Unlimited Engagement: Helping Teen Readers by Giving up the Struggle

Nearly a quarter of third graders who aren’t reading at grade level will not graduate from high school by the time they are 19. Here are ways to help them.

Students at Garfield Middle School in Lakewood, OH, enjoy titles from the
library’s Ranger Collection, with high-interest books for developing readers.
Photo courtesy of April Hoy/Garfield Middle School

The numbers are stark and staggering. Nearly a quarter of third graders who aren’t reading at grade level will not graduate from high school by the time they are 19. Once they get beyond the literacy skill-building support of elementary school, those who fail sixth grade English run an 82 percent chance of never graduating. With the negative predictors so clear, we have to talk about teens who are struggling readers: Who are they, what do they need, and how can libraries help them?

Reading specialist and Book Whisperer author Donalyn Miller suggests that the first thing we must do is to stop calling them struggling. “I don’t see a lot of hope in that word,” she says. “It just reinforces this mind-set that some people can become readers and some people cannot. And as a teacher, I can’t subscribe to an idea that says some of my kids are not going to make it.”

Miller prefers the term developing readers. “We’re all on the same highway, headed to the same destination. We’re just at different mile markers,” she says. Developing readers are different from dormant readers—Miller’s preferred term for reluctant readers. Dormant speaks to the idea that “there is the seed of a reader inside there somewhere,” she says. “If we can just tap into what will connect with that child, then finding reading engagement is possible. Every child can connect to a text that is personally meaningful to them.”

Carol Tilley, associate professor at the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, agrees. “We can foster engagement regardless of skill level,” she says. “Engagement, in turn, builds fluency, comprehension, and overall reading ability.”

The path to disengagement

If children progress together through grade levels, what causes some to develop at a slower rate than their peers? Cognitive learning differences can be a factor; however, those differences impact students at all reading levels.

“The vast majority of kids who are having issues with reading in my school didn’t develop reading skills in elementary school,” says Shanna Miles, library media specialist at South Atlanta (GA) High School. “Fifty percent of my ninth graders are not reading at the fifth grade level. If you don’t know how to read by ninth grade, there may be no one at the high school to teach you.” Even if a school does have a remedial reading class, some students who could benefit from the class won’t enroll, as it will likely not count toward graduation requirements.

Miles says that a lack of public preschool or compulsory kindergarten means some students start first grade three or more years behind their more affluent classmates. “There’s this lie that says kids will just pick it up as they go along, but they don’t, because there’s always more to learn,” she says.

As the gap widens between their skills and those of their peers, many students advance due to social promotion—moving them up to the next grade so they stay with their peers. That ushers kids into grade levels with teachers who may be well versed in analyzing Shakespeare but not phonics.

School librarian Cicely Lewis’s reading kits are designed for
middle schoolers to share with their younger siblings.
Photo courtesy of Cicely Lewis/Gwinnet County Schools

Libraries, connection, and motivation

How can libraries offer support? First, they need to be welcoming. For minority students in particular, libraries may not be seen as a bastion of comfort and key to future growth, says Miles. “Libraries and schools are a government entity. You’re like the police,” she notes. “You’re all those things that make you scary, and you have to own that and be aware of that in your approach.”

Tilley concurs. “Libraries are not [easy] for people who are not readers or have reading limitations to navigate,” she says.

April Hoy, media specialist at Garfield Middle School in Lakewood, OH, works to demystify her school library for developing readers. Helping her students find books at their comfort level isn’t always related to their reading level, she says. Hoy uses individual guidance and booktalking in classrooms, and then leads developing readers to a special collection. Her library’s “Ranger Collection” contains high-interest, low-reading-level titles. It’s named for the school mascot and sorted by genre, not author. This allows readers to browse similar titles more easily. While this collection is centered on books that are easier to read, the topics are relevant to older kids. “No more baby books,” says Hoy. “Our goal is simple: to have books that are easy to read but with covers that look like they could be every other middle school book.”

This is a method that Orca Books, a publisher with hi/lo imprints, encourages. “Nonreaders are often nervous about navigating the library to start with,” says marketing director Dayle Sutherland. “One librarian told me that she had so many kids asking for the thinnest book in the library that she put all her shorter readers and novels on one shelf and called them ‘skinny reads.’ It’s a huge draw for the students.”

Miles understands that by the time ninth graders walk into her library, she has little time to build a foundation to send them into adulthood with resources for reading success. Her mission is to catch teens before they fall further behind by creating a highly engaging environment that makes students feel comfortable around books, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Miles gutted her reference room in favor of couches, beanbag chairs, and meditation cushions. Students are welcome to have club meetings, work together, or just chat in this space, giving them a sense of ownership and belonging.

“They know books contain great information, but books are still scary,” she says. They have to see lots of [peers] reading books before feeling comfortable with them, she adds: “It’s advertising.”

Miles seeks out #OwnVoices genre fiction with protagonists her students can relate to, along with manga, indie titles, high-interest biographies, and books teens may hear about in the news. In nonfiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists was a recent popular pick, along with Gucci Mane’s The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. Miles also created a college-level resource pathfinder in response to the popularity of the Black Panther film. “Just because you can’t read [well] doesn’t mean you’re not a deep thinker,” she says.

Cicely Lewis, school librarian at Gwinnet County (GA) Schools, structured her 2018 school library theme around this principle. Her Read Woke initiative challenges teachers and students to read and think deeply with books that challenge norms, question assumptions, and give voice to diverse populations and opinions. Circulation is up, and the content is engaging students who don’t otherwise choose to read. Their vocabularies, reading stamina, intrinsic motivation, and sense of fulfillment are all increasing.

A Garfield Middle School student reads Friends Forever?: The Complicated Life of Claudia Cristina Cortez by Diana G. Gallagher.
Photo courtesy of April Hoy/Garfield Middle School

Making it personal

Tomi Black, English/social studies teacher at J.N. Fries Middle School in Concord, NC, created a process of individual goal setting. Black is implementing a 40 Book Challenge, urging each student to finish 40 self-selected titles in the school year. While she allows complete freedom in selection, Black motivates students to push themselves. “I ask them to think about their life as a reader. ‘What kind of reader do you want to be?’”

Black always carries a book with her, and she urges all students to do the same. “I just finished my 44th book of the year,” she says. In spite of classroom and district pressures, she carves out five to 25 minutes for free reading daily. After one year, all students are showing growth.

Lewis augments her Read Woke initiative with an innovative program suggested by her sister, Channie Cotton, an instructional coach at Russell Elementary in Hazelwood, MO. Lewis assembled reading kits for her middle schoolers to check out and share with their younger siblings. This way, tweens have access to books they feel comfortable reading—and a good reason for having them: helping siblings.

IdaMae Craddock, librarian at Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, VA, partnered with an animal rescue group to bring a Read to the Dogs program to her library. Students reading three or more grades below level are invited to visit with two different dogs each week. The rottweiler is big enough to lean on and read to quietly, decreasing reading anxiety and helping fluency. Kids are encouraged to talk to the standard poodle, leading to improved comprehension. “Hanging at the library can be considered nerdy,” says Craddock. “But hanging with a rottweiler in the library [is always] cool.”


School librarians are well versed at reaching out to teachers with booktalking, partnering on curriculum units, and creating innovative reading programs. In addition, many try to bring public library counterparts into their efforts. Craddock’s public librarian holds her Teen Advisory Board meetings at the school library, which reduces transportation needs for students and allows more to participate. Miles offers life skills classes to engage teens in library activities unrelated to books, a programming style familiar to many public librarians. Lewis invited public librarians to department meetings to share new resources and services with teachers.

Public libraries can offer the books, the space, the couches, the free choice, and the encouragement. But the challenge is still bringing in teens who don’t see the library as a space for them. Reaching into the community through book bike programs, bookmobile services, community festivals and events, and other innovative connection opportunities is critical. “You have to step out of your comfort zone. Read more. You have to be engaged,” Miles says.

“We can’t predict what world our children are going to inherit, but what we do know is that literacy is going to be a part of it,” she adds. “This is the work of our lives. This is why we’re here: to do right by our kids.”

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Kristin West

Cicely, I am SO impressed and inspired by your Reading Woke program and the one started by Lindsay Cesari. Thanks a lot for sharing your reading lists! I am paying attention, taking notes, and gathering ideas on implementing this reading program. I am starting a K-12 librarian job in MS, and I think introducing this program would really help increase reading and literacy for students. Thanks again!

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 05:50

Cyndie Elizondo

Truly inspiring! The statistics given are frightening but the ideas shared give us hope. Love your call to action—“This is the work of our lives...to do right by our kids”. I’m inspired.

Posted : Jun 26, 2018 08:40

Dorothy Hamilton

This is so much needed for the middle and high school. Thanks Mrs. LEWIS

Posted : Jun 18, 2018 07:30



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