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Engaged Reading:
Turning Reading into
An Active Experience


By Cathy Puett Miller

Engaging all students in active, thinking, reading is vital. Dr. John Guthrie describes engaged reading as "a merger of motivation and thoughtfulness," and that is a perfect place to begin. Centering reading around student interests, motivation, and self-concept is how we give every student a reason to read.

Being motivated and thoughtful about reading starts with read-alouds. In fact, Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading) calls engagement in the text "the single most important habit we need to model in read alouds." Read-alouds easily lead to think-alouds, student-driven conversations. They also are critical for reaching reluctant readers who need practice in activating thinking without expending all their energy translating squiggles on the page.

The Forgotten Element: Improving Fluency in Struggling Readers

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Even the simplest texts can encourage active engagement. Guide students to

  • make text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self connections, as Keene and Zimmerman advocate in Mosaic of Thought.
  • ask questions as they read.
  • reread when understanding fails.

You also can engage students by:

Knowing/respecting who they are. When teachers lose sight of individuals and their potential, engagement suffers. Understanding different learning styles, interests, peer interaction, and motivation can move students from passivity to an active, stimulating approach. Give students active roles in setting expectations and purposes to help them connect to text.

Integrating real world experiences into learning. One study Dr. Guthrie conducted -- Does Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction Increase Strategy Use and Conceptual Learning From Text -- found "that reading instruction, when embedded within a hands-on science curriculum, increased reading comprehension, strategy use, and problem solving in third and fifth graders."

  • Use realia -- tangible, three-dimensional objects from the real world. One of the most powerful learning experiences from my own college years came when a teacher stopped lecturing and passed around an ancient Etruscan mirror.
  • Investigate historical portfolios or exploration boxes. The most popular for learners from upper elementary to high school are called Jackdaws. These packets cover social studies and literature study topics from Charles Dickens to the Boston Tea Party. Students explore a given topic through copies of authentic documents, maps and broadsheets, activity worksheets, and writing assignments, debate and research ideas.

Mesmerizing them daily with a story. Use picture books, a guest speaker, and print news or Internet articles to spark learning. A short read-aloud can invite children to examine print, discuss the words and ideas in a book, and relate them to the world beyond. Marilyn Jager Adams says, "At its best, sharing books provides a way of delighting children both in texts and in their own capacity to explore and learn from them."

Being an engaged teacher. If teachers are engaged, students will mirror that enthusiasm. Use such think-aloud strategies as prediction and one called "stop, ask, fix" as Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests in Improving Comprehension with Think Aloud Strategies. Don't think computers are a substitute. Even Phil Pflaum, writing for an education technology magazine, T.H.E. Journal, emphasizes an equation of "Kid + Computer + An Engaged Teacher = Learning. In other words, the teacher, not the computer, is key."


Lucy Calkins is the perfect model for teaching engaged reading. She suggests making a dramatic break from simple knowledge acquisition, and taking children to higher thinking levels (analysis and evaluation) -- and she tells us just how to do it.

Can't we simply say, "Can we talk about the reactions the children in this book had to the main character?" and then back out of the conversation -- leaving space for students to comment and elaborate on one another's comments -- instead of acting as masters of ceremonies?

Let students become a stronger part of conversation. At first, simply encourage them to talk to anyone sitting nearby. After a few weeks, assign them to sit beside the same read-aloud partner each day. Long-term read-aloud partnerships allow children to say things like, "You know how yesterday you said such and such? Well, it's happening still," or, "It's the same as before!"

Before long, you'll be able to pause at a key section of the text and look at the students, who'll note the signal and get knee-to-knee with partners. The room will erupt in conversation. After a few minutes, you'll simply resume reading aloud or reading in pairs as voices subside."

That is engaging children in reading at its best.

Further Reading

* Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, by James F. Baumann and Edward J. Kame'eumi, Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2003
* Bringing Words to Life, by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2002
* The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, by Michael Graves, Teacher's College Press, Williston, VT, 2005

Online Resources
* The Clarifying Routine: Elaborating Vocabulary Instruction (LD Online)
* Promoting Vocabulary Development: Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction (The Texas Education Agency)
Education World Pages
* Vocabulary Fun
* Puzzling Clue Vocabulary

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance 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, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.