CSI Literacy NZ

How to motivate reluctant readers

How to motivate reluctant readers

They’re challenging and baffling – students who just aren’t interested in reading.

They range from simply needing a little encouragement to point-blank refusing. There’s no single reason for this – the book may be too hard for them, their parents may not encourage reading, or they prefer to choose their own reading. 

There could be other factors, too. They might have failed with a particular book before; they might be aware that they’re slower to read than others, so they become discouraged and resistant; they just can’t find any books they like. It could even be that they’re competent readers, but reading competes too much with other things, such as sport or video games.

Whatever the reason, studies have shown that reading for pleasure can make a big difference in a child’s education achievement. As teachers, let’s nurture that. That’s why we’ve put together some ways to help get your students hooked on reading.


Key factors in engaging the reluctant reader 

While there isn’t one template to copy, and you’ll need to develop, trial and review strategies that will work for your readers, these three things will play a key part in your success motivating your reluctant readers. 

  1. Text choice (and more specifically, whether it’s a high-interest text).
  2. Explicitly teaching the reading strategies that will help students become better readers.
  3. Giving students a sense of autonomy.

Put it another way – it’s important that you:

  • Provide access to a wide variety of reading material.
  • Know your students and their interests.
  • Model good reading frequently.
  • Model reading and comprehension strategies.

But what does that look like in the classroom? Let’s outline some strategies and hands-on activities.


Strategies and activities for engaging reluctant readers

1. Get to know your students

We all value relationship-building in our classrooms, but how can we make it a strategy

Well, apart from the simple art of asking questions and actively listening to each and every student, here are a few options:

  • Make yourself available to have informal chats before and after school, as well as in the playground.
  • Make your conversations more formal by scheduling a ‘Fast Five’ into each day (not the Vin Diesel movie). Allocate five minutes to a small group to let them fill you in on what’s going on their lives. From events happening for them that week, to their family life, this is a space to open up a dialogue between you and your students.
  • Play This or That, a great ice breaker game that allows you to quickly get an understanding of your student’s interests. Hone in on the reluctant readers by asking them to explain some of the choices they make during the game.

2. Let them read what they love

It’s pretty easy to get frustrated when a student won’t finish a book you’ve picked out.

But even as adults we abandon books because we’re just not that into them – we all want to read what we enjoy. Your reluctant reader needs to find the right book, series or genre for them.

Do they love frogs, football, or spiders? Let them read about them!

Let’s give the comic book a little credit, too. In the words of Art Spiegelman, “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy”.

  • Pay attention to the books they’re browsing during library time.
  • Have the student record themselves reading the text aloud, then play the recording back so they can follow along with their voice. Research has shown that when a student listens to themselves read, they build fluency better.
  • As a class, brainstorm a list of topics your students want to learn about. That way, you have a list of high-interest texts ready to go for whole-class or small-group situations.

3. Read for a purpose

Often, your reluctant reader is resistant because they don’t see the point. Give it one.

For some students, reading needs to have a purpose and a context – that means making reading into a project, or a hands-on activity.

  • Try reading procedural texts, how-to texts, any text that has a specific purpose and an outcome. Your student might be reading the instructions for making a kite; they might be reading a science experiment; they might be reading the recipe for a cake. Whatever the text, it should have a very specific point – and one that they actually have the opportunity to explore and execute.
  • Pose a question that they’ll need to do some research for in order to answer (they might even come up with the question themselves!). In conducting research, they’re not only reading, they’re skimming and scanning, finding the main idea, and having to synthesise information all at once – and they don’t even know it! Reinforce it with follow-up questions that highlight the reading strategies they’ve just used – and be sure to shower them with praise (it’s an excellent motivator)!
  • Have them write their own story. Programmes such as Storybird are perfect for reluctant readers to find and make the content they’re interested in. By creating stories themselves, you’ll capture their attention – and keep them wanting to read. 

4. Read aloud

For some students, the issue is that they need good reading to be modelled to them.

The best part? Modelling reading isn’t just great for the reluctant readers, it’s great for your whole class – reading aloud is amazing for literacy development. When you read to your students, you model fluency, introduce new vocabulary, expose students to new genres and authors, and so much more.

Read our article about how struggling and reluctant readers can learn to love stories by hearing them. (Then check out this list of great classroom reads!)

  • Be sure to give students the opportunity to choose which book you read – choose two or three, and let them vote. (If you really want to hook those reluctant readers, try and sway the vote towards them.)
  • Those lacking confidence may be helped by knowing how to make better sense of what they read. That’s where you need to provide explicit teaching about how to read, by modelling reading strategies as you read aloud. Teach them how to make connections, visualise, draw inferences, determine important ideas, and so on. 

5. Try CSI Private Eye

Not to toot our own horn, but an online adventure series filled with reading and writing? Yes please. 

Don’t take our word for it, though – here’s what one teacher had to say:

“The response from our students has been quite dramatic.
Two of my reluctant readers have been totally engrossed in Private Eye. I ‘caught’ the first student sneakily writing down his username and password so he could use it at home. He routinely refuses to do any homework, and it has been a battle to get him to read. The second student? I couldn’t get him to leave after his lesson! His usual response is, “I can’t be bothered to read this”, but he loves the Private Eye texts. The formula is working!”

You can also read why another teacher loved CSI Private Eye here.

6. Do peer reading

Get your students together. Reading with a buddy is a great way to get your students collaborating ­– they’re not only working together, they’re learning to be cooperative and give peer assessment.

After all, your reluctant reader might be intimidated by a group, but they’re often fine with sharing one-on-one. 

  • Pair up your high-level and low-level readers, and have them read to one another. That way, they both have the opportunity to learn from and teach one another.
  • Pair up students who read at the same level, and have them re-read something they’re already familiar with.
  • Encourage each pair to ask each other about what they’re reading: “What was your page about?” “What was your favourite part?” Better still, encourage them to offer feedback and praise to their reading partner. (Your classroom culture is going to help with this, see number 8!)

7. Think about movement

There are so many different ways to read.

Some of your reluctant readers might be highly active and need to move around while they’re reading. Sure, that can be challenging for you as a teacher, but try adding movement to your class’s reading routines:

  • Create a space for students to stand (not sit) and read.
  • Hold a Gallery Walk where students work in small groups and move to different stations around the classroom to share ideas and complete activities.
  • Have sensory objects for some of your fidgety learners to play with while they read (think manoeuvrable, tactile toys like a Koosh ball).

8. Focus on your classroom culture

There are some non-alphabet ABCs in your classroom that will help with the regular ABCs: Acceptance, Belonging, and Community.

Your reluctant readers are often reluctant for a reason – they might lack confidence or self-esteem. They might be scared of not being able to read as fast as their peers, of having to read out loud, of being wrong when sharing an opinion, or of being left behind. 

Whatever the reason, make sure your classroom is a space where your learners know they’re accepted and can safely build confidence.


Got more tips for motivating reluctant readers? Leave them in the comments!


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