From Reluctant Reader to Ravenous Reader

How to develop lifelong readers by using choice as a motivator.

I wake up and roll out of bed. What shall I eat? Cereal? Bagel? Breakfast bar? I have choices. No one tells me what to eat; I eat what I want and what I feel I need—limited only by what is available.

I go to my closet. Again, I can wear what I want, limited only by what I own and what I deem appropriate for the day ahead—my purpose, my audience.

I experience the same situation with what I watch on television, the movies I view, and the books I read. I make my own choices, sometimes with the advice of friends or colleagues and sometimes with the guidance of experts in the appropriate field. I experience some failures but a lot of successes along the way. The successes begin outweighing the failures. I have come to know myself as a viewer and reader.

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examined the effect of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes in a variety of settings with both child and adult samples. Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.—(U.S. National Library of Medicine)

But as I talk to teachers and visit schools, so many students are being told what to read, when to read, and how to read. I held a literacy workshop and asked educators to free-write about what they read, when they read, where they read, how they read, what they do after they read, and what they do if they are not enjoying what they are reading. I then asked them to contrast what they wrote about their personal reading behaviors with the reading in their classrooms.

The majority looked shocked, chagrined, embarrassed. Many shared that they were told what their students had to read and when. Some even said that all teachers in a grade level needed to be on approximately the same page in the same book at the same time.

Some even admitted that the curriculum content was up to them as long as they covered the standards but that “having students all read the same book at the same time was easier—easier to implement and easier to assess.”

What is our aim in including reading and literature in the curriculum? If our aim is to develop lifelong readers, I contend that we are failing.

According to studies, 50% of Americans polled are alliterate, which means 50% of Americans can read but rarely do so. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates. There is a decline in—even a halt to—reading both for pleasure and academics at the middle grades.

Alliteracy occurs when students are capable of reading, but choose not to read. Alliterate students are also referred to as “nonreaders” and “reluctant readers.”

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the classics, and I asked her, a former teacher, if she had read a certain novel. She laughed. “Yes, the Cliffs Notes version.” That is not an anomaly. When I asked my university Adolescent Literature class how many had ever read SparkNotes or Cliffs Notes instead of a novel or multiple novels, almost 100% raised their hands (even the preservice and inservice English teachers).

There is a reason these companies stay in business. And what’s the point? No one said they read the Notes along with the novel because they couldn’t understand the novel; they read them instead of the novel because they didn’t want to read the novel. If they are reading a synopsis and explanation, why assign the novel? I am not saying that students shouldn’t be introduced to all sorts of literature, including the classics. Many, including me, love many of the classics, but I was a reader first.

When I look back to what I read in middle and high school, I remember what I read on my own—not self-selected choice reading for class, but reading outside school, for my own benefit. After all the Nancy Drew mysteries, I read anything about Edgar Cayce and Henry VIII, all the books by Dr. Tom Dooley, any biography by Irving Stone, and Daphne DuMaurier novels. There probably were more. I can’t remember anything I read for school. Despite school, I continued reading, but many college students have reported that they stopped reading in middle school—when they were told what to read.

You might have noticed that I have been using the term “students,” rather than “readers.” That is because we first need to grow readers, students who think of themselves as readers and are on their way to becoming lifelong readers. I had many eighth grade students who admitted they never had previously read an entire book or had read only one or two books in the previous middle school classes or rather fake-read those books. Those same students became readers of 20 to 30 books by the end of that eighth grade year.

How? I would like to take the credit and say it was my amazing choice of whole-class reads and exhilarating discussions of plot, character, setting, and figurative language, and the spell-binding tests I gave. But in honesty, the answer was choice—theirs. Choice was the prime motivator.

When I met him at the end of seventh grade, Dan told me he didn’t like to read. On the last day of school, he turned to me and said, “I still don’t think I like to read, but I haven’t read a book this year that I didn’t like.” He read at least 25 books that year.

Think about it. There are very few topics, writing styles, or genres that interest everyone. Each year I did choose one such book for our whole-class shared text. I introduced students to reading strategies, literary elements, authors, writing styles, plot variations through reading whole-class short stories, articles, and poetry knowing that readers can’t make choices until they know something about themselves as readers, and they can’t make text choices until they know something about text.

I then let my students loose on a shared novel that I thought most would like and all could read within the shared experience. For me and most of my classes, that book was The Giver, but there was nothing magical about the novel other than it is well-written, employs many of the terms and concepts we had been learning, has concepts that can lead to deep ethical discussions with students (especially eighth graders who are mature enough to understand them), and touches on many interests.

As Sean later told me, “It was a good choice because it was a type of book most of us would not have chosen on our own, but many of us went on to read the other books in the [at that time] Lowry trilogy.”

I don’t employ a whole-class text to teach students how to read and what they should read, but to open up the possibilities of how to read and what to note and notice. When readers move on to the self-selected individual reading or group-selected book clubs, I encourage them to read novels, memoirs, and nonfiction in diverse genres, formats, challenge levels, and lengths, and with multicultural characters or by multicultural authors. While I don’t require certain quantities, I want them to be aware of their choices and extend them.

I designed a chart so students could analyze, and reflect on, their reading diversity

I introduce readers, and readers introduce each other, to books through 5-minute book talks, book blogs, book trailers, book passes, and featured books-of-the-week among other strategies.

Reading should be personal. Not every book speaks to every child. However, when a student finds that book, a reader is born. It takes the right book at the right time for the right reader to make the match. The match could be the topic, the issue, a character, the writing, or even the setting.

The most important strategy a teacher can employ is to have books in the classroom—a diverse selection of books. Consider using the chart above when creating your library. I was lucky to be able to build a classroom library over the years and even though we had a wonderful school library and a librarian who gave the best book talks, most of my reluctant readers chose books from our classroom library, which was organized by genre and where an “abandoned book” (one that had been previewed but still not found to be enticing after 2-3 chapters) could be returned and the next book on a personal list could be checked out.

Teachers not only need to provide choice, but to teach students how to make choices and how to work with the choices they have made.

Now, what shall I have for dinner?