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How To Get Students To Read More

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Lacey deShazo

Staff Writer

Lacey lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, son, and two cats. If she’s not teaching or writing, she’s probably re-watching one of the five television shows she’s already watched a zillion times (Buffy, anyone?) or getting into a new hobby (like skincare or calligraphy). She loves romance, mystery, literary fiction, and horror. Follow her on Twitter @ljdeshazo.

For as long as there have been books people have worried that the death of reading was imminent. We hear it all the time: teens don’t read anymore! But during my eleven years of teaching, I have encountered students who read with more discipline than many of the adults in their lives. I often see students carrying the latest Lamar Giles or A.S. King novel, reading at lunch, and joining our school library’s book club. So why do English teachers and school officials worry about getting students to read more?

Girl reading a book

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

The anecdotes I’ve mentioned above should be enough to quell educators’ fears. However, we often find ourselves focusing on the students who say they never read, brag that they’ve never been in the school library, and loudly talk about consulting SparkNotes before the next book assessment.

If you’re like me, you want every student to enjoy (or at least appreciate) a few texts during their teen years. There’s no doubt that it will benefit them. But how can we get those reluctant students to read more? Here are a few strategies I’ve had success with over the years.

Encourage students to download the Serial Reader app and use it for twenty minutes a day.

This app allows users to choose a selection like “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington or Villette by Charlotte Bronte and read it in twenty minute segments each day. Students can direct the app to remind them to read at certain time each day, such as right when they wake up, during their lunch period, or right before they go to sleep. While I wouldn’t recommend reading War and Peace this way (though that selection is available), this works really well for short novels, stories, and poems. Reluctant students are sure to read more if they have a daily reminder and small segments of text. 

Provide students time during class to read.

I know teachers have a lot to fit in each day. However, if getting students to read more is important to us, shouldn’t we devote some class time to it? Here are a few easy ways to devote class time to reading:

  1. Assign reading time as a bell ringer. Give students the first ten to fifteen minutes to read each day. This seems like a short time, but will add up to around an hour each week!
  2. Set the expectation that when students finish an assignment early, they should take out a book. If your students are anything like mine, they work at different speeds. At the beginning of the school year I tell them that they are expected to work during the whole class period. Part of this work is reading when they finish earlier than other students. In some classes, I allow them to choose their own reading material. In others, I ask them to choose from a list. This may seem unstructured, but it has always worked really well for me.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Leave off at a cliffhanger.

When I start a new novel with my class, I begin by reading the beginning aloud. I usually try to end class at a point where something exciting is about to happen and we finalize class by making predictions about what could happen next. Whether I assign the next portion for homework or we pick it back up the next day, students are always much more excited to read if their interest is piqued.

Tell them how controversial it is

Some may frown upon this, but I’m of the mind that sometimes you have to resort to deviousness for a good cause. I have two strategies to get students to read more that tap into teenagers’ natural proclivity for rebellion:

  1. First, I always tell them when a book has been challenged. When I teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, I talk about how many times Morrison’s novels have been banned in schools. I might even pull up an article about the most recent place the novel or one like it has been challenged. Even my most conscientious rule-followers can’t help but want to read what adults have tried to keep from them. In fact, the banned books I teach are often the most popular.
  2. Next, I’ll play the concerned adult. You have to use this technique carefully, so I usually do this with my upperclassmen. They get to choose from a list of contemporary fiction each month, and whenever I see one of my reluctant students pick a book I make sure to strike up a conversation. “Ohhhhh, Another Brooklyn, huh?” I’ll say. “You know, there may be some parts with language or situations that are a little risque. Just skip over those if you need to, okay?” Reader, they never skip over those. Though I would never assign anything too adult for my students, fiction is, by nature, provoking. I like to point that out to my older students, as it inevitably increases their interest.

So if you have reluctant readers on your hands, don’t fret! While I can’t assure you you’ll turn every student into a bookworm, perhaps you’ll help them learn to appreciate something about the written word along the way.