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The Reading Coach

The Reluctant Reader


All teachers encounter students who don't like to read. A few teachers view that fact as inevitable, but most truly want to "leave no child behind." How do we tap the potential of reluctant readers? How do we inspire them to become readers and writers? How do we give them the tools to be successful? It's impossible, of course, to address such a broad topic here, but an understanding of the strategies that motivate those students is a start.

Researchers, such as Rhonda Weinstein, acknowledge that motivated children learn best, and that all children should be "active interpreters of the classroom reality, not simply passive recipients of instruction." Those researchers define two types of motivation -- extrinsic and intrinsic.

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Extrinsic motivation is the incentive to participate in an activity as a means to an end. It is the easiest type of motivation to implement, and the type most commonly used in today's classrooms. The extrinsically motivated student believes that participation will bring such desirable outcomes as a reward, teacher praise, or avoidance of punishment. Examples of extrinsic motivation include incentive programs (everything from Accelerated Reader to prizes for selling the most popcorn in a school fund raiser), grades, or restricting desired activities. Extrinsic motivation aids classroom control and can build short-term positive results.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the higher calling. It demands a greater commitment, because it relates to a developmental process rather than to isolated tasks. Intrinsic motivation is the stuff stories are made of; every teacher has a story of one child who turned around because someone cared enough to understand the child's issues and give him or her the tools to deal with them. Intrinsic motivation is internal; the activity is rewarding or pleasurable in and of itself. One teacher's observation highlights the challenge: "Learning should be more important than getting the 'right'answer. My greatest challenge is teaching to standards AND teaching beyond standards to connect with the learner in every child."


Try the following strategies for motivating your reluctant readers.

"People do what they believe they can and what they believe is worth doing". . .
-- Martin Maehr and Larry Braskamp (from their book Motivation Factor: A Theory of Personal Investment, Lexington Books, 1986)

Teach struggling readers to search for a worthwhile purpose by asking questions. Many children feel alienated from the reading process because they cannot relate to what they are asked to read. Openly discuss why they are reading what they are reading, and help them look for connections to their lives. Conduct student-led discussions of how they relate to the story. Use read-aloud experiences to share information that's within the realm of students' listening vocabulary, but outside their independent reading vocabulary.

Acknowledge feelings of resistance and alienation. Why do some children dislike reading? It begins with weak skills and a feeling of inadequacy. Respond first with care and empathy; don't assume the child doesn't care. Look for the person inside the student. A third grader I worked with years ago was labeled "lazy." Natalie's real problem, however, was a lack of self-confidence and a learned response to repeated negative reinforcement. After a few months of intervention, grade level teachers reported that Natalie was a different child. Older students in particular are more likely to lower their expectations after repeated failures.

Involve students in finding ways to genuinely taste success. Involving learners in defining goals increases the probability that they will understand and want to reach those goals. During planning time, ask yourself, "What can I learn about this child that will help me tap into his or her desires and dreams?"

Make students partners when introducing a goal for recreational reading. Tell them they can read anything they want (sports or teen magazines, Nintendo manuals, books). The only parameters are that they must read for a certain number of minutes, and they must be able to summarize the gist of what they read -- or explain why they had difficulty reading it -- to a teacher or peer. Teachers can assess quickly whether goals were met and what a student gained. Or, to accomplish the same objective, set aside the first five minutes of each day for students to share information about what they're reading. Foster a community of readers. Incorporate storytelling and retelling; both build comprehension and summarization skills.

Make reading success part of your classroom culture, a desired activity that reaps positive rewards. Offer reading opportunities frequently. Make your classroom scream, "We love reading." Imagine how proud a reluctant reader will be when telling classmates that he or she learned a game-winning soccer kick from a book! Teaching students to respect one another's likes and dislikes helps them be supportive of others and discriminating in their own reading choice and development.

  • Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site provides suggestions for various reading level books on such common themes as World War II and growing up. Two favorites are Goin' Someplace Special, by Patricia McKissack, (written at a fifth grade reading level, on the civil rights movement) and When Jessie Came Across the Sea, by Amy Hest, (an immigration story, written at the 3rd or 4th grade level).
  • 150 Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom, by James P. Raffini (Allyn & Bacon) 1996
  • Storytelling offers resources for using storytelling to get kids hooked on reading.
  • Read, Write, Think includes a lesson plan and resources for creating a community of learners, readers, and writers, from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.


About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller has a library science degree from Florida State University. Her writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,,Education World,Family Network, and BabyZone. Be sure to visit Cathy's Web site at Click to read a complete bio.