their relationship with reading. And I had to find multiple strategies that worked for each student to encourage more positive engagement.
We eventually read and performed “Othello” in class. I’ll never forget how students mispronounced every name in the play or threw down the book in frustration when they got stuck on a difficult passage. But I’ll also remember them fighting over who got to read aloud—something that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the year. This was a crowning achievement for all of us.