Ten Ways to Get Reluctant Adolescent Readers Reading by Sherri K. Wilcox
I teach high school English, grades 9-12, on a Disciplinary Alternative Education Placement (DAEP) campus. Talk about a tough audience! Many of my kids arrive at our campus with huge gaps in their education from skipping school, being suspended numerous times, or being placed in In-School Suspension repeatedly. They are in my classroom for approximately 6 weeks before returning home.
However, the average number of books read by each student while in my care is 3.4. And I’m talking mostly YA novels.
Not every student reads, but most kids find that they enjoy reading, and I help them get there quickly because with only 6 weeks to spend with my students, I don’t have time to waste! So how do I do it?
- Say they won’t ever be asked to prove they read a book, and mean it. I emphasize to each student who enters my classroom for the first time that they will never be asked to do anything that proves they read a book all the way through. And I mean it! When the pressure is off, almost everyone is able to zero in on something they like with my help and read all the way through.
- Have a good classroom library and an engaging environment. I am constantly carrying a list of YA titles I get from literacy experts and groups such as ALA/YALSA, ILA, We Need Diverse Books, NCTE, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, etc., and I search out those titles whenever I’m out shopping. I have quotes about and from books hanging from the ceiling of my classroom. I use quotes and passages from books for quick writes and brainstorming for writing topics. I feature a quote a week from YA novels I’ve read to spark informal conversations. I display books in pleasing and easy-to-find ways in the classroom library section and refer to them often.
- Give them class time to read. We read for 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of every 50-minute period, with extended time on Thursdays, when we also visit the school library. They come to rely on that time every day to take a breath and pause their busy brains, dive into a good book, and enjoy some quiet time with their characters. Most are surprised to find they are disappointed when reading time is over, and they frequently beg for “just five more minutes!”
- Read a lot myself, and get to know my kids. This is the best way to match kids with great books. I try to read at least one YA book per week so that as I get to know my kids, I can make good recommendations. They trust my judgment because they know I’ve put in the time to actually read the books I’m suggesting, and they appreciate that I am dedicated enough to do that for them.
- Make it social. I listen for times when students mention something about their books, then encourage that conversation. Many of my reading response options involve students talking to each other. They love it, and it’s the best way for me to hear which books are exciting kids. I add these to book talks, if they aren’t already included in one or two.
- Provide multiple ways for students to respond to their reading. I use Response Cards and Exit Tickets that ask broad questions that can be answered while in the middle of books such as “Why did you choose this book?” “What does this book talk about that you think is important?” and “What is something you really like about your main character?” They create and answer their own questions. They complete “Rate Your Book” cards by giving their books one to four stars. They keep “What to Read Next” lists and fill in titles on genre wheels to keep track of what they’ve read. Students can choose to complete One-Pagers, illustrated responses, or other creative responses as one of their summative (test) grades for the grading period.
- Use book talks to introduce a wide variety of reading options. I choose a genre, discuss the characteristics of the genre, and give at least a dozen titles associated with that genre. I also include authors known for the genre.
- Conduct reading conferences with the goal of helping both teacher and students grow as readers. I use low-pressure, open-ended questions I’ve gleaned from the work of Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst as I visit with my students once a week. While they appreciate my comments to them, I think they appreciate more that I keep track of what they say to me. I create shopping and reading lists based on their reading experiences and invite them to keep me informed on books I should read next.
- Create interactive displays that students can use at their convenience. I keep a place where students can post favorite books, authors, or quotes from their reading. They tape up their starred ratings.
- Make reading its own reward. “If you can get to this part of the assignment, you may stop and read for the rest of the period. If you prefer to keep working, then you’ll be able to get a little further.” The way I word things makes reading the reward for their classroom efforts. While not all students go to their books as soon as they finish an assignment or find a spare minute, more than 50% of them at any given time do. And many go back to their home campuses after being released from our campus telling their English teachers what they were reading and what they want to get from the library next time they have a chance to visit it.
Reading is a culture in my classroom that I continuously cultivate with my students. Their excitement over calling themselves “readers,” often for the first time, is reward enough for all of us.
Sherri K. Wilcox is beginning her 31st year of teaching English to adolescents in an urban school district in north Texas. She also is a part time literacy professor for aspiring teachers at Texas Woman’s University. She would spend all day every day reading and talking books with her students if she could get away with it. Her husband quit keeping track of the money she spends on her classroom library a long time ago. It just stressed him out.