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Engaging Reluctant Readers

October 30, 2015

Engaging Reluctant Readers Regan Aymett

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 1: It’s All About the Kids – Post 3 of 5

A key mindset of TeachCycle, one that guides the work of our teachers and coaches, is that at its core, teaching is “All About the Kids”. Nowhere is this more evident than in personalizing reading instruction for students in the lower grades. Building proficiency as a reader is an incredibly personal experience and requires teachers to make the learning feel relevant for each individual student.

In this post, 1st-grade teacher Regan Aymett outlines her strategies for engaging reluctant readers and helping them develop an interest in reading. She begins with an anecdote from her classroom:

I once had a first-grade student who was an exceptional football player, but he felt reading was too challenging. I’d had difficulty motivating this student and helping him see the value of reading, so one day I shared with him that my favorite football player is Deon Sanders. I showed pictures of Deon, and I told him why I liked Deon so much. I went on to tell him about how Deon Sanders values education, and that he even started a school.

My student’s entire demeanor changed when we talked about football; his face lit up, and he spoke excitedly. At this moment, I knew that for this particular student, the topic of football would be the key to motivating his reading.

To solidify the connection we had made, I printed pictures of professional football players from his favorite team and taped them to his desk. I even added inspirational quotes to go with each player. Now, when my student felt reading was just too hard, I would point to the players on his desk and remind him that reading, like football, requires hard work and perseverance. 

These photographs served as visual reminders that he had to work in school to get to play sports, and those sports can even help him get a college education. By making this personal connection, I showed this student that I care, and that I believe in him. Knowing their teacher believes in them can make all the difference in helping students decide to persevere through reading struggles.

In my years teaching first grade, I have encountered many students who, like the boy in this story, were not motivated to read. Engaging reluctant readers is a topic very close to my heart because reading was not easy for me as a child. Through the years, I have distilled the three key strategies that help me reach each and every student in my class.

  1. Learn the student’s interests and make a personal connection
  1. Help the student find books related to his or her interests
  2. Scaffold instruction

Learn the Student’s Interests and Make a Personal Connection

I have found that the most important factor that influences a reluctant reader’s interest in reading is whether or not they trust me. The key to building a trusting relationship with a student lies in my understanding of the student’s interests and my ability to make a connection to one of their interests.

I find it essential to know where my students live, what sports they play, what they like to eat, if they have a pet, what cartoons they like, and the name of their favorite action figure. To accomplish all this learning, I visit each of my students’ homes before the start of the school year and have a personal conversation. My goal in this meeting is to identify at least one common interest we share.

I have found that once my students recognize that we have a common interest, they begin to feel close to me because we are making a connection. This connection is just the beginning of building a trusting relationship, which is essential to helping my students overcome struggles in reading. When students experience challenges or frustrations in reading, they feel vulnerable, and my students must know I am trustworthy before they can push through their reading difficulties.

Help Students Find Books Related to the Interests

Once I know a student’s interests, I am in a better position to find reading material suited to their needs. Even if the book is well above their reading level, I find that subject matter is the most important factor to help students learn to enjoy reading. It seems students can read at a much higher level when they are personally interested in the subject of the text. My son, for example, can read almost anything written about cats, but it is amazing how his reading textbook seems so challenging at times. It’s not the text; it’s the internal motivation to learn or listen to an adventure about his favorite pet.

Scaffold Instruction

Even with a book on an interesting topic, it is unrealistic to think that reluctant readers will instantly be engrossed in the text, especially if it is above their reading level. For this reason, I am always careful to scaffold my instruction, ensuring that students feel supported as they attempt to read more challenging material.  

Two of my favorite strategies are echo reading and partner reading. When I echo read in first grade, I read a sentence, and then the students repeat it after me as a group. For an individual student, I sometimes read a text several times while they track before I allow them to read the text on their own. This strategy allows my students to get comfortable with the vocabulary and begin to comprehend the text before decoding all the words.

For partner reading, I find it best to pair students that have similar interests.  They take turns reading every other page or paragraph, one student listening while the other one reads.  

Engaging reluctant readers is a challenge, but I think the most important thing to remember is to make it personal. My students know they can trust me, I care, and I believe in them. I offer support to help them find topics and texts they enjoy reading. Many times my students just need to know I believe in them and trust that I will help them with their reading.

Regan Aymett is a 1st and 2nd-grade teacher in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and was a member of BetterLesson’s ELA Master Teacher Project. To access her entire curriculum, please click here.

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