Engaging Reluctant Readers

Whole-Class, Whole-Novel Instruction for All

We all know the value in allowing student choice when it comes to reading books. Lost in the wave of self-directed reading, however, is the value of the whole-class, whole-novel (WCWN) approach. Today, this is one of the most important strategies you can implement in your classroom.

One of the challenges of using the WCWN approach is ensuring that all students, no matter their level of reading interest and ability, are able to meaningfully participate. This challenge is intimidating enough to steer even the most seasoned teachers away from using it and to instead use some form of differentiated reading instruction. While differentiated instruction allows for a more individualized approach and also allows for reading choice, it deprives students of the rewarding opportunity to read and discuss a work of literature with their peers. Students lose out on the cognitive, social, and educational benefits that come using the WCWN approach.

The WCWN approach isn’t meant to replace the practice of students selecting and reading books based upon their interests, but rather provides a valuable complement to that practice. One of the benefits of the WCWN approach when done effectively is how it draws all students together into a shared experience of literature. This experience allows for the dynamic exchange of ideas and enriches each student’s understanding and experience of a book. It helps build a classroom culture in which reading becomes as much a social practice as a private one, where the private experience of reading forms the basis of a shared understanding of the transformative power of reading. And it enables students to bridge the gap between their own limited views and the space of richer possible text-to-self connections that comes with fruitful explorations of literature.

But what about literature circles?

Many of us have tried to bridge the gap between pure self-selection and the experience of reading in a group with the literature circle approach. We’ve been told that this allows for a happy medium – we can offer a few books and let the students select which one they each want to read, while still grouping them for discussion. It’s a great idea, in theory… but how well does it work in practice? Not particularly well, as it turns out.

While engaged readers who are at grade-level or above tend to perform well in these small-group settings (they tend to be successful no matter the approach), struggling or reluctant readers are typically ill-served by this approach and do not make significant strides in their reading development. In some cases they even regress. It’s obvious why this happens when we stop to think about it: A reluctant reader is not likely to be inspired by other reluctant readers; the lack of engagement with more confident, engaged readers means that reluctant readers don’t have the opportunity to see engaged reading as something that is not only very possible and real but also very enjoyable. In turn, the stronger readers are usually unable to bring the weaker ones along with them effectively, and so all participants end up retreating to their own experiences, good and bad.

A second problem with the small-group approach is that classes by the very nature of this approach are atomized. Rather than thriving off of the mixture of personalities, interests, and experiences that make up every class and that are all brought into the mix of an engaged discussion by a skillful teacher, students working in small groups are only able to access the much more limited set of thoughts, interests, and experiences that their peers bring to the activity. Young readers need the perspective of a teacher to help them make the essential text-to-self connections that are at the heart of the reading experience, and the small-group approach usually cuts out the teacher’s role.

A third problem that many of us have experienced is a backfire in the attempt to promote self-efficacy. We have been told that the literature circle approach works because it gives students unique responsibilities in responding to literature. But in practice we’ve found that most students lack the maturity, experience, and interest to be able to meaningfully fulfill the objectives of the literature circle experience. These “discussions” tend to be fragmented and unfocused and devolve quickly into silence or irrelevant tangents. When a literature circle is somewhat successful, it is typically due more to the efforts of one or two members who have the interest, confidence, and awareness to be able to keep the discussion going, typically by contributing an inordinate amount of time to it and thus, even in success the approach fails the majority of our students.

None of this is to say that small group instruction, literature circles included, has no place in the ELA classroom. But we must recognize its limitations and must complement it with an alternative. The WCWN approach has benefits that include what teachers expect to see from differentiated approaches and additional benefits that are unique. And the benefits are just as strong, if not stronger, for reluctant readers as for students who already have achieved self-efficacy with reading.

Okay, but is the WCWN approach any better?

While there is no magic spell that will ensure that all students in the class benefit equally from the WCWN approach, the challenge in giving students this kind of experience is by no means insurmountable. But schools and teachers have to first be persuaded not only that it can work but also that it has real, tangible benefits for their students.

One particular benefit is of the opportunity to build a classroom culture centered around the experience of reading books. Many of the most meaningful educational experiences are when students are able to learn with and from each other, an approach that is well-established across content areas.

It must be said, however, that a WCWN approach that does not put students and their own thoughts and interests at the heart of the experience is doomed to fail. A teacher-dominated approach to working with literature, as all experienced teachers understand, is likely to turn what should be an exciting, dynamic, and personally meaningful experience for each student into the dull matter of merely observing the experience of someone else – that of the teacher. Although the reading interests of confident, self-efficacious readers will likely survive the experience, that of reluctant readers likely will not.

Inspiring Readers’ Student-Centered Approach

What distinguishes Inspiring Readers is the student-centered nature of its approach. Although discussions are facilitated by teachers, they are driven by the responses of the students to the book and to each other. So how does the teacher-facilitated, student-centered approach best serve the interests of confident and reluctant readers alike? And how can teachers ensure that reluctant readers, in particular, are able to derive the significant benefits that are to be had from this approach to literature?

We start by choosing novels for the class to read that will be inherently interesting for all students. This does not mean that the book has to line up perfectly with the exact background and experiences of all the students in the class. But it does have to feature an absorbing story with compelling characters and should be written in a fashion that draws students into its world. It should also have interesting things to say about what it’s like to be a human being living in a particular place and time and faced with a particular set of challenges. In other words, it should have interesting things to say about what it means to be a human being. It should also invite students to reflect upon their experiences in light of what happens in the story. Effective WCWN instruction begins with an exemplary novel.

Next, we give students appropriate support and guidance for completing readings in a way that keeps them deeply invested in the world of the novel. Reluctant readers may need additional support but will be strongly motivated to engage with the reading not only for the sake of the story itself and what it means to them, but out of an interest in participating to the best of their ability in class discussion. The “carrot at the end of the stick” in this respect is what happens when students feel the rewards of sharing their thoughts and feelings with the class. Students recognize that they have something of value to add to a conversation.

Whole-class discussion is the key ingredient: What young readers come to understand through this shared experience is the wonderful nature of the diverse and changing responses that readers can have to a novel. Skillfully facilitated discussion gives all students opportunities to develop cognitive flexibility in thinking through matters of great interest to them, ones reflected in what the characters of a novel do and experience. The end result of this is an experience rich with meaning, depth, and interest. Students appreciate just how much is “there,” and with it a growing understanding of themselves and the world.

But what about those reluctant readers?

In addition to giving your reluctant readers appropriate support in successfully completing a given reading, Inspiring Readers primes reluctant readers for class discussion by giving them some opportunities to reflect upon the reading in advance. No student goes into the discussion cold – each one has already formulated some thoughts about what they’ve read.

As for the discussion itself, Inspiring Readers’ Teacher Guides are designed to put all students on a level playing field with a main event review preceding each discussion.  This is essential for reluctant readers if they are to fully participate in the discussion that follows.

Having been given the opportunity to reflect upon the reading, and after having participated in the main event review, readers are then primed to engage in a dynamic discussion about what they’ve read. Here is where sparks start to fly as the teacher asks thought-provoking questions that get at important aspects of the reading. The Teacher Guides give you the right questions to put the students and their own thoughts and responses squarely at the center of the discussion. Every reader will have something to say in response to these questions and a student’s responses will provoke further thoughts from their peers.

Because these discussions always invite a dynamic exchange of ideas, they can sometimes go in very interesting and unexpected directions, through which young readers recognize that talking about a novel is not about solving a problem or figuring out the “right answer” but rather about something much more interesting: It’s about what we think and feel.

Putting it all together

Through Inspiring Readers’ WCWN approach, you can help your students see novels as inviting the kind of experience that appreciates the unique and compelling circumstances of characters and that recognizes that we can see our own selves and our own lives in these characters. These are the ingredients that turn reluctant students into interested, engaged readers. This is not to say that the business of reading itself will suddenly become fluid – even the most experienced readers know that reading requires at times perseverance and stamina. But confident readers don’t become become frustrated when presented with such challenges. They have a desire to find themselves in the story and understand the great pleasure that is to be had through having such an experience.

Inspiring Readers’ teacher-facilitated, student-centered approach means that your reluctant readers will not get lost when reading a book but rather will see themselves as being on a journey with a group of readers just like themselves. The experience of going on this journey together is deeply affirming and instills in readers the confidence and trust in reading that will pay off dividends for their education and their lives.

Learn more about Inspiring Readers and how it can engage even the most reluctant readers.