Turning Reluctant Readers into Joyful Readers

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By Mark Wickersham

Reaching Reluctant ReadersWhen I was an elementary and secondary student, I wasn’t what teachers described as a “reader.” I did read, though. My mom would regularly take me to the local library, and I often gravitated toward the World Book Encyclopedia sets and Guinness World Record books. I enjoyed gobbling up facts about the faraway countries of the world and learning about the scores of unique people this planet holds. Today, I’m glad to say that what I read has expanded from random details about various cultures and odd performances that never should have been attempted. But it was those library visits, the annual school book fairs, and books my parents gave me as gifts that laid the foundation for me to become a “reader” later in life.

I often stress to my students and their parents that it is important to read good books. This is especially important in the school where I currently teach since it consists of a significant population of second language learners. My students and their parents know they should always have their noses in good books—and they know that I practice what I preach. They frequently see or hear me reading, and they can read my book reviews online on several sites. I emphasize that if they want to improve their writing and oral skills, they must be readers. Before they enter my class, they can see what I’m currently reading on my reading poster. We display these fun posters throughout the halls of our school, adding to our literacy rich atmosphere. My classroom holds hundreds of books that my students and colleagues can borrow.

This week, I read a student essay to a couple of my classes. My students could tell how much I enjoyed reading the essay, and they enjoyed it as well. The writer carefully organized her thoughts, was very detailed, and made us chuckle. After I read the essay, students clapped for the student and made middle school sounds of approval. They know this student is a reader, and they understand that her habit of reading has helped make her an excellent writer. Not only do I stress to my students and their parents how important it is to be a reader, but I tell them that my best students have often been big-time readers. This particular student was a big contributor to this year’s Kids Read competition. This competition is something I’ve been involved in for several years now, and I have encouraged dozens of students to take part in it.

For many students, reading is a source of stress and anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be. Although you would never have found me reading beautiful poetry or a classic novel in my younger years, I was reading. It’s important that we help our students find books that they enjoy and from which they can benefit. It’s also important that we take students to the library. This week, one of my colleagues took her small class of students to the secondary library. She found that the majority of her students didn’t know how to search for books because they hadn’t been taught how to use the library. If you can’t take your students to the library, assign them to do research in the library and be sure to provide them the tools to successfully find good books. Our head librarian warmly welcomes teachers and students to ask her for assistance.

Reading can open new worlds to explore and grant new opportunities of success. Educators have a huge responsibility to help their students transition from reluctant readers to joyful readers. By modeling good reading (and writing), creating a positive reading environment, and providing opportunities to read good books, we can reach reluctant readers and cultivate a true joy for reading.

Learn more about reaching reluctant learners in the recent issue of ASCD Express.

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Mark Wickersham began his teaching career 20 years ago and has served as a soccer coach, social studies teacher, and divisional principal at Tianjin International School in China since 2003.

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