Motivating Reluctant & Struggling Readers

Reading is fundamental to a child’s development, an important source of knowledge and pleasure that can last a lifetime. But not all children enjoy books. Turning reluctant young readers into enthusiastic book lovers is a challenge faced by every school librarian.

So who are these reluctant readers?

There are several different types according to the experts. They include:

  • children who are  keen to read but find it difficult for whatever reason
  • children who seem to have no interest and, as a result of not reading regularly, are falling, or at risk of falling behind at school
  • children who are dealing with specific learning problems that impede their ability, and willingness, to read
  • children who read well but just choose not to.

The reasons why a child may not possess the necessary reading skills is well beyond the scope of this post and best left to our academic colleagues and respective LS Depts; our sole responsibility as librarians is to try and help these children overcome their problems and  motivate them to become readers. Here are are a number of suggestions to help us do this.

Choosing the right book

Apply the basic rule: A book has to really interest a child. So don’t choose for them, choose with them.

The degree of difficulty: When children choose to read for fun, it should be something they can read without too much problem. Apply the five finger rule to determine if a book is “just right”. Open the chosen book to any page and ask the child to read it. Hold up one finger for each word he/she doesn’t know or has trouble pronouncing. If just 0-1 fingers are up after reading the page, the book is too easy; if 2-3 are up its just right and if 4-5 are up it is too hard!

Action packed: Help children choose stories that are fast-moving and filled with suspense and humour. With so much competition from movies, TV and computer games, books must move if they want to entice. Slow-paced stories are fine for more experienced readers, but reluctant readers need books that hit the ground running.

Age-appropriate content: Weak readers need books with texts that suit their reading level but with content that suits their age. These days most major publishers produce such “HiLo” (high interest level and low reading age) books. They have controlled vocabulary and reading difficulty levels, but plots and topics appropriate to older children

You can tell a book by its cover!  A good cover is vital. It needs to be catchy, action-oriented, attractive, appealing with a good “blurb” and suggest the book is going to be interesting or funny enough to be worth reading. Ideally it shouldn’t look babyish, boring or like part of a reading scheme.

Simple & straightforward: The plot should develop quickly and efficiently. Sophisticated literary devices such as flashbacks, time shifts, sudden plot twists, or complex subplots just complicate things for the struggling reader

Lean and mean: The inside design of a book can make or break your child’s willingness to tackle it. Print size is important. Small print with lines close together looks daunting and is hard work to read. Larger type with large line spacing is easier, but go too big and it risks being rejected as ‘babyish’. There is nothing less appealing to a reluctant reader than full pages of small, tightly set print.

Short and sweet: Give a child a sense of progress and speed in moving through the book and you engage their interest. Therefore, total page count, as well as individual chapters, paragraphs and sentences, should all be on the short side

Pictures paint a thousand words:  Picture books are not just for young children. Some are created with an older audience in mind. Illustrations are desirable because they break up the text, making comprehension easier. They also add enjoyment and interest to the reading experience.

Make reading fun!

Read aloud: Reading aloud to children is one of the best ways to help them discover that reading can be funIt also helps them develop their vocabulary and language skills and gain knowledge about the world around them. Reading Buddies Programs are invaluable in this way

Audio books (including Playaways, MP3 downloads and audio CDs): While these may seem a bit of a cop-out for children struggling with reading, they do have considerable educational and entertainment value. For children who really find reading difficult, they are a brilliant way for them to still enjoy the same books as their friends. Listening and following the text can also help improve reading skills. Audio books can be purchased but they are also available free of charge from the  public library.   Free downloads are also available from sites such as Project Gutenberg and International Children’s Digital Library

Books in diary form: Books written in a diary format break the text up into small chunks which may look less daunting e.g. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series

Puzzle & game books: These were designed with reluctant readers in mind. There are very few words, and the whole thing is visual, so it subtly gets across the message that books are fun e.g. Where’s Wally

Graphic Novels (manga & comic books): These offer stories in comic strip style with far fewer words than a standard novel and plenty of visual clues for weak readers, and are particularly popular with boys. Graphic novels are also increasing in academic respectability because the flexibility of the comic medium allows them to tell complex stories or explain difficult ideas in a simple way. Because of this the genre has gained in popularity considerably recently and has expanded to include graphic interpretations of popular and classic novels, Shakespeare plays and even non-fiction curriculum topics.

Non-fiction: For boys especially, non-fiction has considerable appeal, particularly when titles can be found that match their interests and hobbies. These books combine stunning photography with well-spaced easy to read text in a magazine-type layout which children love. Facts and trivia books such as The Guinness Book of Worlds Records also fall into this category and are great for dipping into and extremely popular with children of all ages because they are very visual, with bite-sized chunks of text and lots of images, illustrations and photos

Let them read other stuff: If books don’t interest your students, let them read newspapers, magazines, websites, or even the instruction manuals for their favourite game systems.

Tap into modern technology:  

E-readers: successfully disguise the thickness of a book and allow children to interact with the text in ways that are not possible with a printed book. With an  e-book children can make the text audible, alter the size of the font and the orientation of the page and change the colour of the font and background. With an e-reader users also have the ability to access reference material while they are reading, highlight text with a virtual highlighter for note-taking and studying, and even create electronic “sticky” notes within the text of the e-book to come back to later. All key factors that enhance a student’s reading ability.

Fiction Express  this innovative book platform connects students with professional authors, encouraging reading for pleasure through the fun co-creation of stories. Every half-term, three books are published on their website in weekly chapters. What happens next is entirely up to the readers. Using their votes, they are able to decide where the plot goes next. Then the author will bring the most popular choice to life

Nintendo DS Flips: are another interactive, fun way for children of any age to read. The FLIPS range brings a selection of bestselling authors to the Nintendo DS including Enid Blyton, Eoin Colfer, Cathy Cassidy and the “Too Ghoul For School” range of books. FLIPS use the Nintendo’s touch screen and stylus to allow children to read on the screen and interact with the story by solving quizzes and activating sound effects. FLIPS are available from online booksellers such as Love Reading 4 Kids and Amazon

Useful websites

Barrington Stoke is the market-leader in producing accessible, enjoyable and unpatronising short books for children who are dyslexic, struggling to read, or simply reluctant to sit down with a book.

LDA Learning specialises in educational resources to support pupils with special educational needs.

Love Reading 4 Kids has a useful section on Reluctant Readers

Ransom Publishing specialises in books for Dyslexic, Reluctant & Struggling Readers. If you’re working with such children the librarians section of the website offers some useful tips

UK Children’s Books  has a section for Reluctant Readers with some great book recommendations and links to other sites



(Last updated by Denise Reed on June 6, 2018)

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