The Dos and Don’ts of Talking to Struggling Readers

Sometimes, the power we have as educators is astounding. The right words at the right time can inspire a student to pick up a book and fall in love with reading. At the same time, a seemingly harmless remark may […]

Sometimes, the power we have as educators is astounding. The right words at the right time can inspire a student to pick up a book and fall in love with reading. At the same time, a seemingly harmless remark may cause a nonreader to further disengage. That’s why we’ve rounded up our best advice for what to say—and what not to say—to students who are struggling.

DON’T say: “I’m sure you’ll be reading Level M books by January.”
DO say: “I know all of your hard work will pay off.”
The rationale: Although you may have an estimate of the progress you think your student can make, it’s best to keep it to yourself in case he or she falls short of that benchmark—or wildly surpasses it. And while it’s good to let students know that you believe in them, tying achievement to the levels of your curriculum isn’t the way to establish a lifelong love of reading.

DON’T say: “You need to finish this book—that’s the assignment.”
DO say: “Let’s talk about why you aren’t enjoying the reading.”
The rationale: Grown-ups don’t read because someone is making them, they read because they love books. Your readers need to find their own source of motivation, too. When you take the time to talk about why a book isn’t working for a particular student, you may discover that the vocabulary is too challenging or that the student already knows everything there is to know about volcanoes, for example. You can then use that information to make accommodations or to help inform your future reading selections.

DON’T say: “Everyone else is reading silently—I need you to do that too.”
DO say: “Can you tell me what bothers you about silent reading?”
The rationale: When everyone else seems to be tucked into a book, quietly meeting your expectations, struggling readers often feel frustrated that they can’t do the same. You might find that these pent-up balls of energy prefer to listen to an audiobook during that time (using headphones, of course), or that a fidget toy such as Silly Putty can help them to focus.

DON’T say: “Haven’t you had your fill of comic books?”
DO say: “Have you checked out this cool biography of Stan Lee?”
The rationale: Experts agree that when it comes to struggling readers, it’s not what they’re reading that matters but that they are creating positive, meaningful relationships with texts. (And of course, comics can be masterpieces, too!) While it’s good to expose students to different types of text, you might want to do this through the lens of a topic you know that students already love. 

What words of motivation do you find work for struggling readers? What doesn’t work?

Posted by Hannah Hudson

Hannah Hudson is the editorial director of WeAreTeachers. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannahthudson or on Facebook here. Email her at hannah@weareteachers.com.

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