Engaging reluctant readers

Written by: Angela Fuggle | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Engaging reluctant and struggling readers is a clear challenge for every primary school. Ahead of a workshop focused on this issue, Angela Fuggle from the literacy charity Beanstalk offers some practical tips

When reading with a child who is learning the ropes of reading, struggling with reading or is a reluctant reader, it is important to remember that however you plan to get this particular child or several children at a time into reading, it has to be centred around them.

There is no point throwing down The Animals of Farthing Wood and expecting them to enjoy this if they have a passion for exotic fruit and football.

So here are some quick tips and strategies on how you can engage children with books, reading and story-telling.

Getting them engaged

First, choosing a book with the child is very important. It is important to really understand what the child is interested in – would they like a fairy tale, a detailed study of birds from around the world or a simple story about dinosaurs. Point out the title, pictures on the front cover, maybe take a look at the first few pages to see if it is something they might be interested in reading.

Once you discover a book that the child would like to read then you could suggest that you read the book to them first. Now, this is your time to shine! If you give a theatrical and engaging performance of the book then you are more likely to hold the child’s attention, bringing you a step closer to encouraging the child to read the book themselves.

Once you have finished the book, suggest that the child reads the book with you, this builds the child’s confidence and shows the book in a positive light. Initially, you could start reading alongside the child and gradually drop out so that they are reading the majority of the book.

Let them struggle over words they don’t know and sound them out with them. Don’t be afraid to encourage them to sound-out words they don’t know. Pausing and taking time to discuss this particular word and helping them to understand how to use it in a sentence is an essential tool to enable children to learn more vocabulary, therefore closing the word gap.

Literacy skills

Let’s delve into the more “scientific” stuff and the six emergent literacy skills: vocabulary, phonological awareness, letter awareness, narrative skills, print awareness, and print motivation. I will focus on two skills here: narrative skills and print motivation.

Narrative skills reflect the ability to tell a story or describe a sequence of events. It is a difficult skill to teach a child (regular reading will help them to learn this), but it is quite easy to gauge whether a child has this skill.

Asking open-ended questions is the simplest method and what better way to start than with a “wh” question: what, where, when? This enables you to ask a question without making the child feel like they are under a spotlight. Asking “What do you think the bear was thinking about at the end of this book?” is a much more relaxed way of finding out whether they understood the passage they have just read. If you feel like they have understood then try and engage in an open conversation about the book and encourage them to ask you similar questions.

If you think that the child hasn’t understood the passages you have just read together then try to see if they have understood what happened in the book overall. If it is becoming clear that they have no understanding of the narrative, try a simpler book with a less tricky narrative. Or try going back through the book page-by-page to gauge their comprehension.

Print motivation is the knowledge that reading is something that one wants to get involved in and it is something that can be very tricky to achieve. A child might be able to read fluently and even grasp comprehension, but have no desire to read outside of the classroom.

I will always remember the volunteer who told me that he read with a young boy who once declared: “I don’t need to read, I’m going to be a washing machine fixer and only need to know how to fix a washing machine.”
The volunteer accepted this challenge and came the next session equipped with a washing machine manual, placed it in front of the child and asked them to read it to them. Two things happened: the child suddenly realised he was going to have to learn how to read and he suddenly had the desire to want to read something.

Finding methods of engaging children with reading can be the difference between an engaged reader and a reluctant reader. This is when it is useful to spend time getting to know the child before you jump into trying to encourage them to be lovers of reading.

There is good evidence that children learn best when they are sharing “joint attention” with the person they are communicating with and that children find it easier to learn words if adults pay attention to the object or activity they are already interested in. For this reason, it is important to stay focused throughout the whole of the time you are reading with them.

If reading is beginning to be too difficult with the child and you can tell their focus is waning, then engage them in a game of I-Spy so you’re both focusing on the same activity. Or play a game of Top Trumps and ask them to read out some of the facts on the card and then tell them some of yours. As long as words are involved, then you can be quite creative.

  • Angela Fuggle is head of programme development and training at the literacy charity Beanstalk, a national children’s reading charity that has been supporting struggling and reluctant readers for more than 40 years. Visit www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk

Pupil Premium Workshop

Beanstalk will be going into more detail about engaging children in early years and primary school at Headteacher Update’s 10th National Pupil Premium Conference on Friday, September 28. The workshop will cover more practical classroom strategies to help close the vocabulary gap, discuss in detail the six emergent literacy skills, and tangible exercises that support these six skills. Visit www.pupilpremiumconference.com

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