Reaching the Reluctant Reader

Turning negative perceptions into positive outlooks.

By: John Helgeson


Common Core State Standards require that students read at complex levels. Guiding students through these increasingly complex materials can be daunting for teachers of mixed ability students, special education students, English Language Learners, and students considered to be Level 1 and Level 2 readers.

Some students do not have the same ability as their classmates; other students lack the motivation needed to read complex texts. Still others are hampered by negative attitudes toward reading.

Among the several strategies teachers can use to motivate reluctant readers is keeping a growth mindset at the forefront of their thinking.

Reading Perceptions

Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset is described in her book, Mindset. Dweck describes the growth mindset as the belief that regardless of talents, aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, "everyone can change and grow through application and experience."

Students must be explicitly taught how to embrace this mindset in the content areas. Unless they have fully embraced the growth mindset, they are vulnerable to academic and social stagnation , or worse, their abilities may decline in these areas.

By the time students reach middle school , the enjoyment of reading, or lack thereof, has been instilled. As their minds become full of technology and social media, and academic expectations grow more complex, we must teach them how to approach reading in a positive way. Tackling a lackluster attitude may be enough to light the fire and give adolescents at least some desire to engage with the reading materials in each class.

Each student is unique and has a different approach to reading. Teachers can begin to adjust their instruction to emphasize positive viewpoints on reading. Overemphasizing the difficulty of the text may shut down apprehensive readers. Instead, teachers might say a text is challenging, but then explain ways the class is going to strategize to understand the text.

Rather than saying, "This is a really difficult text, so we need to pay attention to understand it," try saying, "This text is a challenging text, but we are going to look at different strategies to help us understand the content. These strategies will help us understand this text and make it easier to read other texts later this year because we all will know how to apply these strategies effectively."

The latter statement helps students see how they can be successful. The language is more positive, which transfers to a positive classroom environment.

Another way to address students' negative attitude toward reading is to refuse to allow it to permeate the classroom environment. When students make statements such as, "I don't like reading" or "Reading is boring" or "I'm not good at reading," teachers can introduce positive statements that help students see value in what they are reading:

"It's okay not to like everything that you have read. Today, however, I would like us to think about how this text can help us understand the world. This will allow us to see why our textbook might have included this selection and help us locate other texts that may answer questions we have about the content of what we are reading."

This generic statement can be modified for a specific text or content, but it may change a negative comment into a yearning for knowledge statement. Relating the text to something in an adolescent's world helps alter his or her mindset and delivers a sense of intrigue about a topic.

Some texts in a prescribed curriculum may not relate to adolescents. If teachers take time to find additional text, related to first text or as an alternate text that appeals to the interests of students in their classroom, a reading resister may be more likely to engage with the content.

Appealing to the interests of students is key to creating an equitable classroom as teachers form positive relationships with students and get to know them as individuals. This is also a way teachers can differentiate for the needs in the classroom. However, appealing to the interests alone may not be enough to engage students who resist reading.

Low-Skill Readers

A fixed mindset is the opposite of a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, students believe they have only what Dweck describes as a "certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character." Once this mindset takes root in a student's mind, it is difficult to shake. When a student determines he or she has failed at something, this belief tends to stick and the "I am not good at reading" and "I dislike reading" comments become reality statements rather than avoidance techniques.

The belief of not being good at reading typically takes root in third or fourth grade and is particularly problematic at the middle school level. By the time students reach seventh or eighth grade, this mindset is creating a foundation that is academically dismal.

However, challenging the adolescent fixed mindset regarding reading gives students the opportunity to change from taking a defeatist approach to learning to embrace the tools needed to be successful in the future. To address this mindset, educators must first recognize it exists. They also must believe a student is capable of reading complex material at the appropriate grade level.

It's important to recognize that a fixed mindset will not change immediately. It takes persistence and patience to work with a student who has a "failure" response to reading. Providing students with adequate feedback can help them adjust their thinking patterns. It takes work to provide positive feedback, but it will pay off.

Teachers can follow a simple formula to provide effective feedback: Area Addressed + Present Behavior + Future Implication. This formula can be adapted to any situation for any student. Before giving this type of feedback, the teacher must understand the root of the problem.

For example, let's say a student is struggling to comprehend a particular text. The teacher may say, "It seems that you are having some trouble identifying the main idea of this text. I notice that when you read, you are skimming through one section and then moving on to another section. Try slowing down and when you come to the end of a section, identify any words or phrases that you may not know. I can help you understand these terms. If you continue to use this strategy, you will begin to answer some of these questions on your own and texts similar to this one will become easier to understand later in the semester."

A teacher using the feedback formula might say, "I hear you say you are not good at reading. When we read in class, you seem to be able to follow along and you ask some great questions about the characters. Sometimes you don't know all the answers to these questions, and I think that is what is troubling you. When you can't find an answer, try re-reading the text. If you still don't know the answer after you have read the text, continue reading. The answer may come later in the text. If you become confused, let me know. Together, we can find these answers. When you are able to find these answers, and if you continue to question characters, you will be better prepared for the narrative we will be writing in our next unit."

Closing Thoughts

There are many reasons students enter our classrooms as reluctant readers. Initially, addressing these readers can be taxing; however, with the appropriate tools, educators can begin to change the mindset of resistant reader.


John Helgeson has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the Secondary English Instructional Specialist in the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.
jhelgeson@nsd.org

Published in AMLE Magazine, March 2016.

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Language Arts and Literacy
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