Motivating Struggling Readers

Easy to make them read, hard to make them WANT to read

My friend and teacher Tiffany is teaching a reading class for her middle schoolers this year, and it’s something a little new for her.  Hearing about this prompted me to write a little more on my thoughts about struggling readers.

In kindergarten and first grade, they’re all struggling readers!  There’s no special formula for that.  But when you get up to 4th and 5th grade, they’ve pretty much decided whether they like reading or not.  Those that don’t like it (or think they don’t) just won’t read.  They don’t do it at home, they don’t want to do it at school – it’s a struggle.  From observation I’ve found that the best readers are the ones who do it when they don’t have to – and of course that means its a self fufilling prophesy – they get better at reading by reading, so they want to do it more, and they get even better…and on and on.  The opposite is true for those “I don’t like reading” folks.  The less they do it, the worse they get, and then the less they want to do it because its a struggle.

So, they need a kickstart.  AND they need to get some experience and skill under their belt so it won’t be such a struggle.  The big problem here is we’re not talking about a two month or 8 month journey…this is a journey that will last for years.  That’s the problem too – they might have one teacher who really goes the extra mile and tries to foster their reading sensibilities, but that teacher will not really see the fruit of their labors to the full extent.  And if the next teacher in the line doesn’t care so much….I guess that’s where frustration in the teaching profession comes from! 😉

But we do what we can.  So what you can do is foster love of reading while increasing skill of reading.  What is the most important thing to focus on you ask?  Well, reading is a comprehensive subject.  One thing flows into the other.  If you have good vocabulary knowledge, your reading fluency will improve.  And if you have good knowledge of phonics and grammar, your fluency will improve.  And if your fluency improves, your comprehension will improve.  So it’s kindof like comparing chickens and eggs.  You need one to make the other.

If you HAD to pin me down on something, I would say vocabulary knowledge would be the best thing to increase comprehension, coupled with basic comprehension strategies (you have to teach them to think, believe it or not).  Teach them to ask them selves questions while they read, by actually saying what you would be thinking while reading out loud.  Give them a clear example of what you would do, and have them practice it.  Do the same thing with predicting what will happen next while they are reading, and using prior knowledge to understand what the story is talking about.  If they are actively THINKING about what they are reading, their comprehension will skyrocket.

But then their vocabulary needs to increase.  Read something new every day, and write down 5  words a day to study and use.  I give the kids a small reward if they use the word of the day in class.  For daily small reading selections, go to  It’s only about 25 bucks for a year, and the subscription is worth it.  Also, there are vocabulary builder sites online, that will give you a word every day to study (I use superkids) .

That’s actually the easy part.  The difficult part is fostering the love.  And I think that comes from finding stuff the like to read.  Studies have shown that struggling readers are more likely to get interested in reading if they use graphic novels and comics.  They help improve vocabulary, and there is a large variety out there.  I’ve even seen shakespear and the classics (Beowulf, Robinson Crusoe) in graphic novel form.  It’s not just superheroes.  With Japanese Manga also popular, and a lot of new movies having a comic book base (Book of Eli, Wanted, 300, Whiteout) it shouldn’t be hard to find something they’d like.  There are also books coming out targeted to that audience, like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” – a novel and comic strip in one.  The subject matter is good for middle school, but the reading level is lower, so it doesn’t frustrate them too much.

There are also magazines (why not bring in a bmx magazine for the boys, or a fashion magazine for the girls?).  As long as they LIKE to read it, it will help their reading.  Then you can slip in something similar, but a little more challenging (Time, National Geographic).

Any type of reading that engages them is good.  Read recipies and then follow them.  Read a play and act it out (readers theatre).  Have a “morning breakfast” and everyone read from the cereal boxes.  Whatever!  Just get them reading. 🙂

About misteredie1

I am a husband, father, teacher and principal who loves to help students learn and reach their highest potential. I believe teaching is the ground floor to a better world - the children ARE the future!

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