Books, Essays

More than Reading Level: The Struggle with Reluctant Readers

As a youth services librarian, I spend a large amount of time trying to turn teenagers into library users. Throughout my education and professional development, I’ve sat through lectures and webinars on engaging reluctant readers, generally defined as students K-12 who are uninterested in reading, particularly leisure reading. There are reading materials specialized to captivate these students who find reading difficult but not all reluctant readers find reading a difficult task—it’s those students who need to be engaged in other ways.
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Librarians, teachers, and even publishers try to entice reluctant readers with Hi-Lo books—books about high interest topics with low reading levels. For students struggling with reading because they are below grade level or slower readers, offering these types of materials is not a bad strategy for helping them get to a point where reading is less of a struggle. However, these types of materials can seem patronizing to reluctant readers who are not struggling with reading as a skill.

There have been some trends emerging in books for children and teens to make reading a more interesting visual experience. The illustrations in book such as The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, movie tie-in editions of young adult novels, and a boom in comics designed for younger demographics all contribute to the growing market of reading materials for reluctant readers. Generally, these materials fare better in popularity than their Hi-Lo counterparts.

However, high interest (visual or otherwise) reading material doesn’t address every reluctant reader. Some reluctant readers who don’t struggle with the actual act of reading instead merely lack print motivation. Print motivation is a literacy skill defined as a child’s interest in books and reading. It’s an intrinsic motivation toward the printed word. Students can lack print motivation for a variety of reasons most of them modeled by the adults in their lives. Those who grow up in environments where reading isn’t highly valued or viewed as an enjoyable activity generally don’t have very high print motivation. Students who struggle with reading also have a tendency to have low print motivation due to reading always being more a chore than a leisure activity.  

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So the issue becomes less about supplying students with materials and more about how to kindle their print motivation. Literacy skills and the intrinsic motivation to read and learn don’t come from one source. Parents, teachers, librarians and other students impact a student’s print motivation.  


The most successful students have print motivation role models parents, teachers or even siblings that have positive attitudes about reading and view it as one of their favorite hobbies. One of the best ways to get reluctant readers picking up books is to be a positive force for reading. Some of the tips I’ve heard from parents to get their children more excited about reading have been simple rewards for reading. Bed time can be 15 minutes later, but only if those extra 15 minutes are used to read. Reading a certain amount of minutes in a week gives a child a free pass to get out of one night dishes. Rewards that aren’t so much bribing a child to read as allowing them more leisure time if they do read.

In an increasingly digital world there are a multitude of ways to experience narrative. Reading a book as a leisure activity competes with podcasts, video games, social media, and video. This variety of media makes the uphill battle to get students interested in reading even steeper than it once was.  One of the working solutions I’ve tried with my reluctant readers is guiding them toward realizing the reading they do without noticing. Facebook posts, Tweets, even video games have text based components. This reading, while not the most type desired among education professionals, is still reading. Even if students dislike traditional novel-in-hand reading it’s still an activity they do everyday and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

It’s not feasible to turn every student into an enthusiastic reader, but expanding how we connect with students and the services we provide for them help us as educators and public service workers to have a more holistic understanding of their literacy journey. Understanding there are factors aside from reading ability that make a student a reluctant readers allows us to try and put them on a better literacy journey.

  1. Ginnis Tonik

    December 8, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Anne, I am glad you brought up showing reluctant readers what they are already reading. In teaching, I have found that to be important, but as someone who is an avid reader, it is very hard for me to relate to reluctant readers. I appreciate avid readers who can find this and transform it into advocacy for reading.

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