5 Tips to Get Kids Reading Novels When They Say They Won’t

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Some years ago, a leadership group was visiting one of my favorite schools, George Hall Elementary in Mobile. George Hall is both high-poverty and high achieving and is always a treat to visit.

That particular day I was facilitating a fishbowl discussion with fourth graders. One visitor asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One of the students chimed in, “I want to be a librarian!” When asked why, he explained that books took him to places he had never been and opened his eyes to new ideas.

Much to my dismay, the questioner didn’t seem to like his answer and followed up by asking him what other profession he might want to pursue. The young man was quiet for a while and then responded, “I don’t want to be anything else. I WANT to be a librarian!”

I was reminded of that experience when I read a recent article in Edutopia about how to engage reluctant readers in reading novels and other “whole books.” I can’t imagine not wanting to read. I always have a book nearby. When I walk, I listen to books on tape. Like the George Hall student, books take me places I’ve never been and open my eyes to new ideas! But I’m not an “extreme user” (see below). How do we help our least enthusiastic readers in on that secret?

If you have students who either can’t or don’t want to read longer texts, these strategies might help. The world would benefit from more readers, librarians, and book lovers!

Plan your literacy lessons for the “extreme users”

Creating lessons that are accessible to resistant readers can enhance the learning experience for everyone – including those who read the whole book – writes Ileana Sherry, an interdisciplinary high school teacher who blends English and History curricula in her San Antonio classroom.

In her recent article for Edutopia, Sherry references the theory of the “extreme user” – an idea drawn from product and services design. This successful concept “proposes that a product or service can be better designed by understanding the full range of viewpoints and avoiding the pitfall of designing for yourself.”

In the past, Sherry writes, when she taught novels “I was planning for students who were guaranteed to finish the books; I was planning for myself. When I started planning based on which students had the greatest need, it made learning more accessible to all.”

Sherry shares these five insights (the excerpts are in her voice) from her own efforts to improve her practice.

5 Ways to Enhance Everyone’s Reading Experience

Although the goal is for each student to finish the novel, and those who do will undoubtedly benefit more from class, this method structures in-class learning to support the extreme users, allowing all students to access the learning regardless of the page number they reach.

● Examine and read key chapters and quotes together. Do this as a class to supplement independent reading. Readicide and Deeper Reading, both by Kelly Gallagher, are pedagogical books that provide useful structures for analyzing texts. I use the first chapter, a central scene of conflict, and quotes throughout the book that highlight major themes.

● Make audio versions of the text available. Reading can be difficult for students because of dyslexia, emerging language development, or even personal preference. The content barrier is broken for these students by providing audio recordings of the text. (Most mainstream books are available in audio versions these days, performed by voice actors.)

● Teach overarching themes or skills that will be useful in analyzing that novel. Students will forget many of the details of what they learn in school, but we can help them achieve larger transfer goals—knowledge and skills that they will use outside of the classroom—through our coursework. For example, the focus of a unit might shift from students reading and discussing 1984 to students recognizing social injustice in the world.

● Provide smaller and diverse supplemental texts. These are works that pair with the book, such as poetry, nonfiction articles, videos, or songs. These will provide multiple entry points for your students to comprehend the book’s themes and ideas.

● Allow for choice in what books students read. Instead of teaching just one novel, offer a selection of three or more texts to increase student engagement and provide differentiated options based on reading level and interest. To choose books for an effective unit, organize them by theme or style. You can encourage students to read for pleasure by using digital tools.

You can read Sherry’s complete Edutopia article – including more details about her enhancement ideas and some impressive examples of student impact – by following this link: 5 Tips for Teaching Novels When Students Won’t Read.

More resources on encouraging readers

Digital Tools to Support Choice Reading
Choice reading supports lifelong learning, but teachers often need help making the universe of books accessible to students.

21 Realistic YA Novels Offer Insights for Everyone
Reading books written for today’s middle schoolers can engage students and help teachers gain insight into the different ways students experience their adolescence today, writes ELA teacher Kasey Short. 

In Support of Independent Reading…Again
“This is my plea to the world to remember the essential role that supported independent reading holds within our instruction, whether it is virtual, hybrid, flipped, or face-to-face,” writes teacher and author Pernille Ripp.

School Libraries Build Lifelong Reading Skills
Katie Durkin’s 7th graders are once again able to visit the school library, and she has three goals for them: tap into the expertise of librarians; learn how to preview a fiction or nonfiction text; and grow the skills to become expert book hunters. Don’t miss the infographic!

Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out
Elementary principal Matt Renwick subtitled this Choice Literacy article, “How to give students the resources, space, and time for self-directed literacy learning.” A champion of the idea that school leaders should be literacy leaders, he publishes the free newsletter Read by Example.