2016-2017 NCSLMA Read 2 Succeed Recipient : Lorie Steed, Central Davidson H.S.

Reaching the Reluctant Reader: What We Learned Through Our Read 2 Succeed Grant

Overview: As a high school librarian in Davidson County and recipient of a 2016 Read 2 Succeed Grant, I partnered with English teacher Krysta Perkins to support her Sustained Silent Reading initiative. Our goal was to engage reluctant readers by purchasing several high-interest books that would appeal to varied interests and reading levels, and to ensure we had multiple copies of popular titles available to students. By reaching out to reluctant readers in this way, we hoped students who avoided reading in the past would come to embrace it. Although we hit some snags along the way and not every student responded to reading the way we hoped they would, we did find some success in reaching reluctant readers.

But first, one of the snags. Our original plan was to booktalk titles in several genres that we thought would appeal to reluctant readers, and then to bring students to the library for a “book tasting” where they could explore these and other similar titles. In the fall semester, we did just that. Students rotated around tables full of sample books from each genre and were asked to write down their favorites. The problem with this approach was revealed when I was about to place an order and realized that many of the books multiple students listed as favorites were sitting on our shelves, not checked out! After consulting with Mrs. Perkins and Mrs. Idol, the Exceptional Children’s co-teacher, we came to the following conclusions:

  • Many just went through the motions during the book tasting.

  • Some are struggling readers, which may explain their reluctance. After all, none of us likes to do things we feel we’re not good at.

  • Some are reluctant students (not just reluctant readers), and it’s a challenge to engage them in anything.

Though I visited these students again in an attempt to figure out what books to order based on their interests, many of them had already chosen a book by that point, either from our library or from home. I told them more than once I would order whatever books they asked for, but no one asked for anything - which looking back makes sense, as reluctant readers are often so closed off to reading they just shut down completely when asked to talk about it. So I looked instead at what they were reading to get ideas, and worked on a new plan for second semester. I also read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and, inspired by her methods of reaching out to readers in her own classroom, decided to try a more individualized approach second semester.

A new plan. Second semester, instead of taking students to the library to peruse full tables of books representing each genre, we kept it simple by highlighting three examples of each genre in the classroom, then asked students to indicate their preferences on sticky notes. We also told them that if none of the books we shared appealed to them, to write that down as well. We emphasized that we were looking for total honesty. “You’re the ones we’re trying to help,” we told them. We still encountered resistance, but after multiple classroom visits in which I met one-on-one with every single student, I put together a book order based on their individual recommendations. I wanted to make sure that when the book order arrived, I would have at least one book to hand to every student based on his or her request. This turned out to be a much better approach to the project, and my one regret is that I didn’t have a chance to implement it with the fall semester students. Ordering books based on student suggestions not only helped many students complete the reading and the project successfully, but also made our collection more appealing. Multiple students, not just those who requested the books, checked out the books we ordered.

Conclusions: Out of 47 students in the spring semester classes, 85% of students (40 of 47) completed the reading third quarter, and just under 79% (37 of 47 students) did so fourth quarter. Though it was somewhat discouraging to see those numbers go down and to realize that 15-20% of students were still not reading, it was inspiring to see several others not only complete their SSR reading requirements, but to read beyond what was required.

We also saw an improvement in student attitudes about reading. At the beginning of the semester, 22% of students said they did not like to read, 58% said “it’s okay,” and only 20% said they loved it. At the end of the semester, 9.3% still didn’t like reading, 44.2% said “it’s okay,” and 46.5% said they loved it, as long as they were given a choice in what to read.

In closing, here are a few more things we learned about reaching reluctant readers. 

  1. Students are drawn to the familiar. In our attempt to define student favorites, we discovered that the most sought after books were often ones students recognized for one reason or another. They may have been recommended by a teacher, librarian, or friend; the inspiration for a well-known movie or TV show (13 Reasons Why is always a popular choice, but the Netflix series made it even more so); or simply books/authors students had encountered before.

  2. It’s okay to let them reread old favorites. To expand on the previous point, as I conferenced with students to order books based on their requests, a few asked for books they’d loved in middle or elementary school, and I realized I’d been doing my reluctant readers a disservice by not including some of these titles in my high school collection. What better way to help students gain confidence and reconnect with reading than to allow them to relive a positive reading experience? Don’t we as adults have our own favorite books we return to, and don’t we also often read books below our own reading level? While of course we hope that students will read new books as well, we chose to remove one more barrier by allowing students to read a book they’d read before.

  3. Make sure you have a good nonfiction collection. I’d stopped ordering nonfiction in the past couple of years simply because so many quality research resources are available online for free. Yet many of our reluctant readers prefer nonfiction. This was made abundantly clear when students who claimed an interest in sports or the military passed on the historical and sports fiction titles I thought they’d love. Instead they preferred real-life accounts of World War II, or books on the Carolina Panthers or Tarheels.

  4. Choice is crucial. This should be obvious; after all, how many of us who love to read would feel that way if we never got a chance to choose books for ourselves? Yet in high school, there are very few chances for students to do so. Instead, they are often only assigned classics that even adult readers may struggle with, rather than being allowed to read books written about them and for them, or on topics that engage them. More than once, a student who successfully completed the reading and the SSR assignment said something along the lines of, “I used to really hate reading, until this book.”

  5. Being engaged with the reading may not be enough. When yet another reluctant reader confessed, “I used to not like reading until this book,” I thought we’d won him over. Yet he never got farther than 20-30 pages into the book. Another student who was clearly into Michael Grant’s Gone completed a few mini-book talks the third quarter of the semester, but he did not finish the book or a book talk fourth quarter. What kept these students and others like them from finishing what they started is something I don’t have a definitive answer to, though I suspect a few factors are at play - they are slower readers, perhaps, and need more time, or like many of today’s teens, they have so many other things competing for their attention that reading still falls on the back burner.

  6. We have to give them dedicated time to read. For those students who used to enjoy reading but don’t anymore, lack of time was listed as a factor over and over again. “I’m too busy” was often their answer for why they don’t read at home, even if they might want to. This makes it all the more clear that we have to provide time in class to read.

  7. Students’ reading tastes are varied and hard to predict. Based on the rural population of students I have, I thought for sure nonfiction books on hunting and fishing, as well as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series would be a hit with most boys. Yet last semester, those titles barely moved, and while there were books I predicted correctly would be popular (Ready Player One, The Blind Side, and American Sniper, to name a few), there were also some I could not have predicted at all. A few students loved classics, including The Road, Tender Is the Night, and A Lesson Before Dying. One student said she liked books with short chapters because they’re easy to read in short spurts - yet for her second book, she chose one with longer chapters, because “sometimes I like longer books.” Some asked for titles I hadn’t even heard of, books that other students couldn’t wait to check out once we had them in the library. This makes it all the more clear that rather than solely relying on professional lists in building our collections, we need to ask students what they want to see in our libraries.

  8. Remove all the barriers you can, including fines. Charging overdue fines is a controversial subject - some librarians never charge them, while others do. Our library charges five cents a day, which I think is a reasonable amount. Yet when looking at the library records of our reluctant readers, many had unpaid fines of more than a couple of dollars. I couldn’t help asking myself, why is this? Were they too busy to come to the library? Stuck on the same book forever? Or did they just never think about reading outside of class? Whatever the reason, we decided to make reading easier by waiving fines for any books checked out for SSR. Am I nervous about losing books? Yes. But I am also reminding myself that gaining readers is more important than retaining books.

  9. Creating relationships is as important as creating readers. When asking students to list books they’d like to read, I remember one student in particular who said something along the lines of, “I’m sure you don’t care what I want since schools aren’t going to put Christian books in the library anyway.” After making an effort to talk with him on multiple occasions, asking him what he’d like to see, I ordered a couple of Christian titles based on what he and other students suggested. Though he didn’t read them (he chose instead to read a portion of the Bible for SSR), this is a young man who always acknowledged me when we encountered each other in the hallway, so I can’t help hoping one day he’ll come to see the library as a place he can trust is open to all points of view. On the other end of the spectrum, another student asked for a book on Pablo Escobar, no doubt based on his interest in the Netflix series Narcos. Whether or not he read the book I ordered for him, or faked his book talk based on his knowledge of the show I don’t know, but I do know that his face lit up and he gave me a hug when I told him the book he asked for was ready to be checked out: “Did you get that for me? Really?” he asked. Maybe he was just trying to show off in front of the class, but I can’t help believing that the shock and delight that I’d order a book for him specifically--that I cared--was real.

  10. Reaching truly reluctant readers takes time, patience, and individualized attention. Though I love it when teachers bring in whole classes to check out books, this is probably not the time we’re going to reach our most reluctant readers. For one thing, while we’re busy answering questions from students who are actually looking for a book, the most reluctant readers are hanging back and making jokes with their friends, or at the very least, checking out something random so we’ll leave them alone. They’re also the ones who will wait until the end of the grading period to find a book for an SSR assignment, no matter how many opportunities we’ve given them. And while such behaviors may drive us crazy, we’re going to have to reach out to them, through multiple one-on-one conversations, in order to have any chance at all in reaching them.

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