Who are reluctant readers?
Children who prefer not to read are often called reluctant readers or struggling readers, but Donalyn Miller turns it around by using the more positive term, 'dormant readers'.
"I need to put forward more encouraging terms for my students than the negative popular terminology struggling and reluctant. Where is the hope in these terms? I prefer to use positive language to identify the readers in my classes. Peeking into my classroom, I see sixty different readers with individual reading preferences and abilities, but I consistently recognize three trends: developing readers, dormant readers, and underground readers."
— Donalyn Miller, The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child
Students might be reluctant to read because they:
- can read competently but over time reading competes with things like sports, video games, social media, texting, or talking with friends
- struggle to read, can tell they are having difficulty, and develop an aversion
- are skillful readers, but prefer to choose their own reading and are suspicious of the books adults want them to read
- can't find books they like.
Scholastic's report The state of kids and reading found that 66% of infrequent readers would read more if they could find more books they liked. It also found that the number 1 characteristic kids look for when choosing a book is 'to make me laugh'.
The state of kids and reading — Scholastic
Strategies to motivate reluctant readers
With support and the right conditions, you can open up the wonders of reading to reluctant readers.
There is no one template to copy. You will need to develop, trial and review strategies that work for your readers. However, it's important you:
- provide access to a wide variety of reading material
- provide access to reading role models
- know the literature
- know your students and their interests.
Expectations and reading culture
Set expectations and a develop a reading culture.
- Start with an expectation that every student will be a reader.
- Focus on encouraging reading as a positive and enjoyable experience in itself, rather than just a way to develop skills.
- Reading encouragement can come from all teachers, at any level, and any subject across the curriculum.
- Encourage parental expectations that their children will be readers — avoid unrealistic expectations, which add pressure.
Provide reading role models
Positive reading role models are key.
- Male role models are particularly important for encouraging boys to read.
- Be a role model as a teacher or librarian within the school.
- Invite authors and allow students time to interact with them through workshops on reading and writing.
- Encourage parents to read with children — parents or other significant adults who read and are seen to be readers are vital.
Have a variety of reading material available
A variety of reading material will help encourage reluctant readers.
- Have a range of resources in different formats and genres — make sure they're age and ability appropriate, as well as entertaining.
- Ensure students regularly see new books through library visits, book talking, and other book promotion activities.
- Know your students’ passions and interests.
- Increase borrowing limits to encourage borrowing a larger number and wider range of titles.
- Ensure making a choice isn't too overwhelming, for example have a 'good books box' with 10 great books.
- Increase the amount of face-out display in the library — the cover is a big selling point.
- Try arranging the fiction collection by genre so that students can easily find another book of the same type.
Provide reading times and places
Have specific reading times and places.
- Provide time to read with no tasks attached, whether formal or informal.
- Encourage students to design a welcoming and comfortable reading area in the library.
- Choose and organise the books for the reading area with as much face-out display as possible.
Provide book chat
Reading can often be a social activity, so provide opportunities for discussion, interaction, and reading in a group. Encourage discussion about whether they empathise with the characters, or how they can see connections between literature and their lives.
Research shows girls tend to dominate discussions of books. Some schools have developed boys-only discussion groups where boys feel able to express themselves without fear of failure.
Allow free reading choice
Some students may not be reluctant to read, but reluctant to read what we want them to. Let them choose what they read and what to buy. Literacy programmes should encourage and support self-selected reading in addition to teacher-assigned reading.
Encourage book ownership by giving gift vouchers as prizes. One school gave students virtual money to spend at a bookshop, then ordered titles from their selections for the library.
Find the right book to ignite a successful reading experience
Help students find the right book – the home run book. The impact of finding the right book at the right time can be the catalyst for a successful reading experience, one that triggers further reading. Harry Potter was a home run book for many.
Helping students choose books for reading pleasure
Use technology to encourage reading
Use online resources to hook students in. Encourage them to sign up for book sites like Goodreads to compare and critique books, write reviews, or make movie trailers for favourite books.
Set up web-based reading fan clubs on the school website, with students choosing and creating their own clubs.
Set up a library blog for reviews and links to online information about authors, titles, series, discussion, or book trailers.
Use interactive sites like:
- BBC School Radio — you can hear students' interview authors about the inspiration for their books and tips for writing.
- Wonderopolis — explains a wonder-of-the-day using text and a video, then tests your knowledge.
Read aloud regularly
Reading aloud is a good strategy for encouraging reluctant readers.
- Read aloud as much as possible from novels as well as picture books.
- Hook them into a good story.
- Read from a wide variety of genres and vary it week by week.
- Don’t make reluctant readers read aloud.
Reading aloud — discusses the importance of reading aloud and how to read aloud.
Getting to know read-alouds — includes good books for reading aloud.
Boys' reading — why it's an issue and why it matters
Boys might not be reluctant to read, but reluctant to read what we want them to.
In the 2015 PISA study, girls in New Zealand performed much better than boys in reading. This disparity between girls and boys reading performance is echoed in other studies and other countries.
PISA 2015: New Zealand summary report
PISA 2015 Results (Volume 1) — gender differences in reading performance
Research into boys and reading
Research shows that generally:
- boys take longer to learn to read and read less than girls
- girls tend to comprehend narrative texts and most expository texts significantly better than boys
- boys value reading as an activity less than girls
- significantly more boys than girls declare themselves non-readers.
Reluctance to read and the associated poor literacy skills have far-reaching effects on boys, on the men they become, and on the society they influence in the following areas:
- their education
- future employment — literacy skills are essential in the 21st century workplace, for communication and life-long learning
- citizenship, to be able to participate as informed citizens
- life skills, in all areas — relationships, conversation and in parenting — helping their children become the next generation of readers
- pleasure, enlightenment, empathy, imagination, creativity and insight.
Boys and reading — mind the bias
What boys read
Research shows boys like to read a wide range of genres and topics. Try mixing non-fiction and fiction, graphic novels, more demanding novels, to enrich their reading experiences.
Generalising, boys like:
- humour and history, mystery, adventure, fantasy, crime, horror, fact-based books, books with characters like themselves and stories with events they can relate to
- books related to their favourite topics, activities, or sports
- bright, user-friendly, well-illustrated non-fiction
- print in many forms – magazines, web sources, collectors cards
- fiction linked with high profile TV series or movies
- graphic novels and manga
- poetry with pace, rhythm, rhyme, and often humour
- series fiction.
Reading for pleasure — a door to success
Ideas for engaging boys with reading
Harness the competitive aspect – literature quizzes, online competitions, Wayne Mills’ Kids’ Lit Quiz, or in-house reading competitions, using a buzzer made by the science department.
Engage boys in more ‘physical’ activities around literature, such as drama activities.
Allow boys to write about what interests them.
- Connect writing to digital storytelling, using music or visuals.
- Hold writing workshops with visiting authors.
- Display writing in the school library.
- Encourage students to take their writing outside the school. For example, students who wrote poems about Anzac day could read them at a memorial service
Kids’ Lit Quiz
Find out more
Read these articles, reports and books for inspiration.
Boys and books — Michael Sullivan’s website includes booklists and articles
Boys' literacy — Ontario Ministry of Education's resources for teachers to help encourage boys to read
Boys read — an organisation of parents, educators, librarians, mentors, authors, and booksellers that aims to transform boys into lifelong readers
Boys’ Reading Commission report (pdf, 1MB) — from the National Literacy Trust (UK)
Football and literacy — UK National Literacy Trust's resource site that uses the popularity of football to motivate kids
Goodreads — the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations
Guys Read — author Jon Scieszka’s website, with a mission to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers
Ideas for getting boys into reading — a chapter from Boys and books by author and former teacher librarian James Moloney
Me read? And how! (pdf, 5.3MB) — Ontario Ministry of Education report on how to improve boys' literacy skills
Reaching reluctant readers — a downloadable magazine from Random House
Readkiddoread.com — author James Patterson’s site with book reviews, many by kids
The truth about boys and reading — this Guardian article refers to UK studies indicating that boys 'typically read less thoroughly than girls'
What kids are reading and how they grow — a US 2017 report giving a clear picture of the fiction and nonfiction students seek out for reading practice. Includes the webinar, Reaching the reluctant reader.
Why boys don't read — article by Linda Jacobson
Atwell, N. (2007). The reading zone: how to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers
Layne, Steven L. (2009). Igniting a passion for reading: successful strategies for building lifetime readers
Miller, Donalyn (2009). The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child
Miller, Donalyn and Kelley, Susan. (2014). Reading in the wild: the Book Whisperer's keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits
Moloney, J. (2000). Boys and books. ABC Books
Sullivan, Michael. (2003). Connecting boys with books
Sullivan, Michael. (2009) Connecting Boys with Books 2
William G. Brozo. (2010). To be a boy, to be a reader: engaging Teen and preteen boys in active literacy. (Second Edition). International Reading Association