35+ Ways to Promote Reading in Schools

The middle school where I teach draw students from neighborhoods where literacy is not necessarily a priority - at least not as high a priority as finding enough money to pay rent, avoiding drugs and gangs, eating at least one meal a day, and trying to stay out of trouble.  For these students, reading logs are a farce, and offering them a pizza if they read 20 books is ridiculous.  Much, much, much more is required to instill in these students an intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) motivation to read. 

The good news is that all humans have an inate love of storytelling.  Once kids start reading, they will almost inevitably get hooked.  The bad news is that with so many other challenges facing them -  challenges which often include poor foundational literacy skills, poor cultural literacy, poor early education, learning disabilities, and literacy-poor home environments - convincing students that reading is worth the effort can be a hard sell.  It takes more than one good English teacher, more than one free book ... I believe that it takes a whole school, from the custodians on up, with wrap-around literacy emphasis, to make this happen. 

The following list is stuffed with every suggestion I've researched, implemented or contemplated to help motivate literacy and reading in at-risk populations (though I'm sure they'd work with readers from every socio-economic background).  Because we need to stop thinking about reading as the problem and start thinking about reading as the solution
  1. Provide access to books
    1. Stock your library with books at a variety of reading levels, making sure that books at lower reading levels have cover art and content that are appropriate for the students' grade level.  (No student wants to be seen reading a "baby book".)
    2. Make sure you offer a variety of sizes and styles of reading material: long books, short books, books with pictures, books without pictures, large print, small print ....  Students look for books that fit not merely their interests, but also certain physical preferences. 
    3. Have books available in the front office, the lunch room, the clinic, the hallways, the principal's office ... everywhere!  Establish a system that makes checking them out either painless or (if possible) unnecessary.
    4. Stock a wide selection of "easy to read" versions of classic literature. Kids who have read and enjoyed The Hound of the Baskervilles (or The Prince and the Pauper, or Dracula) in easy-to-read or comic book version will be more likely to attempt the original version, and to persevere through difficulties. (Moreover, students gain pride and self-confidence from the knowledge that they've read a "classic".)
  2. Let kids read what they want to read! 
    1. If a student wants to read material that's too "easy" for them, let them.  The experience will help them build confidence; in time, it's likely they'll crave something more filling
    2. If a student wants to read material that's too "difficult" for them, don't discourage them!  Do, however, help them out by previewing the story* (and key vocabulary if appropriate) so they have an idea of what to expect. (*Give them plot summaries, or encourage them to read reviews by other readers.)
    3. Don't force students to read books that are "good" for them.  There will be plenty of time for that later.
    4. If students don't want to read books, let them read magazines ... graphic novels ... comic books ... whatever!  Over time, it's often possible to leverage a student hooked on Sports Illustrated for Kids to books about sports.
  3. Expose students to a wide variety of books
    1. Open classes with a short, highly engaging read-alouds from books at the students' reading level - just enough to whet their appetites.  I love stopping in the middle of a dramatic moment ... drives the students crazy, but don't they cue up afterwards for copies of the book!
    2. In your classroom, sort at least some books by genre, as reluctant readers are often more willing to take a chance on a new book if they're comfortable with the genre.  Meanwhile, devise a system to encourage or help students expand beyond their preferred genres.
    3. Devote a bulletin board to genres.  List 4-5 high-interest books representing the genre.  (Resist the urge to include only "worthy" books - readability and entertainment value are imperative in building interest and trust!) 
    4. Create an "if you liked ____, then try ______" bulletin board or wall. Provide pre-printed cards students can fill out & thumbtacs onto the board with their recommendations.
  4. Make reading interactive
    1. Have students maintain lists of their favorite books.  Create opportunities for them to talk about their favorite books with classmates.  One idea: match students who list the same books and have them work on a project together.  Or, match students with dissimilar books and challenge them to identify as many similarities as possible!
    2. Create a book review blog or wiki where student can post book reviews and/or comment on the reviews of others.
    3. Engage students in conversation about the books they are reading.  Your interest in the book with validate theirs.  Ask intelligent, open-ended questions that will require them to think about what they've read - especially questions that require them to relate the books to their own lives
    4. Use your school's morning announcements as a chance to air "book trailers."  Many publishers of children's books provide "book trailers" online that are especially designed to build interest in their titles.  If appropriate, you may wish to intermingle these with reviews created by the students themselves, perhaps using simple tools like Windows Movie Maker.
    5. Sponsor reading groups for wide variety of abilities and interests. Squish them into your school day: during lunch, before/after school.  These book groups don't have to be led by teachers ... in fact, students may find them even more enjoyable if they are led by beloved custodians, lunch ladies, secretaries, or members of the community.  The idea isn't to teach, but to engage the students in lively discussion and model enthusiasm.  
    6. Book reviews are fine, but often not an activity that appeals to struggling readers, as the same students are often struggling writers as well.  Instead, encourage students to create projects or games related to their books.  My students enjoy creating games because then they get to play them with their friends, who in turn develop enthusiasm for the stories ... talk about a win-win!
    7. Find ways to recognize and reinforce reluctant readers (without embarassing them).
  5. Teach the things that good readers do
    1. Model for students how you interact with text by reading aloud and stopping frequently to share with them your own questions/predictions/opinions/reactions.
    2. Teach students how to visualize text
    3. Teach students how to properly preview a text - how to read the back cover, how to draw conclusions from the title and picture, how to use the information on the inside flap, etc.
    4. Teach students how to search for books in the library - don't just assume they already know how!
  6. Make reading authentic
    1. Teaching reading not just as a skill but as cultural literacy! Show excerpts from The Simpsons, Disney movies, and other shows/movies that reference classic literature.
    2. Teach reading not just as a skill but as a content area. Talk about how authors use characters, conflict, and plot to create themes that relate to real life.
    3. Sponsor "book movie" afternoons, where kids get to watch the movie versions of famous books. Make sure to have many copies of the book available that afternoon so studnets can leave with them while enthusiasm is fresh
    4. Have students read aloud to students younger than themselves.
    5. Encourage students to post their book reviews on popular websites such as Good Reads.
  7. Make reading ubiquitous
    1. Post "pro-literacy" (quotes about the benefits of reading) all around the school.
    2. Make sure students are reading in all their classes, not just English. To the extent possible, incorporate book groups and literature circles in all your subject areas.
    3. Encourage students to read independently throughout the day - when waiting for class to begin, when they finish their work early, during lunch ....
  8. Make reading glamorous
    1. Treat authors like celebrities. Discuss them. Do book reports about them. Participate in online discussions with them. Visit them when they arrive in town for book tours.
    2. Treat book openings like movie openings. Count down the days until sequels to popular books are released. Have book release parties.
  9. Provide reading role models
    1. Have teachers and staff post info on what they are reading on posters next to their doors. Encourage them to discuss their books with students.
    2. Let students see you reading on your off-time. Talk about how you are looking forward to reading when you get off work.
    3. Ask celebrities to recommend their favorite books. Maintain lists.

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