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Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Strategies for Turning “Reluctant Readers” into Readers

Author: Erica Smith


“I don’t like to read.”

How often do we hear our students say these five words? When I was a classroom teacher, I would have at least a handful of students tell me this at the beginning of each school year. I wanted with every ounce in me to not only turn them into readers, but for them to actually enjoy reading. The ability to read is such a gift and every child deserves the opportunity to know how to read and to want to read because reading affects our lives in so many ways, both in and out of the classroom.

More often than not, the students who say they don’t like to read are students who struggle with reading. This is where “the vicious cycle” begins. When students struggle to read, they don’t like to read because it’s hard. Because they don’t like to read, they don’t read. And, because they don’t read, they continue to struggle. What are some things we can do to break this cycle and move these students from reluctant readers into confident, motivated readers?

It starts with a change in mindset. Instead of labeling these students as “reluctant readers,” we can say they are “reading reluctantly,” which focuses more on the behavior and not the person. It feels more temporary, suggesting that they are only reluctant until they embrace reading (John Spencer, 2021).

Let’s explore WHY these students are reading reluctantly and implement strategies to help them to read confidently.

When students say they don’t like to read, ask them why. The usual answer is, “I can’t read” or “I’m not good at reading.” Phrases like these indicate a lack of confidence and difficulties with reading, which go hand in hand.

Other reasons students say they don’t like to read are that they aren’t interested in books or that they find them boring. These comments can also indicate difficulties with reading, or it could indicate that a student hasn’t found books of interest… yet!

Below are several strategies to help us break this vicious cycle that so many of our students go through, whether it’s because they struggle with reading or that they aren’t interested in reading.

Strategy #1: Find the Weak Area(s) and Target Instruction

If a student is struggling with reading, we need to find out WHY. Scarborough’s (2001) Reading Rope, pictured below, shows us the breakdown of the necessary components that lead to skilled reading.

Scarborough’s Rope (2001) illustrates that Language Comprehension (red/orange strands) x Word Recognition (blue strands) = Skilled Reading. Each strand is interconnected and interdependent. This means that even if just one strand that makes up either language comprehension or word recognition is missing, the rope (the reader) as a whole is affected. Therefore, the first step when you know a child is struggling with reading is to find out which strand(s) the child needs to work on and implement strategies to target the area(s) of weakness. For example, a student may be able to sound out all of the words on a page, but due to a weakness in vocabulary, he/she may not understand the meaning of the text. This student would not be considered a skilled reader even though he/she can read fluently.

Strategy 2: Read Aloud

Read aloud EVERY day. It is one of the most important things teachers can do for their students. Not only does it build many important foundational skills, it provides a model of fluent, expressive reading and increases vocabulary and comprehension. Reading aloud also opens up conversations and helps with classroom community and relationship building.

Some ideas and activities that expose students to others reading aloud and lend to book engagement and discussion include:

  • Readers Theater

  • Audiobooks

  • Book Clubs/Literature Circles

  • Guest Readers

Strategy #3: Introduce Students to Wider Genres and Topics

Make reading relevant by focusing more on student interests and less on their reading levels. When we narrow our students to a particular level, we are holding them back from choice and exploration. There’s nothing wrong with reading a “too easy” book that is enjoyable or exploring a book of interest that is “too hard.” Additionally, limiting students to reading levels sets the impression that reading is a task to accomplish (increasing their reading level), which inhibits the goal of encouraging lifelong reading.

Some ideas and activities for helping students to discover their interests include:

  • Bring literacy into content areas: Start science and social studies lessons with read alouds related to your topic (this is also a GREAT way to bring in more nonfiction texts).

  • “First Chapter Fridays”: This is my personal favorite way of introducing students to books they may not otherwise pick. Whether it’s the first chapter or a set amount of time you spend reading the beginning of a book, the goal is to expose students to a book they may want to read.

  • “Blind Date” with a Book: Simply wrap books in paper to hide the covers and write enticing facts and/or hints about the plotline on the outside.

  • Series Starters: Read aloud the first book in a series.

Note: It is also a great idea to teach students how to quit a book that is not interesting to them. We all have different interests and it’s okay to not like a book.

Strategy 4: Include Families

Last, but not least, don’t forget to include families in early literacy development! Although language and literacy begin at home, when formal literacy instruction begins for children entering kindergarten, families continue to play important roles in their children’s learning. Research shows there is a strong connection between family engagement and reading achievement. Oftentimes, families want to help their children, but they just don’t know how.

Support for families should be provided throughout the year, and in a variety of ways, so that all families can participate. There are several ways teachers and schools can build parental efficacy and partnership:

  • Communicate to families that their active role in their children’s development is valued.

  • Share data with families, communicating their child’s strengths and areas of growth, as well as how their student compares to grade-level standards and goals.

  • Welcome and engage families in school-wide events.

  • Increase phone calls to build a positive partnership with families and keep them informed about progress.

  • Help families access books in the school and community libraries.

  • Send video links to families showing effective reading practices.

  • Learn about the home language and culture of students in your classroom. Ask families to recommend books that relate to their culture and values.

Note: Teachers should encourage families to use their first language at home. Students are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in English. Their learning of their native language does not hinder their abilities to learn a second language at school.

I’ll end with this quote that was on the wall of my classroom for many years and now has a place in my office to share with all who enter, making for a great conversation starter. As a literacy coach, I have the opportunity to share my knowledge and strategies with teachers, students, and families, fueling my passion to help all children find a love for reading. I truly believe that there are books out there for everyone- you just need to keep searching until you find them!

About the Author:

Erica Smith currently serves as a literacy coach at Green Charter School in Spartanburg, SC. She works closely with teachers and administration to improve reading and writing instruction and increase student achievement. Connect with Erica on Twitter @EricaSmithSC or through email


Spencer, J. (2021, July 19). There is No Such Thing as a Reluctant Reader [Blog Post]. Retrieved from




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