The five 'Must Obey' rules for getting reluctant and struggling readers to read

These days too many parents and teachers know the reality of having children who are either struggling with reading or who have little or no interest in reading (‘Don’t Do Books!’).

Ring any bells? Of course, a twelve year old who is ‘stuck’ at a reading level of say a seven year-old is going to be pretty fed up anyway. They can’t do much in school – most subjects require a good level of literacy – and worse, they’re likely to have been trying to read the same old books (that’s books designed for a seven year old) for the past five years or so.

Just think: five years of trying to read the same old stuff – day in, day out – when that stuff was too young for you even back then.

Now let me think this through. This approach hasn’t worked with this individual for five years. That’s over one thousand days of school. Who in their right mind is going to think that today – let’s say the 1,031st day (or whatever it is) – is going to be the day when suddenly it all falls into place.

Get real. Something needs to change. 

I lied in the title to this piece. (OK. Sue me.) I’m not going to give you the five ‘must obey’ rules for getting these kids reading. I’m going to give you the nine ‘must obey’ rules (Yes, there are nine). I’m that kind of guy.

Here are the first five:

  • Motivation.
  • Motivation.
  • Motivation.
  • Motivation.
  • Motivation.

Let me put it another way: motivation is the one single ‘head-and-shoulders-above-all-others’ factor that can overcome reluctance to read and improve a struggling readers’ literacy skills. No question.

As long as they don’t want to do it, you are going to be fighting them every single step of the way – irrespective of how well they can read. You are going to be pushing string uphill. Today, tomorrow, the day after that and onward for the rest of your days. And, unlike Sisyphus, you’ll never even get to reach the top.

Look at it through the other end of the telescope. The opposite of motivated is demotivated. How well does that ‘d’ word describe our struggling readers? They can’t read well, they are frustrated, they have lost most of their self esteem. After all, our hypothetical twelve year old has been taught, for five years, that he can’t read. Say what you want – the proof of the pudding is in the eating and he’s not sitting down with a spoon anytime soon. You can give all the encouragement you want, but he’s not stupid: he can see the reality. Five years of not reading.

That’s as good a definition of demotivated that I’ve ever seen. Actually, if you think about it, the five years might have been better spend trying to make chairs by shouting at trees. At least that way we would have avoided spending all that time ramming home the message ‘you can’t read!’.


So how to change it?

Well there is stuff that you can do. I’ll talk about that in future articles.

But easily the biggest change you can make – the change that will have more impact than absolutely anything else I can think of – is to give that child the opportunity to read something that they really want to read.

Instead of you giving them a book to read – ‘OK, let’s try this book today’, turn the tables. Let them come to you with something – a comic, a book, a magazine article, a computer game – whatever. Let them say to you ‘Will you help me read this?’

Try to create the opportunity for that to happen outside of the normal reading sessions. That way it’s not about reading, it’s about their interests and enthusiasms.

Ransom Publishing created a phonics reading series called Goal! It’s about football (soccer) and is designed for struggling readers. Many of the covers feature photographs of top Premier League players. We suggested that teachers leave these books lying around at school. Sure enough, the kids (mainly boys, although the series includes female characters and books by female international players) – the kids come in and immediately it’s ‘Wow! Fabregas!’ (or whoever it is on the cover). They pick the book up (actually it looks more like a comic or a magazine), they open it and – the inside is as good (i.e. as cool) as the cover and – lo! they can read it. It’s at their reading level.

Immediately two very important things happen. One, the kids are motivated to want to read the book. It’s about their heroes. And it doesn’t look like a boring educational book.

And two – and, oh boy, this is soooo cool – suddenly the teacher is no longer the expert. The tables are turned and now the reader is the expert: they know all about Fabegras and why he’s a great player, they know the teams, they know the offside rule, and … and …. 

You, the teacher, are suddenly the one who’s on the receiving end, who’s learning.

How empowering is that?

But now I’m beginning to move into the territory of ‘Must Obey’ rules six to nine. And I promised myself they’d wait till next time. So you subscribe to our newsletter and I’ll promise to cover those four rules next time. And none of them include the ‘M’ word. Guaranteed.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.