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How to Engage ALL Kids in Reading

Dr. Katherine McKnight

One of the greatest challenges facing educators is getting students to be proficient, passionate readers. Surprisingly, the solution to conquering the reading challenge is surprisingly simple ...

About two years ago, I was working with a school district with a poverty rate of over 70% in a semi-rural area.  The teachers and I were transitioning the middle school literacy curriculum from a more teacher-directed, traditional paradigm to a student-directed, literature circle, and writing workshop paradigm. 

As I worked with my teacher colleagues, I was fortunate enough to get to know them and their students.  One teacher (I’ll call her Ms. Smith) taught the lowest level readers in the 6th grade.  As she and I prepared some team lessons, I was eager to meet her kids and I was immediately struck by the differences I witnessed in her class and their attitudes toward reading

More than 20 years of literacy teaching experience has taught me was to be ready to deal with reluctant and disinterested readers, as this is usually the case with the lowest level readers.  Yet this was not the case on the first day and every day that I co-taught with Ms. Smith. 

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As soon as her students entered the classroom they were drawn to the book cart by Ms. Smith’s desk.  I heard zealous 6th graders asking her questions like:

  • “Ms. Smith did you get another copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid?”
  • “I really liked this story, Frindle.  What else do you have that’s like that?”
  • “Ms. Smith do you have any more of those nature books?”

Ms. Smith’s students squealed with delight when they discovered that her book order arrived and they had new books, most of which she purchased.  I found the Ms. Frizzle (of The Magic School Bus fame) of books.  She eagerly shared her knowledge of books and her reluctant readers loved her enthusiasm, her unconditional belief that her students could all be readers, and as a result, they had fun reading.  I was gobstopped and excited to be part of Ms. Smith’s magical classroom.

To be honest, there really isn’t a magic spell to recreate Ms. Smith’s magical reading students.  We know from a corpus of research in reading that when students have choice and access to a wide variety of texts, this magic can and does happen.

**TeachHUB Recommendation: Have author Katie McKnight come to your school for reading instruction professional development.

How do we get books in kids' hands?

Much has been written about the powerful impact of student choice in reading.  When students are given the opportunity to choose what they will read, they will more likely read. 

This is particularly important for our reluctant readers. These readers often have difficulty connecting with a text because they see the reading of literature as an arduous task rather than enjoyable.  Once students develop fluency in reading, the research indicates that the more that they read, the stronger they become in their reading skills. 

When I go to schools, our teacher colleagues often indicate that the students don’t read.  The students don’t read because most of what they have access to is not relevant or interesting to them.

Why aren’t kids reading?

By the time many readers reach middle school and high school, they equate reading with ridicule and failure.  Many of these reluctant readers view reading as something that is done at school, not for enjoyment. 

One solution to this problem is to encourage students to read a wide variety of books.

Tips to choose books that appeal to reluctant readers:

  • Appealing covers and larger print.
  • The format is visually appealing. The artwork and illustrations are realistic, interesting and are diverse.
  • The text is written clearly without long confusing sentences and sophisticated language.
  • Strong literary quality.
  • The opening of the novel is exciting and draws in the reader.
  • The characters are realistic and the reader can relate to them.
  • The plot should be interesting and appealing to young adult readers. Plot is also developed through dialogue rather than long narrative descriptions.
  • Choose literature that explores the lives of other teenagers.
  • Humor is present.
  • There is one point of view and the books are often written from the first person point of view.

How do we make reading more enjoyable, engaging and educational?

We must provide books that will peak interest in all readers, including the reluctant ones. Reading success and ability is directly correlated to how students read recreationally.  The bottom line is the more students read, the better at reading they become.

I know that first-hand when schools shift from literature-based reading programs to reading workshops, literature circles, and more student-centered practices, the students improve. 

On two separate instances, I worked with teachers in semi-rural districts where the poverty rates were well over 70%. In one year, we ditched the teacher-directed, literature-based reading programs to student-centered reading programs and the state test scores rose double digits

But the test scores are only part of the story.  The teachers and students were more engaged with the enjoyment and self satisfaction of creating learning environments that support all kinds of readers. 

There is nothing more exciting than when a 6th grade reader runs into Ms. Smith’s classroom and asks, “Thank you Ms. Smith for the awesome book.”  We can all be like Ms. Smith. 

How do you engage ALL kids in reading? Share in the comments section!

If you need additional training in reading and literacy instruction, author Katie McKnight is available for in-service workshops and other training opportunities.