Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Motivating Reluctant Readers: What Works!

how to motivate readers

Perhaps my title for this blog article is misleading- now that I think about it- because I did not start out the school year challenging my son to read 25 books.  When we started our school year at the end of July (I homeschool year round), my goal was to ignite a spark in him so that he would enjoy reading again. I wanted him to choose to read, not read because he had to. In short, I wanted to help him develop into a passionate, life-long reader, much like is described in Donalyn Miller's brilliant masterpiece, The Book Whisperer.

So, what I was really trying to do is to foster a positive reading attitude.  After teaching for 24 years, I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to do and what I shouldn't do to help nurture a love for reading and to help my son view himself as a reader.

One thing that I should note is that I am not suggesting that teachers or parents focus on quantity over quality.  However, I also know that we kill the reader (commit Readicide, if you will) if we require students to analyze every little detail of a book or story, if we spend too much time on a book or story with a plethora of work to be done, or if we over-emphasize Close Reading. The way I was trained as a reading teacher 20 years ago is that it is not best practice to spend weeks and weeks on a book. That obviously applies to chapter books and novels for the more experienced readers, but also applies to primary and intermediate students and picture books.

 Instead, one must strike is a delicate balance between spending just the right amount of time analyzing and rereading a book/text for instructional purposes and reading for the pure sake of enjoyment. The 25 books (chapter books of varying length) my son has read were for independent reading. However, I carefully crafted my lessons for read-aloud and instructional books so that I was working as hard on reading motivation as I was on comprehension.  And just like in the classroom, what I discovered is that if you start with a heavy emphasis on reading tasks (e.g., vocabulary, "answer these questions after reading"), students will not be motivated. We send the message that reading is something you do to answer questions correctly or to complete written activities. Reading=written work is not the message that I want to send. The message I want to send is that Reading=Fun and that Reading=Thinking

OK, so what did I do?  Here are some of the things that I did:

  • I set the expectation from the beginning that he would be expected to read independently for at least 20 minutes. He got to choose which books to read, when to read, and where to read.  He could read in the kitchen, in the playroom, or in bed at night.  I really emphasized the latter part and even gave him a flashlight to read and told him he could stay up past bedtime as long as he was in bed reading.  And not "pretend" reading either. I didn't set a timer.  I told him I trusted him to keep track of the time.  He is after all 8 years old, in the third grade, and ready for such responsibility.  He liked that.  I saw him smile! Sometimes he used my phone to keep track of the time.

  • I let him select his books, without much input from me and no strings attached.  Maybe it's just me, but it seems when "Mom" makes a suggestion, he just isn't that interested. This was the case with all three of my boys.  Because of this, I learned to be sneaky.  I'd select books from my classroom library or even books I ordered from Amazon that I thought they would like and leave them scattered on the coffee table or place them in the book holder that is in the dining room.  My boys, unlike my husband, notice anything new! I also made sure that they saw me reading!  I only read children's and YA literature (because I want to stay on top of the latest books to make recommendations), so they are naturally attracted to the books I am reading.

  • Later, when I saw that he was gravitating toward a certain genre, I would casually make a suggestion.  I took a "take it or leave it" and "it doesn't really matter to me" kind of attitude. Like with selecting books , this was my way of using reverse psychology. At this time, I was also feeling him out, trying to get him to find a series that he liked. I knew if I could find one book from a series that he liked, then he would be hooked and would keep reading.  He actually found such a book last year as a second grader with a remarkable teacher. But, it took until the summer for him to really dive in and become almost obsessed with the Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney.

  • I gave books as gifts. For example, instead of giving him allowance for a week, I gave the option of selecting a new book that I would buy.

  • We went to the library at least once a week.  This past summer he really got into the summer reading program held at our local library.  This was the first year that he would and could read on his own with confidence.  He associated the library with fun (mostly because of the weekly prizes he could earn) and it has carried over ever since.  

  • I left him alone.  As hard and as tempting as it was, I didn't hover over him, I refrained from asking too many questions, and I didn't badger him as to when he would be finished. And when he was finished, I'd give him a high-five and have him tell me what he thought of the book and if I or his older brother should read it.  That's it.  No reader's log, no after reading questions on a worksheet, and no diorama. The only thing I'd do is give him subtle praise (he gets embarrassed if I make too big a deal out of anything) and tell him what a book worm he was becoming.

What I Didn't Do
  • I didn't let him see me "sweat" when he was balking at reading last year and showed no interest besides reading for his teacher. Reverse psychology seems to work so well with my boys.  I didn't make a big deal about it, but instead analyzed the situation and came up with a game plan, which includes many of the things on the above list.  And I made sure that he saw my passion for reading both in my teaching and in my conversations with his two older brothers.

  • I did not burden him with having to complete a reader's log after reading a book or any text for that matter.  Many kids find that cumbersome and laborious.  I detest reader's logs (you can read a blog article I wrote about that here).  I keep a simple log that I have in my planning binder.  I keep track of what he reads independently as well as the read[ alouds and instructional books I use.  I would show him how much he read at the end of each month.  Eventually he'll take responsibility for what he reads,but that will come later.

  • I didn't make him complete after reading activities for every book he read. I emphasized that independent reading was read to self time to enjoy the books. Once a marking period, he gets to choose one book to share with me in a project/form of his choice.

  • I didn't make him finish a book that he didn't like.  We talked about how readers can abandon a book and that it's OK to do so.

  • I did not isolate reading instruction into a neat little box titled "ELA block". I made it a point to show him how he reads all day long, not just in all subject areas, but in "real life" too like when he is learning a new video game or reading a recipe.

  • I didn't tell him he had to read a certain number of books. The expectation was that he would read daily. I helped him set goals for all of his academics, and I helped him with thinking about how he would reach that goal.

  • I didn't micromanage his book selection.  There were times that I knew (from assessments and working with him daily) that the book he had chosen were more at his hard/frustration level.  But, I bit my tongue because he wanted to read these books and because he was proud that he was reading them.  He was developing a sense of self that he was a reader! And easy books?  Books that he already read?  There was no way I would interfere with him reading books at his easy level or rereading a book.  He was reading them for pure enjoyment and along the way was working on fluency and comprehension skills.

These suggestions really do work with kids of almost all ages. I used the past tense in my lists, but I am still doing these things and will for a long, long time. When your first priority is to share your authentic, sincere passion for reading, you can't help but motivate students.  When you put students' reading attitude and motivation first and "teaching" about the books second, you are more likely to hook them. 

As for the 25 books:  honestly, I would have been just as thrilled if it were 5 books because that would have shown growth.  And considering that the books he chooses to read are long chapter books, it is quite a feat.

Even though I homeschool now, I have used just about all of these techniques with students in elementary and middle school. Focusing on reading attitude and striving to develop life-long readers really does transform your teaching and your students!

How do you motivate kids to read? Share your ideas and successes in comments!

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