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Learning to sail: Engaging reluctant readers

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

What was the last thing you read? Did you read for pleasure, to gain information, or to complete a task? Did you read to calm yourself, escape the day, or get energized? For many, the answers are as swift as they are varied. We read great works, blog posts, updates, expressions, Google Doodles, equations, music, blueprints, palms, stars, non-verbal signals, verbal cues, street signs, between the lines, and among the tea leaves. We read as if reading were second nature. It is, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to do, or that we all learn to read in the same way.

The language and sensory centers in the brain, rather than the optic nerve, are far more involved in reading. Nothing in our evolution could have prepared us to absorb language through vision; yet, we read and read well (Dehaene, 2009). In fact, reading is probably the hardest thing we teach people to do in the education system (Whitman and Goldberg, 2008). It is no wonder that some learners develop resistance to reading instruction and remain reluctant to engage in the fundamental work of learning to read, which involves deliberate reading practice that builds vocabulary, comprehension skills, and reading stamina, and exposes readers to the joy found in the written word.

“In fact, reading is probably the hardest thing we teach people to do in the education system.” (Whitman and Goldberg, 2008)

A recent Google Doodle featured Louisa May Alcott’s birthday and a few of her favored quotes, such as “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” Perhaps we can acknowledge that a reluctance to read may be due to the “brain” storm that forms when struggling readers seek to absorb language through their eyes and construct meaning via the language and sensory centers. It is our job to “teach them to sail.”

In the annual What Kids Are Reading report, author Tedd Arnold shared his journey from reluctant to enthusiastic reader. As he writes, his accidental introduction to MAD Magazine in a quaint used bookstore became his “landmark moment” as a sixth-grade reader. Baby Boomers may remember MAD with disgust or pleasure, giggles or groans; however, Arnold saw it as subversive, challenging, and a personal choice in reading that would take him to places his parents and teachers might not. So do we advocate for MAD Magazine or other counter-culture, subversive texts to engage our reluctant readers? Not exactly. We do advocate for Guthrie and Davis’ (2003) framework for engaging reluctant readers. Students who are resistant or reluctant to read benefit from:

  • Explicit instruction

  • Texts that they find interesting

  • Some autonomy in choosing texts

  • An abundance of books and other materials to read

  • Authentic reading that focuses on the world around them

  • Real-world interaction with reading

Arnold’s story sheds light on four of these six pillars. He explicitly writes that reading MAD was his choice (autonomy). He was surrounded by an abundance of appropriately leveled texts, but his middle-school interest in a degree of subversion and MAD’s focus on current events (authenticity) led him to the magazine.

Reluctant readers engage more fully when they have some degree of autonomy to select texts they find interesting. Comprehension requires that the reader make connections between text and prior experiences. When a reluctant reader considers a topic fascinating, it is likely that his or her brain is steeped in prior experiences that drives the interest. Sail on.

“When a reluctant reader considers a topic fascinating, it is likely that his or her brain is steeped in prior experiences that drives the interest.”

And sail on he did. As Arnold continues his story, he writes of moving from MAD to more substantial works. He “tolerated the difficult reading,” so he could engage in these books. He absorbed language through his eyes and made sense of it through the language and sensory centers of his brain. He captured the “brain” storm that is reading, and he learned to sail.

Take a moment to recall your landmark moment in reading. Do you remember the book and the sense that you were, as Tedd Arnold would say, “a reader with a capital R”?

Please share your landmark moments in the comments below and then get your free copy of What Kids Are Reading.


Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain. Viking Press.
Guthrie, J. & Davis, M. (2003). Motivating struggling reading in middle school through an engagement model of classroom practice. Retrieved from
Whitman, A. & Goldberg, J. (2008). Ready to read? Neuroscience research sheds light on brain correlates of reading. The DANA Foundation. Retrieved from

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. I love that one of the ideas for helping readers is offering them voice and choice. This extends to other content areas as well!

  2. Ryan McKinnon says:

    I find it frustrating we have to keep reminding others that tapping into the interests of students is the key to success more often than not. This is another great article that defines for us how the process of reading can flourish when students are engaged. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Dvawn Maza says:

    I noticed that if I’m excited, it’s contagious in the classroom.

    • carolina says:

      So true! When in the classroom and I was reading a novel to the students I would get excited and they seemed excited. I would feel sad and they too would then feel my sadness. It is so important to read to the students but as important to let them read what they like, what interests them, as long as they are reading.

  4. Laura Shultz says:

    I love the toon books that are becoming more available. The reluctant readers are more likely to pick up one of those to read because it looks like a comic book without frustrating looking paragraphs.

  5. Terri Benavides says:

    When students find the right topic, right author or the right genre, often that light just clicks and reading becomes a pleasure. The key is giving them the time to find what they like to read while providing books at level they can understand. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  6. Renee Graham says:

    The book was, My Grandma Told Me So. My Grandmother read it to me over and over again. The little girl in the book had a fuzzy sweater on that you can touch and feel. I always loved to have my grandmother read to me and this made me an avid reader.

  7. Christina says:

    Engagement is key for ALL readers! Not all readers develop at the same pace.

    • Donna says:

      I agree! I can’t remember when things began to click for me, but it’s never to late to become a good reader. I struggled through high school.

  8. Caroline says:

    My landmark reading moment was in 2nd grade when I was able to check out non-fiction books on my favorite subject, animals! I was hooked from then on – non-fiction books about animals, fiction stories about animals, you name it and I read it. As I grew my reading interests varied but, still to this day, I enjoy animal books!

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Very cool, Caroline! What is your favorite animal?

  9. Katherine Williams says:

    The first book series that I read in 2nd grade that “captured” me was the Sweet Valley Kids books. They were books about 2nd grade girls– like me. After that, I learned that reading could be fun and enjoyable and take me places I’d never been.
    I think that finding the “key,” whatever type of books it may be is the secret to unlocking a student’s reading potential. And once that occurs, magic can happen!

  10. Hillary says:

    Getting the right book to a student at the right time is key to reading success. On a side note, I love Mad Magazine.

  11. Donna Nichols says:

    This article reiterates what educators know … students must be engaged to maximize learning.

  12. Rita Platt says:

    I was in 5th grade in 1980 and found a dusty series on my teacher’s shelf about great mysteries of the world. UFOs. Bigfoot. Bermuda Triangle. You get it. I loved those books to the moon and back. Today, I have similar sets in my library and they are wildly popular!

  13. Jennifer Slade says:

    As a child, I hated reading. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read, it was just so boring to me. I never remember my teachers trying to find engaging texts to encourage me to read. Even until just a few years ago, reading was never a “must” for me. While working a second job in retail, I picked up “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on a slow day and I couldn’t put it down. Ever since, I’ve become quite the reader! I really wish my teachers would have recognized my unwillingness to read for pleasure.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for sharing, Jennifer. This just shows that a great book makes all the difference!

  14. Susan Connick says:

    The most powerful thing to share with kids is you OWN reading experiences…growing up…I LOVED comic books and graphic novels…I did NOT have the ability to visualize what I was reading. Kids need to know it’s OK to find what they LOVE and just read…read…read…in whatever format works for them. Comprehension is comprehension…

  15. David Keech says:

    My landmark moment was having a teacher that allowed us to read nonfiction texts and not being forced to read fiction all the time.

  16. P R says:

    I have found that students love to be “read to .” I try to just read a book to my students with no assignment, just reading for pure enjoyment and wonder as well as exposure to various topics which might just make them curious to “read more about it.”

  17. Denisse Ochoa says:

    Allowing students to select the books on the topics they want to read is the key to creating life long readers!

  18. Jennifer Bunn says:

    My landmark moment was discovering Beverly Cleary through “Ramona the Pest”. I fell in love with Ramona and all stories by this author. They launched me into chapter books at an early age and nurtured a love of reading throughout my grade school years.

  19. Fatima Peters says:

    I make it a point to read myself during silent reading, I’ve notice that most kids don’t see their parents reading at home and often the students don’t see the importance of reading. I will pick a book off the shelf and read it to myself and I notice once I put the book back a student is right behind me to check out that book. I personally believe students must be encouraged and engaged to be a successful student and reader!

  20. Kelly Barr says:

    Finding something that middle school students are interested in is sometimes difficult. I have found that if I model reading, whether its a book or newspaper, during our SSR time I have more students engaged.

  21. JoA says:

    I tell my struggling readers that reading is a skill they need to practice, just like music and sports. I do an interest survey so I can find books they may be interested in and I also do read-alouds to expose them to a variety of texts.

  22. Kelsie Haggard says:

    I have always been a very strong reader. As I was growing up my mom could not keep a book in my hands long. So my true landmark moment was probably in 6th grade when my mom was so at her wits end to put a challenging book in my hand that she handed me Pride and Prejudice. It was the first book that took me longer than several hours or a day to read. I always try to remember that my students are not all as strong of readers as I have always been. I try to put a wide range of books in my classroom for my kids, and when I find a topic or something that the students are interested in, I try to get all sorts of books in the same genre. I love to instill a love of reading in my students, and I don’t care what it is that they are reading! As long as they are reading!

  23. Ivy says:

    Some of the most engaging texts for students were those where I could relate it to other things they were studying at the time, or other events from history that they had learned about.

  24. Sheila Shaffer says:

    Mine was The Velveteen Rabbit. Took on additional meaning as I grew into adolescence. I still have my copy from childhood, about 50 years.

  25. Nancy Jackson says:

    My mom read to us and encouraged us to read and I also loved teachers reading to us! Reading to students gets them going!!

  26. Tina White says:

    The spark for me was when we got a basset hound puppy and my mom bought books about our dog breed. I was so intrigued to find out more about how to care for my puppy. We read stories about hounds and bought books about her breed.

  27. j Simmons says:

    This was personal for me, as I watched my own child find the connection between topic and experience.

  28. Belinda says:

    I allow my students to select material to read that is at their reading level,,,,

  29. Melissa says:

    I always think that the kids feed off our energy, so if we get excited about something, then it usually spills over to the kids as well!

  30. Michelle Harrell says:

    I have always enjoyed reading but my love kicked in about 13 years ago when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I discovered the Harry Potter books and I realized that I had a passion for reading.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Great choice, Michelle. Have you read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?

  31. Roxane Johnigan says:

    I loved reading poetry that rhymed in the very early grades. Then one summer my father, who was in the military, took a part time job working in the library on Sundays. I went with him and read through the entire children’s biography section. I loved reading about the lives of people considered great.

  32. Lea says:

    Learning to read was an unexpected journey for me. My best friend taught me to read. We were both six years of age. It wasn’t until I could select books all by myself at our school library that I discovered reading was worth the effort. Tom Corbat and his space adventures with his freeze ray gun; could anything be more exciting?

  33. Laurie McNally says:

    I remember searching the shelves at home for something to read when I was young. I must have read through our old Childcraft series dozens of times. Even stories from old copies of Good Housekeeping that someone had given my mom.

  34. Chimere McRae says:

    I agree that reading is probably one of the hardest things that we teach. At the beginning of this school year many of my students didn’t have confidence in their reading abilities. They knew that they were low readers and they didn’t even want to try. It was like they saw it as an impossibility. Now, thanks to MUCH deliberate practice and Accelerated Reader, independent reading reading is one of their favorite parts of the school day! They now beg to have more reading time!

  35. Gail B. says:

    I enjoyed this article very much! I try to help my students find just the right book and it thrills me when we have that success!

  36. Darlene says:

    I think that children need to be pushed a little to really succeed. With the age of computers and video games, you have to show them that reading is fun, just a different kind. My dad was a teacher and he really was a tremendous influence in my life.

  37. Narda Lugo says:

    When I’m reading something for pleasure with fiction or nonfiction the students can tell and they seem more engaged. Thank you for sharing this information.

  38. Cindy Dale says:

    The book that helped me fall in love with reading was Misty of Chincoteague. I may have spelled that wrong. My love of horses drew me to the book, and as I traveled through the pages I became a character involved in everything that was going on. I created pictures in my mind. As a teacher, I have students close their eyes and picture what is happening as we read. This has helped many with comprehension.

  39. Braley says:

    I feel that if we do not allow our students autonomy in what they read, they will learn to hate it. Of course there are required texts we read, however my students always have free choice of AR books, multiple types of magazines, local and national newspapers, and online sources during our reading time.

  40. Francine Canarios says:

    My landmark momens wasn’t until high school. Freshman English, we were required to read The Hobbit… UGH!! As I think back, it is amazing that I don’t remember reading a chapter book before this. I remember our reading textbooks with disgust, but I don’t remember picking up any books.
    Back to Freshman English. I remember the first day, Mr. Busby gave us our books and actually started reading the book to us. That’s all it took. I was hooked! I went home and devoured that book. Next, I had to read the entire Lord of the Rings series. My love for reading was born, and I am a devoted reader to this day. Thank you Mr. Busby, Clackamas High School, Clackamas Oregon. He is also part of why I became a teacher.

  41. Luke Reynolds says:

    I always try to find books that are interesting for my students. I will spend my supply money on books, instead of supplies. I also promote trying to get new books for the library at all times.

  42. Melissa Robles says:

    I agree that teaching reading to students is one of the most difficult things to teach in education!

  43. Shenika Ivey says:

    Great article! Having a classroom with an abundance of books really does help keep kids interested in reading!

  44. Janet Cefali says:

    I have noticed that my first graders are getting more excited about reading informational text. I have stocked my science center with many books at different reading levels.

  45. Kathy Browne says:

    Loved the article. Reading came easily tho me and I had a strong desire to learn how. I wish it could be that way for my students.

  46. Mary says:

    Yes, students need an abundance of books from which to choose!

  47. J Stinson says:

    For me, it was Charlotte’s Wed. I remember it like it was yesterday. We read it as a class and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that book so I could read it all by myself. Then I was hooked.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorites as well!

  48. Virginia Wiedenfeld says:

    Great article! It reinforces the importance of choice to encourage readers. We had a seventh grader last year who was reading on a 4th grade reading level. I introduced her to the graphic novel Sisters, and since then she just tested on the 11th grade level. This was all due to her choosing a book she enjoyed!

  49. Christy says:

    High interest text is the key to engaging readers

  50. lee says:

    Great article with helpful ideas.

  51. Sara Lee says:

    I did not enjoy reading until I was an adult. It is very important to have a large variety of books for the students to read. It is especially important for the students to see your love of reading. I have done that by reading a story after lunch and making the story come to life.

  52. Sheila says:

    As the youngest child in a family of readers, I was always surrounded by books and can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading. This article is a very good reminder of the kinds of things we need to keep in mind to help the reluctant readers in our lives discover that same joy of reading. Thank you.

  53. Susan Connick says:

    It’s also a challenge to help kids understand sometimes they read things that they don’t like – and – they still need to comprehend and answer questions about that text (i.e. STAR reading tests). YES, reading what we love is fun and most kids will not challenge that; however, learning to read & comprehend when we DON”T like what we are reading is quite a challenge. We need to get our kids to FOCUS and understand what they are reading.

  54. Tammy Davenport says:

    My love for reading began in 3rd grade when I found a book in the school library with the title of TAMMY AND THE MOUNTAIN I thought is wa so cool to read a book with my name in it

  55. Julissa Lopez says:

    Some readers develop resistance to reading and they remain reluctant to engage in the fundamental work of learning to read for meaning. Therefore, we need to use different strategies to involve those particular readers. For example, identify their suggested ZPD, interest level, and very important to build the student confidence in order to get them enthusiasm about reading. Have students turn and talk about the book they are reading, class discussion, book recommendation etc.

  56. Cyndia Marrero says:

    To help students become interested in books, expose them to different types of books and genres. When teachers bring alive the stories found in a book, a student may be inspired and a new interest may develop. Nothing is more powerful than engaging a student and seeing them enjoy Reading and Learning.

  57. Ann Prisciandaro says:

    My landmark moment was when my 4th grade teacher read the book, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” to our class. I fell in love with Judy Blume’s books and with reading in general after that!

  58. Redeana Smith says:

    CHOICE is so important! Providing students with choices helps them not only take ownership of their own learning but prepares them for the countless decisions that they will make on a daily basis as they grow into adults.

  59. Timberly says:

    My landmark moment in reading was a bit ridiculous. I tolerated reading when I was very young and my mom always brought me books from her childhood like The Boxcar Kids, but when it really became “uncool” to read (junior high and high school), I DOVE into books and those books were…………….. ROMANCE NOVELS. All my mom ever read were romance novels. So one day I was bored, had nothing to do, took one of her books, and became an addicted-to-trash-novels high schooler.

    My reading interests NOW are much more progressive and subversive, but MAN I loved romance novels back then!

  60. Sherry scott says:

    Very enjoyable article, thank you! I agree, variety and choice are so important to help engage reluctant readers. I also believe that excitement is contagious so everyday I begin class by telling my students about the book I am reading and how it kept me up late- they love hearing about what I’m reading!
    The series that hooked me into being a reader was Nancy Drew. I loved how strong and smart she was and would imagine myself being on adventures and solving crimes just like her! I am tickled pink that they are bringing the series back in the form of graphic novels and have several in my library for students to choose from. My reluctant readers LOVE graphic novels and I buy every one I can get my hands on!

  61. Diane says:

    I did not like to read and i really hated summer book club at the library, which I was forced to do by my parents. My aha moment came in the form of romance novels while babysitting. There were hours of nothing to fill, while kids were asleep. I’m glad I moved beyond Harlequin and into the vast world of books that are available through many varied channels that we have now.

  62. Kerry Seiwert says:

    I was so sad when my cousins all received a toy from my grandmother, and I got a stupid book. With VERY few pictures. So I sulked. With my book in hand. Four hours later, I was still reading, and my parents were pushing me to the car. I was 7, and The Secret of the Old Clock is still the one I remember. This was a great article, and I agree with all of what was presented, but how? How do we let a student make a choice when the choice is only to get points rather than to enjoy the book? How do we tell a child with a ZPD up to 2.8 that they shouldn’t read Little Women right now? It is so rewarding when a child comes back to me and says “That was a great book!”

  63. Laura says:

    I learned to read when my older sister read me the Dick and Jane basal readers. I’ve heard many jokes and negative comments about those books, but as a 3-year old, they were magical! I loved the kids, Spot, and the idyllic town they lived in.

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